Art of Conflict: Portraying American Indians, 1850–1900

How did U.S. and American Indian artists portray Indian peoples of the West in the late nineteenth century? What relationships exist between representations of American Indians in art and the histories of U.S. settlement?


Images of American Indians became widely popular with American and European audiences in the mid-nineteenth century. From watercolor and pencil sketches, to oil paintings, prints, and photographs, visual representations of Indian peoples were increasingly in demand for public enjoyment. The demand for these images stemmed, in part, from the idea that American Indians were “a vanishing race.” Mid-nineteenth-century readers were regularly treated to passages like this one from the Maryland Historical Society’s 1850 annual report, cited by historian Jean Jepson Page: “The aboriginal inhabitants of this great continent are fast yielding to the more powerful race now peopling their ancient domain. The time indeed is not distant when few will remain to instruct us in their customs, arts, and polity.” White American artists, such as Frank Blackwell Mayer and E. A. Burbank, took up the challenge to “rescue from oblivion” Indian cultures and customs through visual representations.

While U.S. artists answered the call to document a “vanishing race,” American Indian artists created drawings that portrayed their experiences of this period of intense conflict and change.

The idea of the “vanishing Indian” represents a complicated mix of fantasy and denial. Dating back at least to Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, it expresses a wish on the part of European Americans that the “Indian problem” was already resolved: if the continent’s indigenous inhabitants were inevitably disappearing, they would cease to be a barrier to U.S. expansion. The use of the term “vanishing” is also a form of disavowal. It presents the decimation of the Indian population and their forced displacement onto reservations as part of the natural course of history, not the result of actions taken by U.S. policymakers and citizens. The use of this rhetoric seems particularly ironic in 1850, given that the United States was about to embark on three decades of brutal wars and complex negotiations with indigenous peoples in the West.

From the early 1850s through the late 1870s, the United States and American Indians engaged in a series of wars for control of the Great Plains. This vast territory stretched west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico. It was inhabited by diverse, indigenous people, from the Dakota and Lakota nations in the north (also known as the Sioux) to the Comanche and Apache in the south. Each Indian nation included multiple bands (such as the Sisseton Dakota and the Chiricahua Apache), each with its own leaders and governing structure. As a result, the Plains Wars were not one war between two distinct enemies—the United States and American Indians—rather they involved multiple military engagements and treaty negotiations between the United States and numerous, distinct groups. Many Indian bands had histories of conflict with each other and some became allies of the United States against other bands.

There was also another population that played a central role in the Plains Wars: American settlers. The steady flow of immigrants from the East created the conditions for each eruption of violence. As white traders, hunters, and farmers encroached on Indian lands, they rendered game scarce. They demanded the protection of the U.S. military, sometimes engaging in vigilante violence themselves, and pressured the government to secure more territory for their use. Historians argue that nonmilitary tactics, such as the U.S. policy of deliberately slaughtering the buffalo and thus destroying the Indians’ means of subsistence, contributed as much to the United States’ ultimate victory in these wars as its military power. By 1880 almost all of the American Indian nations had agreed or been forced to move to reservations.

While U.S. artists answered the call to document a “vanishing race,” American Indian artists created drawings that portrayed their experiences of this period of intense conflict and change. The following collection of documents presents visual art by and about western Indians from the second half of the nineteenth century. For additional sources, please see the following collections: Imagining the American West in the Late Nineteenth Century, Art and Exploration in the American West and Mexico, and the section on “Mapping the Displacement of American Indians” in Mapping Chicago and the Midwest.

Essential Questions

  • How did U.S. and American Indian artists portray indigenous peoples in the second half of the nineteenth century?
  • What relationships exist between representations of American Indians in art and the histories of U.S. settlement? What do historical images of American Indian peoples tell us about the evolving relationships between Indians and non-Indians?
  • What are the differences and similarities among artists in their choices of materials and media, subject matter and style?

Frank Blackwell Mayer at Camp Traverse des Sioux

In 1851 the young artist Frank Blackwell Mayer left his home state of Maryland to travel to the Western frontier, the trading post Traverse des Sioux in the Minnesota Territory. Mayer intended to witness the intense treaty negotiations between U.S. officials and the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota (also known as Sioux). White immigrants had been moving to the Minnesota Territory since the early 1800s. By the middle of the century, game was scarce and U.S. pressure to cede the land was strong. Dakota leaders saw few alternatives to sustaining their people other than to sell their land. The treaty resulted in the opening of 24 million acres of Dakota homelands to American settlement. The Sisseton and Wahpeton retained only a narrow swathe of land along the Minnesota River. The promised payments from the U.S. government were largely siphoned off by white traders and corrupt officials.

