George Catlin’s double portrait of the Assiniboine tribe leader Wi-jun-jon provides a cautionary tale of assimilation of the Indians into the white man’s culture. As the nation expanded west, thousands of natives became displaced. The image of a speculator trying to sell a couple land out west illustrates the financial incentives that attracted many to the west: greater opportunities and cheaper land. This influx of white settlers and the confrontation of the two conflicting cultures, compounded by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and events like the Trail of Tears, would slowly but surely push the Indian natives further and further west.
Activity: Observe and Interpret
Wi-jún-jon, also known as The Light, was an Assiniboine Indian who travelled to Washington, D.C. as a delegate in 1831. Delegates were appointed by their tribes to travel to the capital and appeal for favorable legislation, the protection of Native people and resources, and funding for issues specific to their communities. Artist George Catlin met The Light in St. Louis when the Native leader was on his trip back to his tribe’s home territory – modern day Montana and North Dakota.
What can we learn about the conflict between Indian and white cultures from this painting? How do Catlin’s background and beliefs color his approach to issues of his time? Observing details and analyzing components of the painting while placing them in historical context enables the viewer to interpret the artist’s overall message.
Observation: What do you see?
The serial composition – two scenes from an unfolding morality tale set side-by-side – show the ‘before and after’ of a pivotal event. It was an artistic technique, well-established in Europe by the time Catlin used it.
On the left side of the composition, The Light is attired in traditional Native clothing, made from materials which reflected his environment. Catlin has taken care to inventory the tasseled shirt, breach cloth, and leggings, probably made of tanned hide and adorned with beads in patterns and colors specific to his tribe. The Light also carries a large buffalo robe over his right shoulder, an item traditionally decorated with battle scenes or other important events that told stories of honor and bravery. Native artists rendered these scenes with pigments made from minerals and clays mixed with buffalo fat. The Light wears a war bonnet, or headdress, traditionally reserved for a leader to wear on special occasions. In his hand, The Light carries a long, slender pipe bowl and stem, likely brought to Washington, D.C. as a gift for President Andrew Jackson. Delegates customarily exchanged gifts with U.S. presidents and other government representatives.
In the right panel, The Light’s traditional clothing has been replaced by an American military uniform, complete with a red sash and epaulets on both shoulders. The exchange of status symbols like this military jacket was complex. The eagle feathers denoting bravery in his war bonnet are replaced with a decorative, fluffy plume on his top hat. The Light’s pipe bowl and stem have been traded, it seems, for the accoutrements of a Victorian gentleman: white gloves, an umbrella, and a fan. Rather than moccasins he wears heeled boots, perhaps contributing, along with the bottle of alcohol in his pocket, to his unsteady posture.
In the left panel we faintly see the U.S. Capitol building on the horizon, while in the right panel we see tipis (also spelled “teepees”) like those used by the Assiniboine people. Catlin sets the two portraits side-by-side, with one figure facing proudly forward and another turning his back to the viewer. The long, dark hair and beads adorning the sitter’s ears remain. Otherwise, the figure on both sides seems quite changed.
Interpretation: What does it mean?
During the early 1800s, the United States continued to expand westward into territories already populated by American Indians. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act, under which American Indians were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands: either being marched onto the lands of other tribes or onto reservations with lower economic value to the government.
While the Assiniboine were not directly affected by the Indian Removal Act, we must remember that this was the historical context in which Catlin created this painting. We are viewing an interpretation of history. We are seeing through the eyes of a white, Philadelphia-raised artist as he documents an ‘exotic Indian.’ Catlin, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Indian peoples would disappear in the face of inevitable progress. He traveled west and painted Plains Indians because he viewed his artworks as a way “to rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs.”
George Catlin admired the Native people he met as the embodiment of the Enlightenment ideal of “natural man,” living in harmony with nature. His artwork, then, primarily speaks to the beliefs of his time and his own, personal view of Plains Indians. Many people read the left panel as that pure Native, unencumbered by the vices and vanities of white American culture.
