THE weekly magazines popular in the middle of the last century had dozens of combat artists rendering the American Civil War in their pages. By contrast, few sent artists to cover the Indian Wars from 1854 to 1890. Theodore Davis was one of the few who sketched the early period. After Davis made a significant contribution to Harper's Weekly as a Civil War artist, the magazine sent him to the Western frontier to sketch mining and cattle towns.
In 1867 he joined Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition across Kansas and Nebraska against the Sioux and Cheyenne. The Indians were raiding and killing settlers as wagon trains and railroads brought the irrevocable end of the Indian way of life.
One of Hancock's officers was a lieutenant colonel with flowing blond locks who was courageous and ambitious to gain fame as an Indian fighter: George Armstrong Custer. Among Davis's illustrations of that summer was a sketch of Custer parleying with Pawnee Killer, a Brul'e Sioux chief (in a cloth shirt, possibly Army issue, and a tall hat), and two braves. The Indians are shown begging for ammunition as well as coffee and sugar only hours after their unsuccessful dawn raid designed to scare off Custer's horses.
Davis's manner of working was to draw action in the field as it was occurring. At the same time he made notes on the terrain, trees, foliage, and other details. Later he filled in the sketches, then sent them to Harper's Weekly. There, engravers, who knew his work well, transferred the field sketches onto wood, from which they were printed in the weekly magazine.
It's likely that Davis sketched the same campaigns in which Lauren Winfield (Pete) Aldrich participated (see essay on left).