Mayer sketched hundreds of drawings of the Dakota people gathered at the camp, intending to publish his journal with oil paintings based on the sketches after he returned East. But he made a mistake in delaying that phase of his project: in 1862—one year into the Civil War—the Dakota rose up against the United States in a short, bloody war that resulted in roughly 1,000 deaths and culminated in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. During the three decades of brutal wars between the United States and western Indian tribes that followed, the public had little taste for Mayer’s whimsical sketches of the Dakota Indians whom he described as kind and contented. But his sketchbook is now considered the most important visual record of the 1851 treaty negotiations. (For popular coverage of the Dakota War, see the Newberry online exhibition Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.)

The first drawing in this section portrays Camp Traverse des Sioux itself, including what Mayer describes as the “Old French graveyard.” The second portrays a Sisseton chief on horseback. The final drawing (pictured in the introduction) shows a young woman known by several names: Winona, Nancy Eastman, and Wakantakawin. She was the daughter of a Dakota (Santee Sioux) woman, Wakanin ajin win, and a U.S. Army soldier and artist, Seth Eastman, who ended the marriage after her birth. (Seth Eastman went on to illustrate the most comprehensive, nineteenth-century study of American Indians, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s six-volume, government-funded work, Information Regarding the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States.) Winona married a Santee Sioux man and had five children, dying during the birth of the youngest. That youngest son, Charles Eastman, grew up to become the first American Indian certified as a medical doctor and a prominent writer and advocate of Indian rights.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the scene at Camp Traverse des Sioux, as Mayer portrays it. What do you notice about the dwellings and other structures? What evidence do you see of the presence of both U.S. and Dakota people as well as the longer history of the trading post?
  2. How do Winona and Kanfh-madokah, the Sisseton chief, appear in these drawings? What is the mood or tone of these illustrations?
  3. Do these drawings give you a sense of the momentous treaty negotiations that were underway when Mayer created them? Why or why not? Could you draw any conclusions about the artist’s ideas about the treaty negotiations based on these images? Find evidence to support your response in the illustrations themselves.

Cheyenne and Kiowa Ledger Drawings

Indians of the Great Plains had a long tradition of chronicling their lives in pictures painted on buffalo and deer hides. Between 1865 and 1935, warrior artists adapted this tradition to the new materials at hand: the blank pages of ledger books obtained from U.S. soldiers, traders, missionaries, and reservation employees. Using colored pencils, crayons, and watercolor paints, Plains Indian men illustrated the battles they fought against the U.S. Army and other Indian tribes. They also portrayed courtships, ceremonies, and buffalo hunts. Many recorded their new lives on reservations and in prison camps and boarding schools.

The image at the top of this section comes from a Cheyenne ledger book, probably illustrated between 1877 and 1879. It contains unsigned drawings, which scholars attribute to Black Horse and other Cheyenne warrior artists. The drawings depict Cheyenne attacks on Pawnee, Shoshone, Crow, and Snake Indians—both men and women—and encounters with white Army soldiers and white settlers. Captions on the drawings below refer to the Battle of Powder River in the Montana Territory. U.S. Cavalry troops attacked a Cheyenne encampment, initiating the Great Sioux War of 1876. However, it’s unclear whether the artist provided the captions or they were added later.

The other image in this section and the one in the Introduction (Kiowa Battle U.S. Soldiers) images below are Kiowa Indian ledger drawings, probably created during the early reservation period between 1880 and 1890. These drawings are on leaves removed from an ordinary blue-ruled writing tablet.

Questions to Consider

  1. Write a story about each of the ledger drawings. What do you think is happening in each scene?
  2. How would you describe the styles used by these Cheyenne and Kiowa artists? How are the figures arranged in space? Which elements of the drawings appear realistic or natural and which elements appear symbolic? How do the artists make use of color? Where do you see attention to detail?
  3. What can you learn about Cheyenne and Kiowa customs or clothing from these images? What seems most important to each artist to convey?
  4. Compare these drawings to the artwork by Frank Blackwell Mayer, Frederick Gokliz, and E. A. Burbank elsewhere in this collection. What differences do you notice in both subject matter and style?

Frederick Gokliz, Chiricahua Apache Artist

Frederick Gokliz was a Chiricahua Apache artist from the San Carlos Indian Reservation in southeastern Arizona. He created the ink and watercolor drawings below between 1894 and 1899. By that time, the United States had won the wars in the West and almost all of the Plains Indians had been forced to accept the reservation system.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are the scenes that Gokliz portrays in these three drawings? How do people seem to relate to each other in these scenes? What expressions does Gokliz convey through their faces and postures?
  2. How does Gokliz make use of colors and patterns in these works?
  3. What do the drawings tell you about Chiricahua Apache customs?

E. A. Burbank’s American Indian Portraits

In the 1890s, the painter Elbridge Ayer Burbank was commissioned by his uncle Edward E. Ayer to produce a series of portraits of prominent Indian chiefs. Ayer was a business magnate and dedicated collector of books, art, and manuscripts related to American Indian cultures. (Ayer eventually donated this collection to the Newberry Library and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.) Burbank spent two decades traveling throughout the American West, creating portraits of celebrated leaders and others from 125 bands. He wrote the letters to his uncle and created the portraits below during his time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the Crow Agency in the Little Bighorn valley in Montana.