What is Catlin’s message? We can look back at Catlin’s choice of composition: the side-by-side, ‘before and after’ device. This is merely one part of The Light’s life story as told by one artist. Catlin expanded upon it in his published memoir of his travels, Notes and Letters. In his book, Catlin tells a tragic story of a disastrous homecoming. The Light returned to the northern Plains from Washington, D.C. after eighteen months. His tales of the bustling capital were met with complete disbelief. His community rejected his stories as “ingenious fabrication of novelty and wonder.” Catlin’s own account of the Light alleges that his persistence in telling such “lies” eventually led to his murder by incredulous tribesmen. Other accounts say that a fellow Indian decided to test the belief that the Light, considered a great medicine man, could not be killed, and subsequently shot him in the head.
Catlin believed that Indians’ corruption by exposure to whites would result in their eventual extinction; that their natural state had been adulterated. By looking at this painting and considering Catlin’s careful notes, the viewer is presented with a cautionary tale.
Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal
A convergence of several social, economic, and political factors helped urge the speed of westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Mass immigration from Europe had swelled the East Coast of the United States to record population numbers, pushing settlement westward. Expansion really boomed with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, driving both the population and economy to the west. As the boundaries of America grew, white settlers and proponents of expansion began to voice concerns over what they considered an obstacle to settlement and America’s economic and social development – the American Indian tribes living on lands east of the Mississippi River which bordered white settlement. The land was home to many tribal nations including the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole in the south and the Choctaw and Chickasaw in the west. That land held the promise of economic prosperity to raise cattle, wheat, and cotton, and harvest timber and minerals. Eager to take possession of the land, the settlers began to pressure the federal government to acquire the lands from the Indian tribes. To these white settlers, the Indian tribes were standing in the way of progress and of America’s Manifest Destiny.
The self-serving concept of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the expansion of the United States was divinely ordained, justifiable, and inevitable, was used to rationalize the removal of American Indians from their native homelands. In the minds of white Americans, the Indians were not using the land to its full potential as they reserved large tracts of unspoiled land for hunting, leaving the land uncultivated. If it was not being cultivated, then the land was being wasted. Americans declared that it was their duty, their Manifest Destiny, which compelled them to seize, settle, and cultivate the land. Not surprisingly, the most active supporters of Manifest Destiny and proponents of Indian removal were those who practiced land speculation. Land speculators bought large tracts of land with the expectation that the land would quickly increase in value as more people settled in the west and demand for that western land increased. As the western land was admitted into the Union, it would consequently increase in value.
The Origins of Indian Removal
Though it came to fruition under Andrew Jackson’s administration in the nineteenth-century, the idea of Indian removal has its origins rooted earlier in the eighteenth-century. A form of Indian removal was first proposed by one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Unlike African Americans, Jefferson believed that Indians were the equals of whites, “in body and mind.” Yet Jefferson found them culturally inferior due to their lifestyle and traditions. He believed that their semi-nomadic lifestyle, communal agricultural practices, and hunting traditions did not use the land efficiently. It was assumed that if the Indians adopted a European-style of agriculture and settled in European-style towns and villages only then would they progress from their natural “savage” state to “civilization.”
Jefferson’s beliefs on civilization were formed from the Enlightenment idea of environmentalism, which dictated that a human’s environment is shaped by their culture. But Jefferson’s intentions were not as socially motivated as they were economic – if Indians abandoned their hunting grounds that then freed up land for white settlement. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 provided a neat solution for Jefferson, one in which Indians would not have to choose between assimilation and extermination. The government could relocate Indians further westward, delaying the inevitable acculturation, while opening up the vacated lands to white settlement.
Later, President James Monroe expanded on Jefferson’s ideas and beliefs on Indian removal in an 1825 address to Congress. He abandoned the idea that the Indians could be assimilated into white culture, and he argued that, therefore, it would be to the benefit of the tribes to be removed from their lands for their well-being:
The removal of the tribes from the territory which they now inhabit . . . would not only shield them from impending ruin, but promote their welfare and happiness. Experience has clearly demonstrated that in their present state it is impossible to incorporate them in such masses, in any form whatever, into our system. It has also been demonstrated with equal certainty that without a timely anticipation of an provision against the dangers to which they are exposed, under causes which it will be difficult, if not impossible to control, their degradation and extermination will be inevitable.
