Selections from a three-volume set of Native American portraits, assembled between 1836 and 1844.
The three-volume set of Native-American portraits, entitled the History of The Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs, was assembled by Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall between 1836 and 1844. The portraits document a number of tribes on the cusp of their decline and forcible removal by the United States government. McKenney, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1824 to 1830, commissioned their portraits when Native American chiefs and other representatives visited Washington to negotiate treaties; many of them are wearing peace medals issued by the United States government. Charles Bird King, with the assistance of George Cooke, painted many of the images, as well as James Otto Lewis. The paintings were later lost in a fire, but before their destruction, they were copied by Henry Inman and then made into lithographs by the Philadelphia printer Edward C. Biddle. The images selected for this digital collection represent tribes that were associated with Tennessee and the surrounding area, including the Cherokee, Creeks, and Choctaw Indians. The accompanying text was written by Hall, and, while intriguing, should be viewed through a historiographic lens.
McKenney commissioned the portraits of Native American chiefs and elders when they visited Washington to negotiate treaties. He worked under a number of American presidents during his lifetime, and as Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1824 to 1830, was responsible for negotiating important treaties with various Native American tribes. Before that, from 1816 to 1824, he was Superintendent of Indian Trade. McKenney also started school systems for a number of tribes, including the "Five Civilized Tribes," the Southern Indian nations of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. In commissioning these portraits, McKenney’s goal was to document a record of vanishing peoples. McKenney hoped to preserve "the likenesses of some of the most distinguished among this most extraordinary race of people" because he believed "that this race was about to become extinct, and that a faithful resemblance of the most remarkable among them would be full of interest." The entire collection includes more than one hundred hand-colored lithographs, but images relating to Tennessee’s regional history are the focus of this exhibit.
Charles Bird King, with the assistance of George Cooke, his friend and student, painted many of the images. King completed more than 100 portraits from 1821 to 1842. James Otto Lewis also created some of the images in the field, and these were later copied by King. The paintings were later lost in a fire in 1865, but several decades before their destruction, many were copied by Henry Inman and made into lithographs by the Philadelphia printer Edward C. Biddle. James Hall, a lawyer and author from Cincinnati, wrote the accompanying text.
Perhaps the most famous image in volume one is of Sequoyah and his Cherokee alphabet. Also included in this exhibit from the first volume are Pushmataha (Choctaw), McIntosh (Creek/Cowta), Tah-Chee (Cherokee), and Major Ridge (Cherokee). Sequoyah (ca. 1770 – 1843) was born in East Tennessee, the son of a white fur trader from Virginia and a Cherokee woman. He worked as a silversmith, farmer, hunter, fur trader, and soldier, specifically during the War of 1812 on the side of the Americans. A year later, he fought side-by-side with white Americans during the Creek wars from 1813-14. Sequoyah observed that the white men were able to communicate with each other through writing, a skill that impressed him so much that he decided to do the same for the Cherokee people. He invented a system that utilized around 85 characters that represented syllables in spoken Cherokee. Although some Cherokees rejected his innovation, the system was completed and adopted in 1821.
Seven individuals from volume two have been selected for this exhibit, including Opothele-Yoholo (Creek), Yoholo-Micco (Creek), Paddy Carr (Creek translator), Tustennuggee Emathla (Creek), Menawa (Creek), Selocta (Creek, and Spring Frog (Cherokee). Many of the individuals showcased in these volumes were so-called "half-breeds" - born of a white European father and Native American mother. Paddy Carr, a Creek translator, was the son of an Irishman who married a Creek woman. He was born near Fort Mitchell in Alabama and taken in the family of Colonel Crowell, an Indian agent. He was raised in white society but served as a translator for his people on a number of important occasions.
In volume three, one of the most famous Cherokee leaders, John Ross, is featured. Ross was a Cherokee of mixed blood who was familiar with both Cherokee and white customs. Hall notes that he was the "leader of his people in their exodus from the land of their nativity to a new country," adding that he led his people from a savage state to civilization (176). This type of value judgment is not uncommon in the McKenney-Hall books and should be recognized as a mindset that was widespread in the early nineteenth century.
Ross was chief of the Cherokee nation from 1827 until the time he died in 1866, leading his people through their removal to Oklahoma and other major upheavals. The Indian Removal Bill, which led to the Trail of Tears, was passed in 1830 by the federal government. Before his people were relocated to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, many had been living in Georgia. White Georgians were eager for the Indians to relocate for a number of reasons, including the fact that gold had been discovered in the area. When this happened, Ross fought against the 1832 Georgia lottery that was designed to give away Cherokee lands. He and his people were not forced to relocate until the late 1830s, but when he did, he suffered personally from the ordeal, as he lost his wife during the march westward. Other important figures featured in volume three include Oche-Finceco, a half-breed Creek, Ledagie, a Creek chief, Apauly-Tustennuggee, a Creek chief, and David Vann, a Cherokee.
These portraits are valuable records that document Native American dress and customs, although they are still interpretations put forth by white American artists. The accompanying text reveals numerous biases against the Native Americans, but this point of view is not surprising considering that Hall was writing in the nineteenth century during an active period of Indian removal and hostilities against some Native Americans. That being said, these three volumes are still one of the earliest and most important collections of Native American portraits. Aside from George Catlin’s portraits of Western tribes, not until Edward S. Curtis’ 1880s publication The North American Indian was a project of similar breadth attempted. Additionally, these volumes are widely considered to be some of the finest examples of nineteenth-century lithography.