Drawing: When I Was a Kid (detail)
Lummis "House Book" page
C. M. Russell, 1909
What Came First? The
Image or the Word?
Charles M. Russell, October 23, 1907
The West According to Charlie Russell
Charlie Russell said good bye to his St. Louis family—who'd
done their best by him but couldn't hold him down—and moved
West just before his 16th birthday. It was 1880, and he was
already in love with the West as he imagined it, but fell more
deeply in love when his stage coach pulled into Helena, Montana,
where dusty mule and bull teams, eight creatures strong, hauled
wagons through the streets, and Indians in robes and leggings
mixed with the townspeople.
After he'd gotten a little cow herding experience under his
belt Russell lucked into a job at a Judith Basin County ranch.
Years later some surviving ranch hands recollected how the a
cowboy named True asked a cohort named Ed Older, "Say, know
anything about the new night-herder?"
"I think it's Kid Russell."
"Who's Kid Russell?"
"Oh he's that kid that drew S.S. Hobson's ranch so real."
There's no telling what private collector now owns that
impression of Hobson's ranch, but one thing's certain, if it
ever again came up for auction—that or any other Russell
artwork—one would have to be rich indeed to enter into the
Unlike Remington and other famous Western artists who
never experienced the life firsthand, Russell did—so he
didn't generalize about buffalos, horses. Folks used to say the
way Charlie painted you could tell what a horse was thinking.
And he didn't base his cowboys on pictures he'd seen by somebody
else. He lived among the men and he did the same work, so he
knew how it felt from the inside. Like Rhodes, though, he never
really excelled at the job—at least not at the herd job.
Decades later biographers located an an old-timer named Kid Amby, who gave his recollection:
"He was no roughrider at all. Charlie was always afoot in the
saddle when it came to real cowpunching. But don't get me wrong—he was one of the swellest guys I ever knew. Everybody liked
Kid Russell. Sure, he wasn't even a good night-herder. About all
he could do was tell stories and make little sketches of the
funny things that happened. We'd hurry in at night, just to
listen to his yarns and laugh at the pictures he drew. Nobody
ever thought he'd amount to anything. But Charlie had lots of
friends. And there wasn't a cattle outfit, big or small, that
wouldn't hire him. He helped to keep us happy."
Russell struck up a friendship with a young Indian named
"Sleeping Thunder" and through him became acquainted with many
others in the Northwest Territory. He lived for a while among
the Blackfoot Indians and learned their sign language, which
allowed him to communicate with any of the Plains tribes. His
wife Nancy would remember, "The Red Men of our Northwest love
and think of Charlie as a kind of medicine man because he could
draw them and their life so well."
All this would have no bearing on the history of early
California and Los Angeles if Russell hadn't ventured farther west and
found his way to El Alisal. Here Old
Man Lummis hosted boisterous parties, which he called "noises,"
and the biggest noise took place in March to celebrate his
birthday and all the birthdays of those born in March. He dubbed
it "March Hare Day" after the expression "mad as a March Hare".
Charlie Russell had come along on March 19, 1864—a fellow
The musicians, naturalists, writers and poets who attended
these couldn't get out of there without signing the "House
Book". The artists were often inspired to contribute a painting
along with a signature. (That very valuable book is now in the
possession of The Southwest Museum.) Charlie Russell had taught
himself to paint and draw, and despite certain idiosyncrasies of
spelling (which I've left uncorrected), he seems to have taught
himself to write, too. With less than a full high school
education he shows up here as a brighter and livelier wordsmith
than many educated people walking around today.
Silence! (R Rated)
Fifty three years after attending some "noises"
and March Hare parties, the late Edith Kendall (then Edith Pla)
reported her impression of what sort of madness took place.
Oh, Charlie Russell was there! He had such a sense of humor.
His voice was low and rumbling, he sort of grunted, but he told his
tales in Indian sign language, his wife interpreting. In the middle
of a story he would make a certain sign and she would blush
furiously, saying, "Charlie, I'm not going to say that." Wooden
faced he would repeat the gesture. "Now Charlie, you stop. I won't
say it and if you keep on talking like that I won't come here any
Fletcher Lummis: The Man and His West, U.
of Oklahoma Press, 1975, p. 163)