Saturday, July 29, 2017

Sneffels Range Spring - Watercolor

"Sneffels Range Spring" Watercolor

Tucked discretely below the Dallas Divide, the Sneffels is a scenic sub-range of the San Juan Mountains. The confusion of untidy crags is a rugged remnant of an ancient volcano. It's late spring but bare rock is beginning to emerge from a shroud of heavy, winter snow.

A row of crooked cottonwoods is an elaborate gateway into the Colorado wild. Patches of delicate dandelions are scattered throughout the lush meadow while an assembly of blazing brush complicates an already busy foreground.

As a gray sky drizzles the landscape with cold rain, receding into the distance, colors cool from violet to blue-green. A series of spectacular buttes is a scenic prelude to an awesome alpine environment where cautious strokes define the ragged peaks.

Composed from equal parts image, experience and memory, this painting was not meant to hang on a wall. It's more of a sketch than a showpiece. A little bit looser and fabricated with less concern, sometimes a simple study is more satisfactory than the final, finished work.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Goliath Peak - A Fighting Spirit

Mount Evans Wilderness

Goliath Peak is a steep warmup to the withering heights encompassing the Mount Evans Wilderness. You receive a warm welcome as a carpet of colorful wildflowers is unfurled all the way to the top.

Stretching out in every direction, the distant views reach farther than even your wildest imagination. To the west, ice cold water in a glacier-filled cirque is ensnared by peaks of silver stone.

Even during the summer, white snow is slashed across the spectacular backdrop of surreal mountains. In the sky, milky clouds filter the sun, creating a moody atmosphere charged by the constantly changing stream of light.

Unfortunately, a perfect day was damaged by a heart-fluttering event. The Herculean effort may have induced an episode of mind-numbing paralysis that luckily spared my fighting spirit and eternally grateful soul.

Goliath Peak

A steep warmup

A warm welcome

A carpet of wildflowers

Distant Views

Your wildest imagination

A glacier-filled cirque

Silver peaks

A spectacular backdrop

A moody atmosphere

A fighting spirit

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Little Bighorn Battlefield - Part III

General Custer fell here

After destroying Custer's entire battalion, the warriors raced south across the ridges to engage the last remnant of the Seventh Cavalry. Lying flat on the ground, the soldiers formed a perimeter of defense around a natural depression scooped out of the summit of their hilltop refuge.

They managed to hold off a determined siege throughout the evening and into the darkness. Many of the spooked men recalled how down in the Indian village there was a celebration of dancing and singing that lasted all night.

Desperate cries from captured soldiers who were being tortured below filtered eerily through the hills. Troopers who chose to hide in the timber rather than retreat, somehow worked their way back up to the relative safety of rejoining their comrades.

By first light the next morning, the conflict resumed and the remaining 300 or so soldiers continued to hold the high ground. Incredibly, a group of volunteers even snuck down a steep ravine all the way to the river, filled canteens and brought water back to the wounded.

The intensity of the battle gradually diminished throughout the day and by the evening of June 26th, the Indian camp had broke and scattered. The next morning army reinforcements arrived from the north, rescuing the beleaguered battalion.

Retracing the steps of their doomed brethren, the surviving soldiers were shocked to discover the tragic fate of Custer's command. After such a disheartening event, the demoralized men were anxious to get back home.

Before they could leave the field though, the gruesome task of burying the dead still had to be done. On June 28th they hastily dug shallow graves and covered the remains with loose dirt and sagebrush.

All of the mounded sites were punctuated with a stake, indicating where the fallen were found. In order to show where the officers lay, their names were written on a slip of paper, rolled up, placed in an empty cartridge shell and pounded into the top of the wooden marker.

In July of 1877, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sheridan led a column of men charged with retrieving the officers remains from the battlefield. They made a careful survey of the area, reinterred exposed remains and marked the well-packed graves with cedar stakes.