Fort Sill had been established in 1869 and become one of the most important U.S. military forts during the Plains Wars. In 1894 Geronimo and over 300 other Chiricahua Apache prisoners of war were transferred to Fort Sill, where Burbank later met and painted them. Geronimo and his band of warriors were notorious for holding out against U.S. forces longer than any other group of Indians. In the early 1880s, they repeatedly escaped the Chiricahua reservation in eastern Arizona to raid settlements in the United States and Mexico. Geronimo surrendered for the last time in 1886. He spent the rest of his life as a prisoner of war, though he was permitted some travel and honors: in the late 1890s and early 1900s, he—along with other respected Indian leaders—participated in a curious chapter of post–Plains Wars history by performing in Wild West shows and World’s Fairs. He died at Fort Sill in 1909.

White Swan was one of six Crow scouts who fought alongside George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry during the 1876 campaign against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. He was severely wounded during the Battle of Little Bighorn. He later received a small pension from the U.S. Army and lived at the Crow Agency, the headquarters for U.S. agents who negotiated with the Crow at their nearby reservation.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine Burbank’s oil paintings of the young Kiowa woman, the celebrated Chiricahua Apache chief, Geronimo, and the Crow scout, White Swan. Describe the expressions on their faces. How does or doesn’t Burbank convey their feelings or personalities? What information does Burbank provide about Kiowa, Apache, or Crow clothing and customs? In what ways do these images match or defy audience expectations for these subjects—now or at the turn of the twentieth century?
  2. How would you compare these portraits to the Cheyenne and Kiowa ledger art or to Gokliz’s drawings? What differences do you notice in the artists’ choices of media? How are these works informed by American Indian and European artistic traditions? Do these works seem to reflect the same or different motivations on the part of the artists?
  3. What do Burbank’s letters reveal about his relationships with the subjects of his paintings? What seems to motivate his interest in painting American Indians?
  4. What do Burbank’s letters suggest about the market for art portraying American Indians? How does Burbank regard art created by Indians themselves, such as White Swan and Hawgone?

Chief Blue Horse Writes to E. A. Burbank

Blue Horse was chief of the Wagluhe band of Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. Like many of the Wagluhe, Blue Horse believed that negotiation and cooperation, rather than armed conflict, were the best way to protect the interests of his people. He was one of the first U.S. Army Indian Scouts, Indians who received salaries from the U.S. Army to provide intelligence, assist in combat, and serve as mediators in negotiations with other tribes. Blue Horse worked closely with his adopted brother Chief Red Cloud to secure Oglala Lakota lands in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie following the defeat of the U.S. Army Red Cloud’s War. In 1889 they worked unsuccessfully to block the partition of the Great Sioux Reservation. He was also one of the first Indian leaders to travel with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, joining in performances from 1887 into the twentieth century.

Chief Blue Horse befriended E. A. Burbank in 1898, when Burbank traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and created this portrait. This letter, which Blue Horse later wrote to Burbank, reveals some of Blue Horse’s personal history as well as his talent for shrewd negotiations with U.S. representatives.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does Chief Blue Horse appear in Burbank’s portrait? Compare this portrait to Burbank’s paintings of Geronimo and the Kiowa woman. What is the effect of shifting the focus from the subject’s face to his costume, in this case, a war bonnet?
  2. Blue Horse was known as a negotiator, rather than a warrior, and describes himself as having “a peaceful disposition.” Why do you think that Blue Horse chose to pose in a war bonnet for this portrait—or that Burbank chose to paint him in this dress?
  3. How does Blue Horse portray his history with white Americans? What sentiment does he try to convey when he refers to the U.S. president as the “Great Father”?
  4. Why does Blue Horse tell Burbank about his involvement in the last presidential election? What does he suggest about relations between the Wagluhe and U.S. politicians?
  5. What do you think are Blue Horse’s motives for writing to Burbank?

Selected Sources

Arms, Nicolas and Patricia Marroquin-Norby. “Picturing Indians: The Visual Culture of American Settlement. A proposal for a four-week NEH summer institute for college and university teachers at the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, The Newberry Library July 13 to August 7, 2015.” 2014.

Gercken, Becca. “Manifest Meanings: The Selling (Not Telling) of American Indian History and the Case of ‘The Black Horse Ledger.’” American Indian Quarterly 34, 4 (Fall 2010): 521–539.

Green, Rayna. “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture.” Massachusetts Review 16, 4 (Autumn 1975): 698–714.

Gwynne, S. C. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Page, Jean Jepson. “Frank Blackwell Mayer: Painter of the American Indian.” Minnesota History (Summer 1978): 66–74.

“Plains Wars.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 2014.

Weber, Eric W. Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Minnesota Historical Society.

Smithsonian, National Museum of American History. Keeping History: Plains Indians Ledger Drawings. 2009.

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