Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Recreating John C. Fremont's 1841 Flag of Exploration

     No matter how you feel about John Charles Fremont, the historical importance and profound impact of his Expedition Reports cannot be overstated. With the endorsement of the U.S. goverment behind them, they helped open up the West to emigration and settlement and set a standard for the multitude of guide books that would follow.

Original Fremont Flag
photo courtesy, Southwest Museum

     Some historians believe that since Fremont's expeditions themselves weren't goverment sanctioned, he couldn't officially carry the Stars and Stripes. Instead, he commisoned a personally designed flag to take its place. In actuality, personally designed flags were not that uncommon in the mid-19th century and flags with eagles in the canton were not that unique either. Whatever the reason, the story goes that John's young bride Jessie Benton Fremont, supposedly constructed the flag that accompanied him on his first expedition of 1841-42. It was planted on what was thought to be the highest peak of the Rockies (Snow Peak). Fremont wrote he "unfurled the national flag to wave in the breeze where never a flag had waved before."

     According to family history, the flag was again used on Fremont's third expedition 1845-46. Even though some historians aren't convinced that Fremont carried this flag into California, it's interesting to me that he called it the "national flag" rather than anything that would indicate that it was his personal ensign. The events surrounding what I feel is the possible continued use of this flag, are described in detail on Bob Graham's fascinating and detailed website on Fremont http://www.longcamp.com/  According to Graham, "It began on March 5th 1846 when, after having given consent for Capt. Fremont's topographical expedition to recruit his animals in California, General Jose Castro changed his mind and ordered Fremont out of the district. Fremont was insulted and refused to be driven out, removed to a defensible mountain top, raised the American Flag and grumbled." So whether or not the "American Flag", the "National Flag", or Fremont's Flag are one and the same, we may never know but if we are to inclined to give any creedence to the family lore supplied by John and Jessie's daughter, Elizabeth, then there is a possibility that this flag is important to California's history.

Time-Life picture and my work sheets
     What amazed me was that this flag still exists. For decades, it hung on the wall in the Braun Research Library at the Southwest Museum in Pasadena. The old Southwest Indian Museum was a favorite of mine since childhood and is now part of The Autry National Center's museums of western history and culture http://www.theautry.org/ . In a phone conversation with an unnamed staffer at the Southwest Museum on June 24, 2005, I was supplied with some basic information about the flag. From Master Key, vol. 26, no. 4, Fremont's Flag is described as constructed of "plain weave cotton fabric". Following that were 3 different sets of overall dimensions: 119.38cm x 211.582cm or,  47" x 83 1/4" or,  4' x 6' 8"   take your pick!  The flag is featured in many books including, "1846 Portrait of the Nation", Margaret C.S. Christman, pg 135, "A Grand Old Flag", Kevin Keim and Peter Keim, pg. 103 and an amazing detailed view in Time-Life's "The Mexican War"on page 197. Knowing that a visit to view the original flag was unlikely as it was in the process of  being conserved, I relied on the Time-Life picture for evidence of fabrics used and construction details.

     With my working knowledge of 19th century fabric, it appeared to me that the flag's stripes were not "plain weave cotton" but rather a light weight wool. The red stripes appear to be a blueish red, more like cochineal, rather than madder red. The white stripes had aged to a soft, dirty grey. The irregularity of the stripe widths give the flag a folky charm and remind me that "modern" conventions of perfection do not always relate to 19th century objects. Interestingly, the canton appears to be cotton or perhaps linen. Maybe that's what the Master Key was refering to. The bold, handpainted eagle is a wonderful rendition with its looping brushstrokes to define the feathers.The 26 stars are outlined in the same blue paint as the eagle. It's such a home-grown rendition that with a little imagination, you can see the young bride Jessie painting it with pride and affection for her explorer husband. Most historians will note that the artist substituted an Indian Calumet for the typical olive branch but will fail to mention the bloodied tallons, beak and eye of the eagle. To me the symbolism is obvious. To any native tribes that gazed upon this banner, the message was, I come in peace but don't mess with me. The last little detail was that the visible stitching appeared to be in a red thread. All in all an amazing homemade flag with an equally amazing history.

my replica, photo Lindy Miller 2011
    For my replica flag I decided on a finished size of approximately 47" x 83". The stripes would be a lightweight wool fabric that I had, which was similar to bunting. I decided to try my hand at dying with cochineal. Cochineal is actually derived from beetle bodies and is rather pricey. The good folks at Dharma Trading Company http://www.dharmatrading.com/  were very helpful with the dye stuff and info.Yup, there it came, a little bag of dead beetles. I guess I really do love this stuff. For the canton, I decided to use unbleached muslin as that's what the original may be. The painting was going to take some experimentation to reveal the possible technique used on the original. I finally settled on mixing my own paint, using Prussian Blue pigment with a shellac vehicle. It didn't bleed into the fabric and allowed me to imitate the soft brushstrokes  the original artist had used, to shade the eagle's body. All the fabric was assembled using red cotton thread with a running stitch of about 6 to the inch and flat felled seams. I tried to be honest with my rendition by copying some of the uneveness of the original but without going overboard. I'm not naive enough to believe that a stitch by stitch replica is even possible but the best crafted  replicas should be as faithful to the original as possible, within reason and within the ability and talent of the maker. I think my version turned out swell and captures the spirit of the original.

No comments:

Post a Comment