The bones of Custer, 11 officers and 2 civilians were exhumed, placed in coffins and then transferred to eastern cemeteries. Over the next couple of years rainstorms, erosion and scavengers continued to scatter the remains across the hillside.

In 1879 Captain George Sanderson led a unit to the field and placed all exposed human remains in a grave dug on top of Last Stand Hill. A four foot cordwood monument was built over the mound and all the horse bones were placed in its center, creating the first monument.

Replacing that cordwood structure, a permanent granite monument was erected in 1881 by First Lieutenant Charles Roe. All of the soldiers remains were gathered and placed in a mass grave built around the base of the new monument.

Throughout the continued process of burials and reburials, whenever the remains of a man were found, a stake was planted so that future visitors could see where that man actually fell. Finally in 1890, Captain Owen Sweet arrived on the scene and replaced all wooden stakes with the 249 white, marble markers you see today.

The conspicuous headstones are dotted throughout the battlefield like ghostly spirits sweeping across the confusing purgatory of northern plains. While wandering down into Deep Ravine, thunder warns the visitor - the Little Bighorn is about to become the dramatic setting for another approaching storm.

Custer's command was destroyed here

Retracing their steps

A disheartening event

The first graves were covered with dirt and sagebrush

Remains were scattered years after the battle

The granite monument was erected in 1881

Marble markers show where the men fell

Ghostly spirits

Wandering down into Deep Ravine

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Little Bighorn Battlefield - Part II

Medicine Tail Coulee Ford

What happened to General Custer after he separated from Major Reno is one of the great mysteries of the American West. Because there were no survivors from Custer's battalion, the truth will forever elude historians, fanning the flames of controversy that are sparked by the multitude of differing theories.

A wealth of information can be gathered from Native American oral history as circulated by the battle's victorious participants, documents containing eyewitness testimony from soldiers who surveyed the battlefield's aftermath and recent archaeological discoveries.

By combining the evidence from these three sources, we can get a pretty good feel for what happened concerning Custer's strategy, movement and ultimate demise. The following is how I believe the events of that fateful day may have transpired.

While Reno and his men were being chased back to high ground, Custer was dividing his battalion into two wings. Companies C, I and L stayed in the hills to the right while E and F began an offensive maneuver to the left.

Mounted on their magnificent gray horses, Company E led the left wing down a dry creek bed. Appearing like apparitions out of the mist, they attempted to cross the river at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee.

Being a gateway to the Indian's camp, the ford was defended fiercely by a small band of brave warriors. Using repeating rifles, the Indians rained bullets at the incoming threat, forcing the white soldiers to ascend back into the eastern bluffs.

The left wing reunited briefly with the right wing atop Calhoun Hill. With Companies I and C held in reserve, Company L deployed in a skirmish line and the engagement continued with light, long-range volleys exchanged between the two sides.

Custer, still on the offensive, descended from the smooth ridge and tried to ford the river north of the encampment but he was stopped again. As they returned, Company E spread out across a shallow ravine and fired at hostiles creeping up the western flats while Company F gravitated into the basin above.

Most of the Indians that had fought Reno arrived on the scene as the hills became saturated with angry warriors hidden in the gullies and ravines. After Lame White Man's aggressive charge from Greasy Grass Ridge, the clash escalated quickly.

Chiefs Gall and Crazy Horse took advantage of the ensuing chaos and led their followers as they decimated the troops retreating from Calhoun Hill. Most of the horses were killed or scattered so the soldiers fell back on foot across Battle Ridge in an attempt to link up with Custer and the left wing.

Finishing off the frightened, fleeing soldiers was easy pickings for the Indians because it was just like hunting buffalo on the run. Many of the inexperienced, young soldiers became panicked so all tactical cohesion was lost and the rout was on.

Meanwhile at the other end of Battle Ridge, Company E's line was destroyed by the 'Suicide Boys' who also stampeded the conspicuous gray horses. Custer's Headquarters Staff moved up the slope where they were joined by a few surviving refugees from the right wing.