While Indian removal as a policy was first envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, and structured by James Monroe, it was Andrew Jackson who fully realized removal, pushing the policy into law. Jackson had long been a supporter of removal. Prior to his presidency, he had commanded military forces in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida to quell Indian resistance to white expansion and settlement. He also negotiated several treaties in the 1810s and 1820s which divested southern Indian tribes of their eastern land in exchange for land in the west. Jackson offered his own justification for Indian removal in December 1829, claiming that the removal was necessary for the preservation of American Indians – essentially asserting that removal was a humanitarian act for the good of the Indian tribes.
[The Indians’] present condition with what they once were, makes a most powerful appeal to our sympathies. Our ancestors found them the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions. By persuasion and force, they have been made to retire from river to river, and from mountain to mountain; until some of the tribes have become extinct, and others have left but remnants, to preserve, for a while, their once terrible names. . . . This fate surely awaits them, if they remain within the limits of the States, does not admit of a doubt. Humanity and national honor demand that every effort should be made to avert so great a calamity.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830
As president, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law on May 28, 1830. It authorized him to reserve land west of the Mississippi River and exchange it for Native American land to the east of the Mississippi. Those Indians who did not wish to relocate would become citizens of their home state. After the Indian Removal Act had passed, Jackson continued to publically justify removal. In part of his State of the Union Address of December 6, 1830, Jackson went further, arguing that removal benefited both Indians and whites:
It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion? . . . How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions! If the offers made to the Indian were extended to them, they would be hailed with gratitude and joy.
The conditions and offers, as Jackson proposed them, were as follows: each tribe would receive a territory exceeding the size that they had relinquished to the U.S government. They would be moved to that new territory at the expense of the U.S., and provided supplies such as clothing, arms, and ammunition. They would continue to be provided these supplies for a period of one year after their arrival to their new homeland. Arrangements would be made for the support of schools and for the maintenance of the poor. As Jackson wrote, “Such are the arrangements for the physical comfort and for the moral improvement of the Indians.”
As the years went by and resistance and opposition to removal from certain nations, especially the Seminoles, became increasingly apparent, Jackson’s tone on Indian removal became less hospitable and less conciliatory. In 1835, he wrote “All preceding experiments for the improvement of the Indians have failed. It seems now to be an established fact that they can not live in contact with a civilized community and prosper.”
The Trail of Tears
However, removal was not met with gratitude or joy by the majority of American Indians forced to leave their homelands. American Indian participation in removal was meant to be voluntary, and the act required the U.S. government to negotiate fairly with the tribes, but this was not often the result. Many tribes were forcibly removed from their lands, in particular the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole. This series of forced migrations became known as the Trail of Tears.
Not all were in favor of removal. The most vocal and prominent among those opposed was Tennessee congressman and American frontiersman of lore Davy Crockett. In 1834 Crockett stated his opposition, that if the next president, Martin Van Buren, continued Jackson’s Indian policies, Crockett would move to “the wildes of Texas.”
I have almost given up the Ship as lost. I have gone So far as to declare that if he martin vanburen is elected that I will leave the united States for I never will live under his kingdom. before I will Submit to his Government I will go to the wildes of Texas. I will consider that government a Paridice [sic] to what this will be. In fact at this time our Republican Government has dwindled almost into insignificancy our [boasted] land of liberty have almost Bowed to the yoke of Bondage. Our happy days of Republican principles are near at an end when a few is to transfer the many.
In 1831 the Choctaw nation became the first tribe to be forcibly ousted from their lands in Mississippi. After a treaty was signed and agreed upon, approximately 17,000 Choctaw made the move, while 5,000 elected to stay. The Seminoles, located in modern-day Florida, put up a military resistance to removal but after two wars, they were removed in 1832. The Creek removal followed in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and finally the Cherokee in 1838.
