The first artist to call Council Bluffs his home was George Simons, a quiet man with a bright red beard and kind blue eyes. A folk artist with no formal training and little education, Simons sketched and painted scenes of frontier living and westward expansion. His artwork has been described as “primate and charming,” but most importantly, it provides the earliest pictorial record of Council Bluffs, documenting the landscape as it appeared in pioneer times.
Born in Canada in 1834, George Simons came to Council Bluffs in 1853 by way of Illinois, when he joined the surveying party of railroad pioneer Grenville Dodge. The party was tasked with mapping routes for the Mississippi and Missouri Valley Railway, and Simons was employed as a cook. Between meals, Simons made drawings of the landscape and Dodge came to rely on these drawings, using them as a reference. It was said that Simons had a photographic memory and, when asked, was able to produce accurate drawings of any the locations the surveying party had visited.
Simons traveled the plains, where he sketching scenes of white settlers, Native Americans, and Mormons; he sketched log cabins, teepees, and booming cities; and he sketched wagon trains, steam boats, and locomotives. Then, in 1862, serving in the Union Army, Simons sketched scenes of war. During his time in the Army, Simons kept a journal filled with sketches, poems, and observations, in which lack of formal schooling was evident in his phonetic spelling.
In his diary, Simons recounts hunting buffalo with the Omaha Indians, turning down an offer to paint for Brigham Young (he thought the $6 a day salary was too good to be true), and surviving a dangerous prospecting trip to California. At his wife’s request, the family settled down back in Iowa where they farmed and generally kept to themselves. In fact, Simons kept so much to himself that many assumed he had died, including the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil newspaper which published an apology for “murdering” the artist in an article that referred to him in the past tense.
Simons rarely signed his work, and much of his art has perished through the years, including some of his most ambitious, panoramic work. Panoramic paintings were a popular form of entertainment in in the 19th century. Many of these were presented in large, circular scenes which filled entire rooms, with the audience standing in the middle, surrounded on all sides by an image to create a sense of being transported to another place – like the 19th century equivalent of Virtual Reality. Simons created two such paintings in the 1860’s, said to have been spread on 10,000 feet of canvas. These paintings went on tour to towns up and down the Mississippi River, but have sense been lost or destroyed.
Locally, there was a resurgence of interest in the pioneer painter in the 1920’s when Iowa artist Grant Wood used Simon’s drawings as reference for one of his works. Like Grant Wood, and General Dodge before him, we can look to Simons’ drawings as a reference – as a way to understand a time and a place as it existed before photography. The simplicity of the drawings, which were drawn from life and were mostly free from artistic embellishments, add to their value as historic records of frontier life in Iowa.
You can view a collection George Simons’ drawings and paintings online in our Archive. Click HERE to see more.