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Painter Seth Eastman is known primarily for his depictions of daily life among the Dakota and Ojibwa tribes in Minnesota. He was born to Robert and Sarah Lee Eastman on January 24, 1808, in Brunswick, Maine. Eastman attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he received training in sketching and topography. While at West Point, he began to paint scenes featuring the daily life of local Native American tribes.
In 1830 Eastman was assigned to topography duty on the frontier and spent a short time at Fort Snelling before returning to West Point to teach. While at Fort Snelling, Eastman married Wakaninajinwin (Stands Sacred), the fifteen-year-old daughter of Cloud Man, a Dakota chief. Eastman left in 1832 for another military assignment soon after the birth of their baby girl, Winona, and declared his marriage ended when he left. Winona was also known as Mary Nancy Eastman and was the mother of Charles Alexander Eastman, author of Indian Boyhood.
From 1833 to 1840, Eastman taught drawing at West Point. In 1835 he married his second wife, Mary Henderson, the daughter of a West Point surgeon. In 1841 he returned to Fort Snelling as a military commander and remained there with Mary and their five children for the next seven years. It was during this time that Eastman began visually recording the everyday way of life of the Dakota and Ojibwa people. His wife Mary also became involved in preserving Indian culture by writing books on local tales and legends, which he would illustrate for her. The most important of these books was entitled Dacotah, or Life and Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling.
In 1847 Henry R. Schoolcraft, a former Indian agent, was chosen to conduct a study of the American Indian people. Eastman illustrated the six-volume set, published between 1851 and 1857 as Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs also commissioned Eastman to paint images of seventeen important military forts, which he completed between 1870 and 1875. These paintings are now housed in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Eastman died of a stroke while painting at his home in Washington, D.C., on August 31, 1875. Eastman's works are significant for Minnesota history because art historians believe that Eastman based many of his paintings and sketches on his observations in the Sioux villages of Kaposia and Little Crow, as well as in Scott, Wabasha, and Winona counties.