This article was originally published in our July/August 2021 issue.

Anyone who has studied the indigenous people of Missouri has likely seen the lithographic portraits of American Indians originally published in the 1830s and 1840s in Thomas McKenney and James Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America.

The book reproduced copies of 117 Native American portraits, most of which were painted by Charles Bird King in Washington, DC, between 1821 and 1837. King’s paintings were made when these individuals visited the nation’s capital on diplomatic missions, and the few portraits based on paintings by other artists were made under similar circumstances.

Usually when we see McKenney and Hall portraits in today’s history books, we unconsciously accept the fiction that they are unbiased representations of historical reality rather than cultural artifacts. But each of these images records an encounter between a native person and a Euro-American artist in a political setting. These portraits were then copied and repackaged into a deluxe parlor-table book marketed to middle and upper-class European Americans. What cultural messages are hidden between the lines?

Between 1816 and 1822, Thomas McKenney served as the US Superintendent of Indian Trade, and in 1824 he became the nation’s first Superintendent of Indian Affairs. One of his primary duties was to gain more land for White settlers by negotiating treaties with indigenous people. Although McKenney was initially an advocate for some Native American territorial rights, political pressure to seize land was so intense that he eventually saw relocation as the only chance native populations had for survival.

One year after President Andrew Jackson took office in 1829, McKenney left his government post, finding himself at odds with the new administration’s ruthless and violent removal policies. Having spent over a decade interacting with native people, McKenney decided to compile the records and historical accounts he had collected into a book. He employed western writer James Hall to synthesize the material and refine its prose and hired the painter Henry Inman to copy King’s portraits. These copies became the models for over one hundred hand-colored lithographic illustrations produced by the firms of J. T. Bowen and Lehman and Duval for the History of the Indian Tribes of North America, which at that time was arguably the most elaborate illustrated book ever produced and published in the United States.

A volume of McKenney and Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America from the University of Missouri Library’s rare book room opened to the portrait of the Ioway chief Ma-Has-Kah (White Cloud). This hand-colored lithograph illustrates volume one of the book, published in 1837 and 1838.

I visited the rare book room of the University of Missouri’s Special Collections on the top floor of Ellis Library in Columbia to examine a first edition copy of this extraordinary publication. Wearing gloves, I turned the pages of the rare book. The page-sized portraits were powerful, often crossing the barriers of time and space. Many of the indigenous people seemed to look out at me and make psychological contact. The dignified portraits presented relatively positive visions of Native Americans from a time of rampant prejudice, but the disparate collection of portraits isn’t a ‘history’ as we understand the word today of America’s many “Indian tribes.” Only a few people from the many different indigenous nations are represented, and the historical accounts are often anecdotal.

Joan Stack turns the pages of a first edition copy of McKenney and Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America to reveal a hand-colored lithographic portrait of the famous Sac Chief, Black Hawk.

McKenney and Hall’s prose is interesting and generally respectful, but the authors minimize the trauma and violence native people experienced in the era of Euro-American colonization. In addition, the lithographs show the figures against uniformly white backgrounds, even though the backgrounds of King’s original portraits varied. The consistent style and size of the illustrations reinforces the illusion that America’s indigenous people existed as a unified, generally homogenous culture, rather than as diverse nations with different languages, religious beliefs, and worldviews.

The false illusion of homogeneity among indigenous people is allayed somewhat by the sitters themselves. The Native Americans pictured played a role in fashioning their own visual identities by selecting the garments, body paint, and accessories that would appear in the portraits. Each individual likely wore clothing deemed appropriate for interactions with White representatives of the US government. Sometimes these outfits emphasized the wearers’ pride in their native cultures, and sometimes they reflected their willingness to adopt western ways.

self portrait of the painter Charles Bird King made ca. 1815. King painted many of the original portraits of Native Americans that were copied and made into the hand-colored lithographs that illustrate McKenney and Hall’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America.

