BILLINGS – Edgar Paxson came to Montana in 1877 and worked for a stagecoach line. He was a 1st lieutenant in the 1st Montana Infantry in the Spanish American War, a researcher of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and went on to become a famous Montana artist.
Paxson's murals depicting Montana history remain on display in the Montana Capitol and the Missoula County Courthouse.
His daily diaries from 1898 to 1919 have been donated to the Montana Historical Society by Paxon's great-grandchildren William E. Paxson, Marion Preston and Laura Ericsson.
“This is an excellent look into the life of a famous Montana and western artist who was building his reputation and mastering his craft as Montana emerged in the 20th century,” said Rich Aarstad, Montana Historical Society senior achivist.
Aarstad is completing the indexing and summaries of the 22 diaries that will be available to the public in the MHS Research Center early in 2017.
The historical society is seeking a donor to help get the Paxson diaries into its digital computer service.
One of William Paxson’s favorite stories is of his great-grandfather’s friend and fellow artist Charlie Russell arriving late at night at Paxson’s home and rolling up in his bedroll so he wouldn’t awaken his friend. “When he got up and went out on his front porch the next morning there was Charlie Russell, asleep,” Paxson said.
Paxson depicted the frontier life and Native American people in his artwork that remains popular today. Paxson strove for historical accuracy in his artwork as well as in the diary, Aarstad said.
“Even if Paxson hadn’t become a renowned artist, this would still be an impressive collection of diaries,” Aarstad said. “That his family chose to entrust their care to the Montana Historical Society for research and enjoyment of all Montanans is a tremendous gift.”
Paxson was a strong patriot, and that is probably one reason that he began writing his diaries. “He started them right after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Cuba and the declaration of war against Spain,” Aarstad said.
Paxson and his son, Harry, both joined the 1st Montana Infantry, which was sent to the Philippines to fight against an insurrection that broke out in the former Spanish colony. “They shipped out with the rest of the Montana boys, and his diaries begin with that,” Aarstad said.
Just the accounts of that conflict would be significant on their own, he said. At the conclusion of that war, Paxson created an arch in Butte that was lit by electricity for the Montana veterans to march through in a welcome home celebration.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn happened a year before Paxson came to Montana, and one of his most famous paintings is the 6-by-9-foot “Custer’s Last Stand.” He spent many years researching the history of the battle, interviewing Native Americans, including Sioux chief Gall and Cheyenne chief Two Moon who took part in the battle. He also interviewed about 100 U.S. troops from campaigns related to the battle. The painting is on display at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West in Cody, Wyo.
When Montanans wanted to commission paintings for the then-new Montana Capitol, they turned to Paxson. His large murals in the entryway to the House chamber portray the history of Montana, including “Lewis and Clark at Three Forks” and “The Surrender of Chief Joseph."
Shortly before his death in 1919 he also was commissioned to do eight paintings for the Missoula County Courthouse.
“There is a huge volume of things to read and learn from” in the diaries, Aarstad said. One of the most unusual is a clipping from a newspaper after the outbreak of World War I that he pasted in the diary reporting a letter written to Paxson after he volunteered again to join the fight. “The War Department said he would be called if the occasion demands.”