LOT 310

Charles M. Russell


The Milk Creek Canyon Disaste[r]

MEDIUM: Oil on board

DIMENSIONS: 18 x 24 inches

Signed and titled lower right


SOLD FOR: $70,200.00

Including Buyers Premium

Additional Information

Private collection, Oklahoma

Borderlands: Images of the American West, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, OK, 2009
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK, 2016-2017
Montana Historical Society, Helena, MT, 2018-2019

This exceptionally early Charles M. Russell painting depicts the Milk Creek Battle, which is often paired with a separate event linked to it, the Meeker Massacre. Both events took place in September 1879, when U.S. Army forces left Fort Steele in Wyoming to investigate a possible uprising against federal agent Nathan Meeker, who was appointed to oversee the White River Indian Agency in Colorado. During the Army’s march into Colorado, commanding officer Major Thomas Thornburgh ignored previous orders to not cross south of Milk Creek with his entire force, which angered Ute chiefs Jack (Nicaagat) and Colorow. On September 29, heavy Ute forces simultaneously descended on Thornburgh’s soldiers and on the White River Agency 25 miles to the south. It wasn’t until October 5 that reinforcements arrived to push the Ute fighters back. By the end of the battle, two dozen soldiers were dead, including Thornburgh and Meeker. More than 20 Ute fighters were thought to have died in the skirmish.

As word of the battle spread, newspapers and magazines were quick to dramatize the events that happened on the banks of Milk Creek. One publication that wrote about the battle was the National Police Gazette, which printed a story about the deadly skirmish on October 18, 1879. Included in the coverage was an unsigned wood engraving of a Native American fighter shooting Major Thornburgh off his horse. Due to the many similarities of the newspaper illustration and Russell’s painting, it’s fair to say that Russell was likely inspired by the engraving during the creation of his work, which was executed possibly as early as the fall of 1879, when he was only 15 years old. The painting is also likely one of the earliest attributable Western paintings known to exist from the artist. The undated work is listed in the catalogue raisonné as The Milk Creek Canyon Disaste[r], though it is sometimes titled as The Milk Creek Canyon Desaste Death of Magor Thornburgh.


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Please note that the first unframed photo is most accurate for color. Framed photographs are to show the frame and are not color corrected to the painting.

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