In almost every case, the Indians were not provided with the adequate supplies they were promised, and as a result many perished on the forced migration due to disease and starvation. Of the 15,000 Creek who marched to their new home in Oklahoma, only 3,500 survived the journey. Similarly, of the 16,000 Cherokee who were forced to move from several south-eastern states to present-day Oklahoma, 4,000 died due to disease, starvation, and adverse weather conditions. In all, tens of thousands of American Indians, some estimates are close to 100,000, lost their lives and their homelands in the series of forced migrations which lasted through the 1840s.
George Catlin and the American Indians
When George Catlin (1796–1872), a young lawyer and struggling portrait painter, observed an American Indian delegation passing through Philadelphia in 1824, he became inspired to embark on a new career. Admiring the Indians’ grace and dignity – “arrayed and equipped in all their classical beauty”– and believing that their way of life was fast disappearing, he determined that “nothing short of loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian.” He had resolved to paint as many Native Americans as possible in their unadulterated, natural state.
Just as Catlin resolved to travel West, the United States Congress had passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which required Indians in the Southeast to resettle west of the Mississippi River. This vast forced migration – as well as smallpox epidemics and continuing incursions from trappers, miners, explorers, and settlers – created pressures on Indian cultures to adapt or perish.
In 1832 Catlin set out to fulfill his mission. Armed with rolls of canvas, an easel, and a case of fish bladders filled with oil paints, Catlin spent the next six years journeying thousands of miles and painting hundreds of portraits and scenes of Indian life. He began his journey up the Missouri River, deep into Indian territory, to what is now the western boundary of North Dakota. Landscape scenes Catlin completed on this journey became the first comprehensive pictorial record of the country west of the Mississippi River. Catlin painted the landscapes directly, whether from the deck of a steamboat or from the high bluffs on the shore. When Catlin arrived in St. Louis, Missouri he met General William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, who had been made Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the western tribes. Clark was impressed by his portfolio of Iroquois paintings and agreed to help him visit various Native settlements in the West.
In addition to his paintings, Catlin also recorded his adventures in a series of letters and notes, which were later published as a compilation in 1842. He described native lifestyles based on the communal use of lands, undivided and without boundaries, settlement or cultivation. While he expressed hope that the government would not be a party to taking their lands from them, Catlin realized that westward migration of Euro-Americans was inevitable. Witnessing firsthand the devastation of many tribes, Catlin came to regard the frontier as a region of corruption. He portrayed the nobility of these still-sovereign peoples, but he was aware that he painted in their twilight.
Catlin’s portraits and scenes of everyday life present one of the last views of American Indians living in a land unaffected by white-American influence. His intention in documenting forty-eight tribes was, in his words, “to rescue from oblivion so much of their primitive looks and customs as the industry and ardent enthusiasm of one life-time could accomplish.” He was determined to document native cultures before they were irrevocably changed or eliminated.
His works would be, in his words, a “production of a literal and graphic delineation of the living manners, customs, and character of an interesting race of people, who are rapidly passing away from the face of the earth . . . thus snatching from a hasty oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity and perpetuating it, as a fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race.” Native Indian reaction to his portrait painting was mixed. Many deeply spiritual tribes were against Catlin’s portrait painting, believing that his ability to capture a man’s likeness so exactly might enable him to capture the spirit of the man for eternity. Many, though, acquiesced to Catlin’s request for sittings and Catlin managed to produce hundreds of portraits of natives during his travels.
Catlin knew that his paintings would serve to preserve what nineteenth-century Americans called the “vanishing Indian” and the “noble savage” – phrases which were coined to encapsulate what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo calls “imperialist nostalgia,” a yearning for that which one has directly or indirectly participated in destroying, a preservation of “looks and modes” in the face of the “unfortunate but necessary” destruction of a people. One of Catlin’s contemporaries, politician Lewis Cass, clarified the idea of the “vanishing Indian” to Catlin himself, remarking that in the paintings, “I recognize many of my old acquaintances, and everywhere I am struck with vivid representations of them and their customs, of their peculiar features, and of their costumes. Unfortunately, they are receding before the advancing tide or our population, and are probably destined, at no distant day, to disappear; but your collection will preserve them, as far as any human art can do, and will form the most perfect monument of an extinguished race that the works has seen.”