Just below the summit of Custer Hill, about 40 soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry put down their mounts forming a horse-flesh barricade and made their desperate last stand. The men were completely surrounded as arrows sprayed into the center of their precarious position.

Eventually as the soldiers began to fall, the Indians initiated hand-to-hand combat and the tiny swatch of blue coats was completely overwhelmed. At the end, about 15 men tried to make a run for cover by sprinting towards the river but none of them escaped.

Once the last of the troopers were cut down, the process of ritualistic mutilation began. Most of the dead were stripped naked and their bodies mutilated because the Indians believed if they crippled the soldiers' bodies on earth, the soldiers wouldn't be able to harm them in the afterlife.

After they had defeated Custer, the warriors turned their attention back towards the secluded hilltop held by Reno and the recently arrived Captain Benteen. With seven companies dug in and holding the high ground, the soldiers prepared to ward off an impending attack.

To be continued...

What happened to Custer is a mystery

Custer was in the hills during Reno's charge

Custer tried to ford the river here

A gateway to the Indian camp

Troops ascended this coulee to Calhoun Hill

Warriors crept up these gullies and ravines

Most of the horses were stampeded or killed

At the end, soldiers dashed for this ravine

Reno's troops dug into this secluded hilltop

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Little Bighorn Battlefield - Part I

The Little Bighorn River Valley

Located in south central Montana, the Little Bighorn Battlefield is a remarkable monument preserving a fascinating piece of American History. Here, General Custer and his battalion of 210 soldiers were massacred by a combined fighting force of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

What makes this memorial so unique is the scattering of marble markers that pinpoint the exact location of where each of the soldiers were killed. The white headstones' seemingly random arrangement betrays the sobering story they have to tell.

Upon approaching the Little Bighorn in early June, the spectacular scenery is as beautiful as any place on earth. Tall, green grass is windswept across the vast prairie of rolling hills that at one time supported thousands of buffalo.

Upon reaching the river valley, the terrain becomes more rugged as high bluffs to the east are broken by deep ravines and wide coulees. The serpentine-shaped thread of silver water is narrow, cold and deep.

Indians called it the Greasy Grass and this is where they were camped on June 25th, 1876. Custer was ordered to bring in the hostiles and he found them here, resting in the shade of lovely cottonwoods.

Despite the federal government's mandate to confine Native Americans to reservations, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne had remained defiant, refusing to give up their independence and nomadic way of life.

The Black Hills was their homeland and it was promised to be theirs forever by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. After the Civil War, westward expansion escalated as settlers, trappers and fortune seekers illegally desecrated the Indian's sacred hunting grounds.

As it appeared that conflict was inevitable, the northern tribes united under their spiritual leader Sitting Bull and military leaders Crazy Horse and Gall. Their paradise on the high plains was something worth fighting for.

On that hot, summer morning, the Seventh Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer rode down into the valley from the southeast. Custer divided his regiment of nearly 700 men into three battalions as he expected the Indians to scatter and run.

Captain Frederick Benteen took three companies and swung northwest to scout for stragglers and prevent escape in that direction. Major Marcus Reno was given three companies and ordered to charge due north into the south end of the camp.

Custer took five companies and headed northeast into the hills above. He was hoping to circle around to the opposite end of the camp, cross the river and attack in a pincer movement.

Reno's aggression provoked an unexpected force of 2,000 well-armed warriors. The Indians repulsed the initial attack and sent the terror-stricken bluecoats scurrying for cover in the nearby timber.

Amidst the chaos and confusion of the onslaught, Reno initiated a disorganized retreat across the river and up onto a high bluff. The shell-shocked troopers dug in and began a fight for their lives but where in the hell was Custer?

To be continued...

A remarkable monument

Spectacular scenery

A vast prairie

Lovely cottonwoods on the Greasy Grass

Conflict was inevitable

Paradise on the high plains

The Seventh Cavalry rode in from the southeast

Reno charged north down the valley

Where was Custer?