Photographing the American Indian:
Portraits of Native Americans, 1860-1913, from the collections of
the Massachusetts Historical Society


Early Portraits of Native Americans, 1860-1871

During the late 1850s, the development of glass plate negatives and paper photographs made photography a more commercial—and thus more public—enterprise. Photographs were used not only as private commemorations of a particular sitter, to be viewed only by his or her family, but also as a public record of, and commentary on, current events and culture. Beginning in the 1820s, the United States government collected portrait paintings of American Indians for its "Indian Gallery," as a way to preserve a visual record of a race that most considered doomed to extinction in the face of western expansion and by the perceived inability of natives to adapt to modern American culture. As photography became more acceptable as an artistic and documentary medium, photographic portraits of Native Americans superseded paintings as a public documentation of the "vanishing race." Carte de visite and tintype photographs of Indians provided the average American a means by which to view unfamiliar tribes in a non-threatening manner, without a direct encounter.

The photographs exhibited here were taken mostly by Plains and Rocky Mountain photographers and depict Arapaho, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Ottawa, Pawnee, Sioux, and Ute men and women. Many of the portraits appear to portray their subjects objectively, wearing representative native dress. Others show the ways in which the photographers perceived their native sitters in relation to the Manifest Destiny of western migration, posing them in front of American flags or in aspects of modern dress. Still others reveal a subtle commentary on the ways in which different tribes interacted with American expansionism, as foe and as friend.

About the Photographers

Charles DeForest Fredricks (1823-1894) has been credited as the first photographer to introduce the carte de visite format to the United States through his New York studio and is primarily known for his popular carte de visite portraits of eminent Americans, most of which were taken and published during the 1860s. Fredricks began his career as a case-maker for daguerreotypist Edward Anthony of New York, N.Y. (who also became a renowned publisher of cartes de visite) but also learned the techniques of photography from another prominent New York daguerreotypist, Jeremiah Gurney. Hearing of work available in South America for itinerant photographers, Fredricks traveled there in 1843, eventually setting up shops in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, as well as Cuba, during the late 1840s and early 1850s. In 1853, Fredricks returned to New York and entered into partnership with Gurney, experimenting the following year with new techniques in paper photography. He eventually opened his own photography studio in 1857 and continued to work as a photographer in New York until 1889.

William Henry Jackson and his brother Edward opened their Jackson Brothers photography studio in Omaha, Nebraska in 1867, merging it with another Omaha studio owned by William, Hamilton & Jackson's Gallery of Art. That same year, William did some of his first "field work" photography, taking some of the portraits of Pawnee, Otoe, Arapaho, and Sioux men that appear in this web presentation. Previously, he had worked as a photographic retoucher and, during the Civil War, served as a staff artist in the 12th Vermont Infantry. William Henry Jackson would later become the official photographer for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey, led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, from 1870 to 1878; in this capacity, he took what were eventually regarded as some of the most influential landscape photographs of the American West of the nineteenth century. Jackson continued to photograph the West from his studio in Denver after expedition work and, in 1893, was named the official photographer for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The photographs in this exhibition that are attributed to the Denver Photographic Rooms were most likely taken by William Gunnison Chamberlain (1815-1910), a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts who became one of Colorado’s most prolific photographers from 1861-1881 and worked for a time for the Denver studio.

C. W. Carter’s View Emporium was a Salt Lake City, Utah business owned by photographer Charles William Carter, who founded it in June of 1867. During 1868 and 1869, Carter partnered with photographer John B. Silvis as Carter & Silvis but later returned to his own business. He became a well-known photographer of Utah, its native peoples, and its Mormon citizens. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City holds approximately 1,000 of his original glass plate negatives.

About the Collectors

These portraits from the Massachusetts Historical Society were collected by two Massachusetts men, Charles W. Jenks and Francis Parkman. Charles W. Jenks was a graduate of Harvard College, Class of 1871. He worked in the paper business for L. Hollingsworth & Company in Groton and Boston before settling in Bedford, Massachusetts. There, Jenks' interests included botany, horticulture and agriculture. He served as a trustee of the Bedford Public Library and of the town's cemetery, and was a tree warden and town moderator. Jenks' collection of carte de visite portraits consists of images of prominent American politicians, officers, soldiers, and other public figures active during the years of the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. Included in these portraits are the two photographs of Chippewa men presented here; these photographs were possibly collected by Jenks to commemorate the Chippewa role in the Dakota Sioux trial of 1862.

The rest of the portraits within this web display were collected by the historian Francis Parkman. Parkman, a graduate of Harvard College, Class of 1844, had studied Plains Indian life when he travelled and hunted with the Sioux along the Oregon Trail in 1846. He was a diligent and prolific historian. In addition to writing The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life, he wrote France and England in North America, a multi-volume epic including the titles, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada, and Jesuits in North American in the Seventeenth Century, in which American Indians play a central role. The photographs he collected were taken circa 1860-1871 and depict Pawnee, Ottawa, Arapaho, Ute, Cheyenne, and Sioux natives.

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