Cass, like many white Americans at the time, believed that the Indians were “a barbarous people, depending for subsistence upon the scanty and precarious supply furnished by the chase, cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”
Catlin sympathized with the plight of Native Americans, and harshly criticized government policies that had resulted in their degradation if not demise, yet he also ultimately accepted the proposition that they were “doomed and must perish.” Catlin conveys an image of the indigenous peoples devoid of evidence of contact with European civilization, declaring, “it is for these uncontaminated people that I would be willing to devote the energies of my life.” In 1832 he clarified his reasons for wanting to paint Native American life:
I have, for many years past, contemplated the noble races of red men who are now spread over these trackless forests and boundless prairies, melting away at the approach of civilization. Their rights invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed, and therefore lost to the world; and they at last sunk into the earth, and the ploughshare turning the sod over in their graves, and I have flown to their rescue – not of their lives or of their race (for they are “doomed” and must perish), but to the rescue of their looks and their modes, at which the acquisitive world may hurl their poison and every besom of destruction, and trample them down and crush them to death; yet, phoenix-like, they may rise from the “stain on a painter’s palette,” and live again upon canvass [sic], and stand forth for centuries yet to come, the living monuments of a noble race.
After his journeys were completed in 1837, Catlin turned showman, touring the East Coast and Europe with his collection of paintings, costumes, weapons, and Native American Indian artifacts. He called it the “Indian Gallery.” Hoping that Congress would eventually purchase his collection for the nation, Catlin borrowed heavily to finance his travels and the publication of his writings. He attempted to use patriotism to sell his work, arguing that his work was a national treasure.
As enthusiasm for Catlin’s Indian Gallery waned, it became more difficult for Catlin to make ends meet and his business strategies became questionable. Consequently the Indian Gallery, a once admired ethnological wonder, devolved into a sideshow. Catlin courted audiences by presenting real Indians enacting war dances for entertainment. In effect, Catlin had created the first Wild West show, with all its compromising sensationalism and exploitation. By the 1850s Catlin’s debts overwhelmed him. Joseph Harrison, a wealthy Philadelphian industrialist, paid the artist’s creditors in 1852 and took possession of Catlin’s collection. In his old age, the artist was invited by his friend Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, to live and work in the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle building. Following Catlin’s death, nearly 500 paintings from the Indian Gallery were donated by Harrison’s widow to the Smithsonian in 1879 and are now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
His hundreds of portraits of Indians, scenes of Indian life, and landscapes of the early wilderness are appreciated for both their historical and anthropological significance and their aesthetic value. Catlin was the first American artist to paint Indians in their own country and in their native costume. He was the first to paint portraits of their principal citizens and personalities. In all, Catlin painted forty-nine different Indian nations and tribes. In many cases he was the only one to portray them because soon after their encounters with Catlin, they became extinct. As westward expansion pushed them closer to the boundaries of white settlement, exposure to unfamiliar diseases like smallpox and yellow fever decimated the tribes. Today, Catlin’s Indian Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is recognized as a great cultural resource, offering rare insight into native cultures and a crucial chapter in American history.
Primary Source Connections
Letter from Lewis Cass to George Catlin Regarding Portraits of Indians, 1832
Read the document at the National Archives
“Letters received and sent by Secretary of War Lewis Cass in the 1830s reveal much about relations between the U.S. government and Native Americans. In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Removal Act, signed into law on May 28, 1830, by President Andrew Jackson, some letters came from interpreters and school teachers seeking payment for their work; others dealt with trade issues; some addressed the exchange of ceremonial gifts; and still others came from individuals requesting government assistance with a variety of matters involving Native Americans and access to the West. In January 1832, Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872) sent such a letter to Secretary of War Cass. Writing from St. Louis, Missouri, Catlin told Cass of his plans to travel through “Indian Country” for the purpose of painting portraits of Indians and requested a letter of support that he could give to the various government officials, known as Indian agents, whom he would meet along his proposed journey.”
Connect it with the Artwork: “Teaching with Documents: Letter to, and Paintings by, George Catlin.”
