Art of Conflict: Portraying Native Americans, 1850–1900

In this enigmatic scene, a mounted warrior wearing a long feather headdress with horns and carrying a feathered shield and spear rides alongside a wounded warrior apparently falling from his horse. An additional shield and trade era Leman rifle are drawn in the top right corner, and hoofprints mark the path of the two riders. It is unclear whether the wounded man is a comrade being rescued or a victim. The note at top in German reads, “Wounded Indian falls from horse;” the bottom note reads, “Black snake, Cheyenne.” The drawing is from the Schild Ledger Book, comprising nearly 60 Plains Indian drawings by one or more artists. Based on a variety of clues, the drawings are thought to have been created sometime between 1875 and 1895. TARL Archives.

How did U.S. and Native American artists portray Indian peoples of the West in the late nineteenth century?

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 08.29.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


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.

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 CenturyArt and Exploration in the American West and Mexico, and Mapping the Displacement of American Indians in Mapping Chicago and the Midwest.

Frank Blackwell Mayer at Camp Traverse des Sioux

Camp and Graveyard, Traverse des Sioux: A drawing of the Minnesota trading post where tribal leaders signed a treaty opening 24 million acres of Dakota lands to American settlement. / Frank Blackwell Mayer. 1851

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.

Portrait of Kanghe-madokah, a Sisseton chief, on horseback, at Traverse des Sioux. / Frank Blackwell Mayer. From Sketchbook of Sioux Indians During the 1851 Treaty Negotiations at Traverse Des Sioux, July 6, 1851

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.)

“Winona (Nancy Eastman)”: Portrait of a young woman, also known as Nancy Eastman, the daughter of a U.S. soldier and a Dakota woman, at Traverse des Sioux. / Frank Blackwell Mayer. From Sketchbook of Sioux Indians During the 1851 Treaty Negotiations at Traverse Des Sioux, July 4, 1851

The first drawing above 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 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.

Cheyenne and Kiowa Ledger Drawings

“Soldiers Charging at Powder River”: A Cheyenne ledger drawing portrays U.S. soldiers in grey or blue uniforms, a few with red face paint and long hair, as though altered to appear Indian. Bullets fly from rifles at the front of the group. / Black Horse (Cheyenne). From Black Horse Ledger, Circa 1877

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.

Kiowa Indian Ledger Drawing: Battle with U.S. Soldiers: A Kiowa Indian warrior stands over a fallen U.S. Army soldier with two arrows in his side, a brigade of infantrymen in gray and blue army uniforms in the background. / Circa 1880

The first image above 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.

Kiowa Indian Ledger Drawing: Man, Woman, Tipi, River: A Kiowa ledger drawing of a scene of courtship or family life, with a man and a woman, both wearing colorful striped blankets, standing by a tipi, by the edge of a river. c.1880

The second and third images above 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.

Frederick Gokliz, Chiricahua Apache Artist

Two Apache Men on Horseback: Chiricahua Apache artist Frederick Gokliz portrays two men on horseback approaching each other. Each carries a long blanket and spear. / Frederick Gokliz. Circa 1894
Meeting, Apache Indians: Chiricahua Apache artist Frederick Gokliz portrays a group of people sitting at a circular table, regarding two figures in the center. / Frederick Gokliz. Circa 1894
Apache Woman on Horseback, Greeted by a Man: In this drawing by Chiricahua Apache artist Frederick Gokliz, a man greets a woman on horseback. / Frederick Gokliz. Circa 1894

Frederick Gokliz was a Chiricahua Apache artist from the San Carlos Indian Reservation in southeastern Arizona. He created the ink and watercolor drawings above 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.

E. A. Burbank’s American Indian Portraits

Portrait of Gi-aum-e Hon-o-me-tah (Young Woman): Portrait of a young Kiowa woman at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. E. A. Burbank traveled through the American West for two decades, painting individuals from more than 125 tribes. / E. A. Burbank. 1897
Portrait of Geronimo, the celebrated Chiricahua Apache warrior and leader. E. A. Burbank traveled through the American West for two decades, painting individuals from more than 125 tribes. / E. A. Burbank. 1897

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 these portraits during his time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the Crow Agency in the Little Bighorn valley in Montana.

Profile portrait of Geronimo, the celebrated Chiricahua Apache warrior and leader. E. A. Burbank traveled through the American West for two decades, painting individuals from more than 125 tribes. / E. A. Burbank. 1897
The painter Elbridge Ayer Burbank was commissioned by his uncle Edward E. Ayer to produce portraits of American Indians of the West. Here, Burbank discusses painting two Kiowa women as well as Geronimo and other Apache and Comanche chiefs. / E. A. Burbank. March 25, 1897

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, Crow: Portrait of a Crow warrior. The three feathers in his hair represent three wounds he received at the battle of Little Bighorn. The red rings painted on his arms represent the number of Sioux he has killed, and the yellow rings represent the number of Chey / E. A. Burbank. 1897
The painter Elbridge Ayer Burbank was commissioned by his uncle Edward E. Ayer to produce a series of portraits of American Indians of the West. In this letter, Burbank discusses painting the warrior White Swan and selling paintings by them both. / E. A. Burbank. August 21, 1897

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.

Chief Blue Horse Writes to E. A. Burbank

Portrait of Chief Blue Horse, Sioux: Portrait of a Lakota Indian chief by E. A. Burbank. Blue Horse wears a war bonnet with feathers and fur as well as face paint. / E. A. Burbank. 1899

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, a Lakota Indian, wrote this letter to the artist E. A. Burbank. / Blue Horse. 1900

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.

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.
  • Smithsonian, National Museum of American History. Keeping History: Plains Indians Ledger Drawings. 2009.
  • Weber, Eric W. Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Minnesota Historical Society.

By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum

By Dr. Patricia Marroquin Norby
D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies



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