Indeed, the dress of native people in the early nineteenth century was in a state of flux. In this period, Native Americans often adopted and creatively adapted Euro-American clothing, jewelry, and raw materials acquired in trade. Some McKenney and Hall portraits show native people wearing trade shirts, dresses, and silver. We also see beautiful items crafted from trade yarn, cloth, and beads. The most culturally and politically significant of these trade items are the Presidential Peace Medals that appear in many of the portraits. These government-issued medallions decorated with profile portraits of US presidents were given to leaders and dignitaries within the tribes. The wearing of the medallions usually testifies to the sitter’s willingness to parley with US government officials, and frequently reflected some level of cooperation. Although the medals were ostensibly tokens of peace, their receipt often foreshadowed the acceptance of treaties that removed native people from their homelands.

Five Native People with Missouri Connections Pictured in McKenney and Hall’s Book

Le Soldat du Chêne, An Osage Chief

Le Soldat Du Chene

Le Soldat du Chêne (Mo’on-Sho’n A-ki-da Tonkah) was born ca. 1773. Translated from the French, his name would be “Soldier of the Oak,” but most English speakers referred to him as “Big Soldier.” He was an important chief among the Little Osage (Wazhazhe) who lived on the central prairies of Missouri.
Big Soldier was involved in negotiations with the federal government that led to the cession of Osage lands in Missouri. Nevertheless, he remained an advocate of indigenous rights.

In an 1822 government report, he is quoted saying, “You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves … and you are slaves yourselves. I fear if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I too should become a slave … I was born free, was raised free, and wish to die free.”

Big Soldier’s McKenney and Hall portrait is not based on a Charles Bird King painting but instead was copied from a watercolor created by the Frenchman Charles-Balthazar-Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin in 1804 or 1805. At that time, Big Soldier was in Philadelphia, having joined a delegation of Osage and Pawnee to visit Washington, DC, and nearby cities. The portrait was made when the neoclassical style was popular in Europe and America. The use of the profile view was associated with the antique coin portraits of ancient Greek and Roman leaders. As such, profile portraits tended to imbue the sitters with a classicized noble quality.

Big Soldier wears a fur-collared buffalo hide robe, and his head is shaven in the traditional Osage fashion that preserved only a central hair lock. The roach headdress attached to his hair lock creates the illusion of human hair standing on end. In this case, the roach is likely made from the dyed tail fur of a white-tailed deer and the guard hairs of a porcupine.

Ma-Has-Kah, or White Cloud, An Ioway Chief


Born around 1784, Ma-Has-Kah was an important leader of the Ioway nation. Known as “White Cloud,” the English translation of his name, he lived in the Des Moines Valley, near the Missouri border. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Ioway claimed sovereignty over parts of northwestern Missouri, and as a young man, White Cloud was imprisoned in St. Louis by federal officials for his involvement in the death of two Euro-American traders in 1808. He escaped and returned to his nation, where he gained power and respect as a warrior and leader. In the 1820s and 1830s, he was involved in negotiations with Euro-Americans regarding tribal warfare and territory claimed by the United States. Having fought many battles with the Sioux and Osage, he saw the United States as an ally that could help protect his people. In 1824 he traveled to Washington, DC, where he signed a treaty that gave the United States sovereignty over the Ioway’s home territory in exchange for ten years of monetary payments. This willingness to cooperate with the US government eventually led White Cloud to surrender eight fellow Ioway accused of murdering six Omaha people into the hands of federal authorities. One of the accused murderers escaped and, with the help of others, assassinated White Cloud in 1834.

In the McKenney and Hall portrait, White Cloud wears a bear-claw necklace similar to that worn in the Prairie Wolf portrait. The necklace, together with White Cloud’s face paint and gun stock war club advertise his prowess as a leader and warrior, while his Presidential Peace Medal reflects his diplomatic interests. White Cloud also wears a traditional hide blanket and two feathers. The white feather may be from an American bald eagle or another large bird native to the United States; the peacock feather, on the other hand, is likely a Euro-American trade object.

Chon-Mon-I-Case, An Otto Half Chief


Chon-Mon-I-Case (also spelled Shaumonekusse) belonged to the Otoe nation, a people whose homeland extended into the northwest part of Missouri. Born circa 1785, he lived at a time when the Otoe were becoming the Otoe-Missouria. The Missouria people, who gave our state its name, were decimated by war and disease in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Otoe welcomed some members into their tribe, where they lived and intermarried.