President Andrew Jackson’s Message to Congress ‘On Indian Removal,’ 1830
Read the document at National Archives and Records Administration
“With the onset of westward expansion and increased contact with Indian tribes, President Jackson set the tone for his position on Indian affairs in his message to Congress on December 6, 1830. Jackson’s message justified the removal policy already established by the Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830. The Indian Removal Act was passed to open up for settlement those lands still held by Indians in states east of the Mississippi River, primarily Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and others. Jackson declared that removal would “incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier.” Clearing Alabama and Mississippi of their Indian populations, he said, would “enable those states to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power.”
Davy Crockett on the removal of Cherokee Indians, 1834
Read a transcript at the Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History
View the document
American frontiersman, and later Tennessee congressman, Davy Crockett was vehemently opposed to Andrew Jackson’s policy of the forcible removal of Indian tribes from their native lands. In this 1834 letter, Crockett states his opposition to removal and his hope that the next president, Martin Van Buren, would not continue Jackson’s policies, threating to move to “the wildes of Texas” if Van Buren continued Indian removal. “I have almost given up the Ship as lost. I have gone So far as to declare that if he martin vanburen is elected that I will leave the united States for I never will live under his kingdom. before I will Submit to his Government I will go to the wildes of Texas. I will consider that government a Paridice [sic] to what this will be. In fact at this time our Republican Government has dwindled almost into insignificancy our [boasted] land of liberty have almost Bowed to the yoke of Bondage. Our happy days of Republican principles are near at an end when a few is to transfer the many.”
Indian delegations posing with President Johnson on the steps of the White House, 1867
Learn more here.
In 1872, the Office of Indian Affairs contracted Gardner to photograph the American Indian delegates to Washington, D.C. The represented tribes are Yankton, Santee, Upper Missouri Sioux, Sac and Fox, Ojibwe, Ottawa, Kickapoo, and Miami. Middle balcony includes Commissioner Lewis Bogy (second from left), President Andrew Johnson (third from left), and Secretary of the Interior Orville H. Browning (fourth from left).
“I Will Go West” sheet music, 1875
Read it at the Library of Congress
“I Will Go West” was written in 1875 and tells the story of a family considering moving West. What reasons does the song give for moving West? What does this person expect the West to be like? Based on your knowledge of conditions in the West, how might this person and his family be surprised if they decided to move West?
Letters and Notes on the Customs and Manners of the North American Indians, 1842, George Catlin
Find it in a Library
George Catlin journeyed west five times in the 1830s to paint the Plains Indians and their way of life. Convinced that westward expansion spelled certain disaster for native peoples, he viewed his Indian Gallery as a way “to rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs.” His resulting two-volume travel narrative, published in 1842, was written over a period of eight years from 1832 to 1839. Letters also contains many illustration Catlin made while on his journey.
Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light), a Distinguished Young Warrior, 1831, George Catlin
George Catlin first met Wi-jún-jon (also called the Light) in St. Louis in December 1831, when the Assiniboine warrior was en route to Washington to meet President Andrew Jackson and tour the city. Catlin recalled that the warrior appeared for his portrait sitting “plumed and tinted . . . [and] dressed in his native costume, which was classic and exceedingly beautiful”—attributes nicely captured in this finished portrait. Wi-jún-jon returned home to the northern Plains eighteen months later a decidedly different man—dressed apparently in a “general’s” uniform and sharing what to his fellow tribesmen were astonishing accounts of the white man’s cities. They eventually rejected his stories as “ingenious fabrication of novelty and wonder,” and his persistence in telling such “lies” eventually led to his murder.
Há-tchoo-túc-knee, Snapping Turtle, a Half-breed, 1834, George Catlin
Like the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole, the Choctaw had interacted and intermarried with whites for centuries. These “Civilized Tribes” were farmers, plantation owners, and educated professionals. Snapping Turtle, also known as Peter Pitchlynn, was a graduate of the University of Nashville and George Catlin’s source for “much curious and valuable information, of the history and traditions of his tribe.” Catlin painted his portrait at Fort Gibson, Arkansas Territory, in 1834.
