Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Stampeding Buffaloes Stopping Train

Refer to caption
Stampeding Buffaloes Stopping Train by Eldora Lorenzini
Hebron, Nebraska Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

In the early 1930s, the Treasury Department administered a series of projects beginning with the construction of 1100 post offices built across the country that helped to put people back to work. To further stimulate the economy in 1934, a new program to decorate the new post offices was funded by the Section of Fine Arts, also administered by the Treasury Department. Twelve murals were chosen for post offices built in Nebraska which would reflect themes of “Regionalism,” that of depicting scenes of local history, industrialization, and social life defining the importance of Nebraska in the westward expansion of the United States.

Eldora Lorenzini submitted Stampeding Buffaloes Stopping the Train into the competition and was given the commission for a mural for the post office in Hebron, Nebraska. Prior to receiving her mural commission, Lorenzini attended the prestigious Colorado Springs Fine Art Center and, like many other artists of the time, worked as a decorator, printmaker, or illustrator on various projects under artists and instructors such as Boardman Robinson and George Biddle. Colorado Springs Fine Art Center became very influential for up-and-coming western American artists, and Biddle is credited as the person “who wrote to his former classmate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposing a program for artist relief through murals” opening the doorway for other instructors and students to be awarded their own mural projects.

In 1803 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to explore western territory for the most direct route to the Pacific Ocean overland and by use of the waterways, most notably, the Platte and Snake River valleys. President Jefferson was quoted as saying, “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado and/or other river may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.” The boundaries of the established frontier were divided by the Mississippi River with St. Louis as the main supply hub and jumping-off point to the west and also the entryway to the Missouri River. Growing business interests and the availability of land in the west further pushed indigenous tribal people out of their homelands instigating skirmishes and battles against the Omaha, Pawnee, and Oto-Missouria tribes of the middle plains area where Nebraska is located.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act under the direction of Andrew Jackson was passed that required all tribes in the Southeastern United States to move west of the Mississippi River exchanging their homelands for an unknown future in today’s Oklahoma. Prior to 1830 war alliances with the British and French combined with the ceding of lands through treaties had weakened tribes from the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Northeast also forcing them to move further west into the grasslands and river valleys of the Great Plains putting further pressures on natural food resources. Before the coming of settlers, the Platte River was primarily traveled by nomadic tribal groups in the area such as the Omaha and Pawnee who hunted the buffalo as their main food source using the valley walls to corral them and make hunting more efficient. During this era the buffalo numbered in the millions with the herds extending to the horizon. In the mural painting, Lorenzini captures the feeling of just how immense buffalo migrations were and as the buffalo he depicts get smaller and less defined, they seem to disappear into the hills making the herd stampede appear endless.

In 1836, Westport and Independence, Missouri, were established as the eastern starting points for wagon trains and westward-bound immigrants moving along the Oregon Trail through Nebraska along the Platte River valley. Omaha became a popular place in the 1840s for traders and travelers to float upstream by ferry and start their westward travel along the Oregon Trail at the head of the Platte River Valley saving time and effort. After the acquisition of California through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1838 and the California Gold Rush 1848-1855, westward settlement was inevitable as was the need for a railroad to connect the west coast to the east coast. The coming of the train would be the beginning of the end of nomadic life for the Indian as their food source of buffalo would become increasingly scarce due to the over-hunting by sportsmen traveling by train. Eldora Lorenzini portrays this clash of cultures. The encounter of the American Indian buffalo as sustainable food and the “iron horse” train meeting head-on.

The new railroad line followed the Oregon Trail route starting from Omaha with the Union Railroad moving west along the Platte River Valley. Sacramento was the western starting point with the Central Pacific railroad. The strategy was to build from each end of the Oregon Trail route meeting in Utah. As the trains and railroads became more visible throughout Indian country their contact with buffalo became more frequent resulting in trains being blocked by the herds of buffalo. In the background of the mural one can see men with rifles hunting the buffalo, in an effort to eradicate the buffalo through the sale of their skins for coats and hats, and to solve the problem of their tearing of sections of track during their migrations which stopped the transportation of goods and people, thus stopping America’s progress. Ironically, in an effort to tone down the painting, Lorenzini was asked by officials to remove a scene he planned to be part of it, that of depicting the skinning of a buffalo. It was common practice for mural paintings to be altered even during or after they were painted in an effort not “offend” anyone.

American politicians and settlers alike had many schemes planned to push the indigenous Indians off the land as progress moved west. One was to kill this particular food source by removing the most important animal to their existence. Tribal groups utilized every part of the buffalo for everyday items like using the bladder to carry water, the bones for utensils, and the skin for clothing and lodging, and their survival was dependent on the migrating buffalo herds.

Engaging herself in researching the buffalo through visits to local zoos, Eldora Lorenzini was able to capture the anatomical correctness even though “she reported that her visit was not very successful because ‘the buffalo were molting’.” In her further effort to portray an authentic scene, Eldora chose to incorporate the painting as a natural part of the post office building. According to writer Elizabeth Anderson, “The color of the buffalo hides is matched to the wood forming the doorway to the post master’s office, making the mural part of the end wall of the lobby, just like the buffalo are a natural part of the rolling prairie landscape.”

The post office and the mural will both continue to remind us of a time in our history when American social and economic progress sadly depended on the elimination of the buffalo and whether by design or not, a race of people. Native people, like the buffalo herds, have been resilient and today have survived to see numbers of buffalo grow and become sustainable giving us the assurance to know that also our culture and language can be successfully revived.

By Reuben Noah (Choctaw/Kickapoo/Iowa Nations)


Nebraska Historical Society, Electronic Document
Anderson, Elizabeth, “Depression Legacy: Nebraska’s Post Office Art,” Vol. 71, No. 1,
Spring 1990, pp 123-133, Accessed on September 9, 2014

Nebraska Studies
Native Americans Meet the Challenges: The Pawnee, Omaha, and Oto-Missouria, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 15, 2014

Nebraska Studies
Railroad and Settlement: Land Grants for the Railroads, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 15, 2014

Community Discovery
The Hebron Nebraska Post Office mural, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 9, 2014

The First Transcontinental Railroad, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 15, 2014

The Living New Deal Post Office Mural “Stampeding Buffaloes Stopping The Train” –Hebron, NE, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 9, 2014

Museum of Nebraska Art
A Treasury of Murals: Nebraska’s Post Office Legacy, Electronic Document, Accessed on September 15, 2014

Public Broadcasting System
Transcontinental Railroad and Native Americans, Electronic Document, Accessed on August 6, 2014

Idaho Museum of Natural History
Westward Expansion, Electronic Document, Accessed on August 5, 2014

Nebraska State Historical Society, 1500 R St, Lincoln, NE, Multiple Property Documentation Form, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
Fine Arts Center History, Electronic Document, Accessed on August 6, 2014

Indians at the Post Office