Charles M. Russell’s painting, The Jerkline.

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The Jerk Line

Original: 1912, Oil on Canvas

A jerk line was the single rein that ran from the brake handle of a wagon to the bit of the leader on the left of a team of horses or mules harnessed in pairs.  The driver of the team sat in a saddle on the last animal on the left, called the near wheeler, and controlled the entire team by pulling on the jerk line.

In Russell’s masterwork The Jerk Line, the composition is dominated not by the jerk-line driver but be the large figure of the wagon master with the whip.  The driver of the jerk line is visible in the background of the composition, riding the last horse (the near wheeler) on the left side of the team.

Russell’s image is meant to pay homage his friend, the wagon master Johnny Matheson, who had operated a freighting company out of Great Falls.  Matheson’s outfit consisted of fourteen horses, three wagons, and a cart, all of which Russell portrays coming up the hill from the Missouri River near Fort Benton.

Charlie likes few old-timers better than Johnny.  He treasured his rough-hews ways, his wealth of experience, and especially his stubborn resistance to the changes that eventually forced him to retire from freighting in 1909 – a situation with which Russell would have identified.

Gift of Fred Birch

Additional information


Canvas, Framed, Metal, Paper


14 x 9 inches, 18 X 11.5 inches, 20 x 30 inches, 24 x 36 inches, 4 x 6 inches, 8 x 12 inches

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