In English Chon-Mon-I-Case’s name is usually translated as “Prairie Wolf.” Today’s readers may not know that in the nineteenth century “prairie wolf” was the common name given to the animal most of us know today as the coyote.

According to McKenney and Hall’s biographical essay, Prairie Wolf was a great warrior who rose to the rank of half chief through merit rather than heredity. In 1821—the year Missouri became a state—he traveled with a delegation of seventeen indigenous people from the Plains region to Washington, DC, and had his portrait painted by Charles Bird King in 1822. His delegation met with President James Monroe and other federal officials to discuss the sovereignty of their nations and potential alliances with the federal government. Though the delegation left on peaceful terms, the United States would eventually forcibly remove the Otoe-Missouria to the Big Blue Reservation in Nebraska in 1855 and to Red Rock, Oklahoma, in 1881, where they currently reside.

Prairie Wolf wears a spectacular crown-like headdress surmounted by a mass of red-dyed animal hair and two shaved buffalo horns. When meeting with European Americans, native people often displayed their status and cultural pride by wearing beautiful clothing crafted by their people. Prairie Wolf also wears multiple necklaces made from trade beads, as well as an Otoe-crafted bear-claw necklace made from the claws of the plains grizzly bear that was once native to Nebraska, Kansas, southwest Iowa, and western Missouri. The wearing of the necklace announces Prairie Wolf’s tribal status and bravery, while his trade-silver armband and Presidential Peace Medal reflect his contacts with White settlers and his willingness to engage in diplomatic relations with the United States.

Mo-Hon-Go, an Osage Woman


Mo-Hon-Go, or Sacred Sun, was born early in the nineteenth century and was a member of the Osage (Wazhazhe) nation that originally occupied parts of Missouri and its adjacent states. She was among a party of Osage recruited in 1827 by the Frenchman David Delaunay to accompany him to France, where they were welcomed by high society and exhibited to royalty. When the French lost interest and Delaunay ran out of money, the Osage party was left without any means of support. Fortunately, the French Marquis de Lafayette heard about their plight and paid for their return to the United States in 1829. Charles Bird King made a portrait of Sacred Sun when she stopped in Washington, DC, on her way back to Missouri.

In the portrait, Sacred Sun wears a Western-style dress with jewelry made from trade silver and trade beads. The dress reflects her recent interactions with Europeans and Americans and may also be a concession to their expectations of decorum. Charles Bird King chose to represent her holding her infant in a pose reminiscent of traditional Christian images of the Madonna and Child. The baby clutches the Peace Medal that Sacred Sun wears around her neck, and this imagery promotes the spurious notion that peaceful and positive relations between the US government and the Osage would continue into future generations.

Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, A Saukie Brave


Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, known as Black Hawk, was born in 1767. He was a member of the Sac tribe (also called Sauk and Saukie) that occupied parts of Illinois and the Great Lakes region in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The 1804 Treaty of St. Louis ceded land claimed by the Sac and Fox nations in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri to the United States. In 1815, another treaty identified the “Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri” as a distinct tribe recognized by the United States and also established their nation in the northeast corner of the modern state of Missouri.

Black Hawk was unhappy with these treaties and became a champion of his people’s right to their native lands. In 1832, he led his followers in the Black Hawk War to reclaim their homeland. When the war was lost, Black Hawk was captured and imprisoned at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis for seven months. Afterward, the US government sought to convince him of the futility of future aggression by taking him, as a captive, on a tour of the great cities of the eastern United States. This tour made Black Hawk a popular celebrity.

The McKenney and Hall portrait represents Black Hawk in 1837, after his capture. He wears a combination of western and native clothing: a roach headdress of porcupine guard hair and dyed deer-tail fur, a western-style trade shirt, a blanket cloak, and trade-bead jewelry. His wearing of the traditional Sac headdress reflects his commitment to his people, while the Presidential Peace Medal around his neck is evidence of his reluctant submission to US authorities.

Photos // Joan Stack, Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island, The State Historical Society of Missouri Art Collection