The 1857-8 Delegation Portraits: Native American Photographs by Vannerson and Cohner

20 July – 15 November 2015

Archive case display (First Floor)

He-kha’-ka Ma-ni (Walking Elk), a Yankton, Nakota delegate from South Dakota. (1998.128.4)Taken when tribal delegations came to sign treaties in Washington DC, in the winter of 1857-8, these are among the earliest photographic portraits of Native American people. The portraits displayed here are of delegates from Yankton Nakota, Sisseton, Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Dakota Sioux, Pawnee, Potawatomi, and Sauk and Fox tribes. Most of the treaties they signed ceded territory to the US Government (see map above). The Yankton Treaty for instance, signed in April 1858 between the United States government and the Yankton Sioux (Nakota), ceded most of eastern South Dakota to the United States government, and created a 400,000-acre reservation for native people.

The photographers were Julian Vannerson (1827-1875) and Samuel Cohner (1826-1869) of the James E. McClees Studio, which opened in late 1857. They are known to have taken around 60 portraits of visiting Indian delegates, which were then published by the McClees Studio as an ‘Indian Gallery’, either as a bound volume or individual prints. When the McClees Studio closed around 1860 the photographic stock was acquired by another photographer, Robert W. Addis. Soon afterwards the British businessman and collector William Blackmore purchased the negatives from Addis, during his first visit to the USA in 1863.

Tshe-tan’ Wa-ku’wa Ma’ni (Little Crow) a Mdewakanton Dakota Sioux delegate from Minnesota. (1998.128.13)In 1865 Blackmore issued, under the auspices of his private museum in Salisbury, Wiltshire, a set of 30 prints from these negatives with a printed listing (right) giving the names and tribal affiliations of the sitters. The prints exhibited here are from one of these sets, sent by Blackmore to the Oxford anthropologist Edward Tylor, whose name is signed at the top of the listing, along with the inscription ‘a present from Mr Wm Blackmore’.

At the time they were taken, these photographs were seen (and marketed) as a valuable record of an indigenous race that people believed was likely to disappear as a result of American colonisation. The fact that a set was sent to Tylor attests to their perceived anthropological value at the time. Yet the portraits themselves do not have the feel of scientific imagery, and instead frame the native sitters in the same respectful manner as any other well-to-do white Washington resident of the day.

Many of the sitters for instance hold items of status or importance, presumably brought with them to the capital for their formal meetings with government. Vannerson and Cohner’s 1857-8 portraits strike us today as particularly powerful due to their lack of either nostalgia or attempts at scientific objectivity, characteristic of later nineteenth-century portraiture, and instead allow a space for indigenous expression and dignity, despite the painful contexts of dispossession and colonisation.

Further information

Pko-ne-gi-zhik’ (Hole in the Day), an Ojibwa (Chippewa) man. (1998.128.30)Native American photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s collections

Jane Alison (ed.) 1997. Native Nations: Journeys in American Photography (ed. Jane Alison).

Paula Fleming, 2003. Native American Photography at the Smithsonian: The Shindler Catalogue.

Anthony Hamber, 2010. Collecting the American West: The Rise and Fall of William Blackmore.

JR Glenn, 1981. ‘The “curious gallery”: The Indian photographs of the McClees studio in Washington, 1857-8, History of Photography, 5(3), 249-262.


Display curated by Christopher Morton
Case design by Jon Eccles