Sioux Dog Feast, 1832-1837, George Catlin
This image depicts an interaction between white men and Sioux Indians, and they participate in a ceremony of friendship at which a meal of dog was the center of the festivities. Catlin explained the significance of this meal in his journal: “This feast was unquestioningly given to us as the most undoubted evidence they could give of their friendship. Knowing the spirit in which it was given, we could not but treat it respectfully, and receive it as anything but a high and marked compliment. The dog feast is truly a religious ceremony. The Indian sees fit to sacrifice his faithful companion to bear testimony to the sacredness of his vows of friendship.”
State Names, 2000, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith
Jaune Quick-To-See Smith has painted several maps of the United States to show how the land already occupied by ancient native communities was colonized by European settlers. Here, she included names of states that derive from Native American words, such as Wyoming, from a Delaware Indian word that means “mountains and valleys alternating,” and Kansas, from a Sioux word meaning “people of the south wind.” Smith is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation in Montana and works to raise recognition of Native American art and peoples.State Names expresses her anger that the country’s lands were divided without regard for existing tribal territories.
Westward Expansion: Crash Course US History – PBS (13 min) TV-G
When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner – the self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie, or the half-addled prospector in search of gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations.
Additional Smithsonian Resources
Exploring all 19 Smithsonian museums is a great way to enhance your curriculum, no matter what your discipline may be. In this section, you’ll find resources that we have put together from a variety of Smithsonian museums to enhance your students’ learning experience, broaden their skill set, and not only meet education standards, but exceed them.
George Catlin and His Indian Gallery – Smithsonian American Art Museum
This exhibition showcases artworks from one of the most important collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and includes Native American artifacts collected by the artist that have not been shown with the paintings in more than a century.
Classroom Activity: George Catlin and His Indian Gallery (PDF) – Smithsonian American Art Museum
What can George Catlin’s artworks and other primary sources reveal about the natives of the Great Plains and their interaction with nineteenth-century white culture?
“Approaching Research: The Speculator” (PDF) – Smithsonian American Art Museum
Process notes for students on how researchers investigated a question about an artwork, step-by-step.
Envisioning Manifest Destiny (PDF) – Smithsonian American Art Museum
What did Manifest Destiny mean to the United States? How did Native Americans and African-Americans fit into Westward Expansion?
The Price of Freedom: Eastern Indian Wars – Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Coveting what remained of the Indian lands in the Southeast and lower South, the United States forced tribes to cede their “rights of occupancy” and give up their ancestral homelands. After a series of bitterly fought wars, treaties and forced settlements divested Indians of millions of acres of land. Thousands of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were forced to move west of the Mississippi. This online exhibition provides historical essays paired with primary resources.
A Life in Beads: The Stories a Plains Dress Can Tell (PDF) – Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Tracking the Buffalo – Smithsonian National Museum of American History
This activity explores the role of the buffalo in the lives of the American Indians of the northern Plains. For centuries, the American bison–commonly called the buffalo–has been revered by various Native American peoples. The buffalo still plays a central role in many American Indian cultures. Stories passed from generation to generation–by spoken word and by pictures painted on animal hides–record the history of American Indians and the buffalo.
Trail of Tears: Music of the American Indian Diaspora – Smithsonian Folkways
The segments of this unit offer an investigation of the impact of circumstance on the music of a people through examination of several musical selections from the Five Nations heritage (Choctaw and Cherokee in particular) during and following the Trail of Tears of 1831 and 1838 respectively.
acculturation: the cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture.
American Indian delegation: a group of representatives from a particular Indian nation. During the nineteenth-century, it was common practice for these delegations to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with the president and political leaders to lobby and discuss treaties. Delegates were treated as foreign dignitaries, and provided with gifts, given tours of the city, and were generally exposed to white culture.
assimilation: the process of adopting or adapting to a different culture, group, or nation.
Davy Crockett: (1786-1836) American frontiersman, folk hero, politician, and soldier. He represented Tennessee for three terms as a U.S. congressman. As a soldier, he fought in the War of 1812 and died at the Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. His reputation as a frontiersman elevated him to folk legend status during his political career. He is one of the most celebrated and mythologized figures in American history.
