Photographing the American Indian:
Portraits of Native Americans, 1860-1913, from the collections of
the Massachusetts Historical Society
What are photographs of Native Americans from the central and western parts of the United States doing in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society? The portraits in this web presentation were collected by four Bostonians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charles W. Jenks and Francis Parkman collected carte de visite and tintype portraits of American Indians during the 1860s as historical records of tribal groups and their role in contemporary American politics. After a visit to southern California, Boston collector Kingsmill Marrs brought home platinotypes of southwestern Indians taken by Adam Clark Vroman in the late 1890s. An anonymous donor was inspired to collect Joseph Kossuth Dixon’s photogravures from the Wanamaker Indian expeditions of the early 1900s after hearing Dixon lecture in 1912.
Early portrait photographs of Native Americans, similar to those presented in this web exhibition, reflect a widespread public interest in Indian life during the 1860s. In the mid-nineteenth century, the popular carte de visite photograph introduced the faces of prominent public figures into homes across America. Easily mass-produced, uniformly sized, and cheaper to purchase than early cased photographs, these portraits were collected, in part, as a record of current political and social events and of the people who drove them. Patented by French photographer André Disdéri in 1854, cartes de visite were introduced to the United States in 1859. The craze for these photographic “calling cards” took off in the 1860s, leading Oliver Wendell Holmes to write in 1863 that “card portraits … have become the social currency, the ‘greenbacks of civilization.’”
These striking images of Native Americans depict the changing ways in which photographers portrayed native subjects during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. From 1860, when the first portrait in this collection was taken, to 1913, the nation experienced unprecedented growth and American settlers claimed lands previously held by Indian tribes. These images are attempts by photographers to document what they saw as the fading of Native American cultures and traditions, to illustrate periods of conflict between the U.S. government and the tribes, and, by the twentieth century, to evoke political sympathy for the cause of the "vanishing race."
Funding from the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation supported this project.
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