Enlightenment: an eighteenth-century philosophical movement that stressed the belief that science and logic gave people more knowledge and understanding than tradition and religion.
environmentalism: the theory that views environment, not heredity, as the most important factor in the cultural and intellectual development of an individual or group. Part of the Enlightenment teaching, endorsed by lead eighteenth-century philosopher John Locke.
Indian Removal Act: (1830) passed by Congress during President Andrew Jackson’s administration, the law authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River to American Indians in exchange for their ancestral homelands, which were within the existing borders of the United States.
James Monroe: (1758-1831) 5th President of the United States. He oversaw major westward expansion of the continental U.S., and strengthened America’s foreign policy with the eponymous Monroe Doctrine (1823), which warned that any attempt by European powers to colonize the Western Hemisphere, or interfere with their politics, would been viewed as a hostile act against the United States.
land speculation: the risky nineteenth-century investment practice or strategy of buying cheaply large quantities of land, guessing when the prices of the land would rise enough to make a profit, and then selling that land. During the peak time of U.S. westward expansion, large amounts of public land was opened for private speculation.
Lewis and Clark Expedition: the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the continental United States. The journey started in May 1804 in St. Louis, Missouri and ended in September 1806 at the Pacific Ocean in present-day Oregon. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the expedition was led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose goal was to map the territory and find a practical route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition is also known officially as the Corps of Discovery Expedition.
Lewis Cass: (1782-1866) American military officer, politician, and diplomat. He was the longtime governor of the Michigan territory, Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State under President James Buchanan. Cass was a supporter of Indian removal.
Louisiana Purchase: (1803) purchased from France during President Thomas Jefferson’s administration, the region of the United States encompassing land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
Manifest Destiny: the nineteenth-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.
Martin Van Buren: (1782-1862) 8th President of the United States. He served as Vice President to Andrew Jackson, who he succeeded in the presidency, and for a time was Secretary of State under Jackson. Van Buren was the first president born a U.S. citizen.
Thomas Jefferson: (1743-1826) 3rd President of the United States, Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and American lawyer. Jefferson oversaw the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France and arranged for the exploration of that territory by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Trail of Tears: a series of forced relocations of several Indian nations by the U.S. government in the 1830s and 1840s, following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The tribes forcibly removed during this time were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole. The phrase “Trail of Tears” originated from an 1838 description of the Choctaw nation removal, in which one Choctaw chief told a newspaper that the forced migration was a “trail of tears and death.”
William Clark: (1770-1838) American explorer and soldier. He best known as one-half of the exploring team of Lewis and Clark. Following the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark were charged by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to explore the newly acquired territory west of the Mississippi River. For the next two years the expedition explored and mapped the western territory, studying plant and animal life, and establishing trade with Indian tribes.
U.S. History Content Standards Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
- Standard 1B – The student understands federal and state Indian policy and the strategies for survival forged by Native Americans.
- 7-12 – Compare the policies toward Native Americans pursued by presidential administrations through the Jacksonian era.
- 9-12 – Compare federal and state Indian policy and explain Whig opposition to the removal of Native Americans.
- 5-12 – Analyze the impact of removal and resettlement on the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole.
- 5-12 – Investigate the impact of trans-Mississippi expansion on Native Americans.
- 7-12 – Explain and evaluate the various strategies of Native Americans such as accommodation, revitalization, and resistance.
- Standard 1C – The student understands the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the nation’s expansion to the Northwest, and the Mexican-American War.
- 9-12 – Analyze United States trading interests in the Far East and explain how they influenced continental expansion to the Pacific.
- 5-12 – Explain the causes of the Texas War for Independence and the Mexican-American War and evaluate the provisions and consequences of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
- Standard 2A – The student understands how the factory system and the transportation and market revolutions shaped regional patterns of economic development.
- 5-12 – Explain how the major technological developments that revolutionized land and water transportation arose and analyze how they transformed the economy, created international markets, and affected the environment.
- 9-12 – Explain how economic policies related to expansion, including northern dominance of locomotive transportation, served different regional interests and contributed to growing political and sectional differences.
- Standard 2E – The student understands the settlement of the West.
- 5-12 – Explore the lure of the West and the reality of life on the frontier.
- 7-12 – Analyze cultural interactions among diverse groups in the trans-Mississippi region