Nearly 200 years before the opening of the National Museum of the American
Indian, a superintendent of the Indian Affairs Office sought urgently to
collect items from various Indian nations in an effort to preserve the
history of what he saw as a vanishing race.
Thomas L. McKenney, who served as superintendent of Indian trade under the
then U.S. War Department, began a task in 1817 of collecting anything he
could from Indians across the country and created what is often referred to
as the Indian Office Museum.
It sat within his office on the second floor of the War Department building
in Washington, D.C., and exhibited years later about 130 portraits of
Indian leaders, according to Herman J. Viola, author of "Thomas L.
McKenney: Architect of America's Early Indian Policy: 1816 - 1830."
While in the War Department, first as the superintendent of Indian trade
and later as the first superintendent of the newly created Bureau of Indian
Affairs, McKenney collected languages, portraits, books, moccasins, animal
skins, spear points, arrow heads, bows, arrows, regalia and pottery, among
many other items pertaining to Indian life.
Despite a lack of national interest in preservation of American Indian
culture, lack of funds and criticism of what McKenney spent on the
portraits, he continued to pursue his collections, according to Viola.
McKenney even sought scalps along with the identity of the persons from
which they came. In Viola's research, he quoted a letter McKenney had
written to one man whose help he enlisted to make sure the Indians weren't
encouraged to get new scalps, but rather to offer the ones they had.
Even after he assumed his new position as Indian Affairs office
superintendent, McKenney continued collecting Indian items, adding a string
of wampum from a collector in New York. When he invited Indians to
Washington, D.C., he often asked for things they wore as well as items they
had with them, and if the Indians wouldn't donate them, he'd offer to buy
them. A few Passamaquoddy Indians were paid for the two bark canoes they
rode in to visit him, Viola wrote.
McKenney even tried to collect items that belonged to the Indian leaders to
be exhibited with their portraits. At one point, he tried to buy the peace
medal, coat and tomahawk that had belonged to the Seneca Indian chief, Red
Jacket - but, according to Viola, he wasn't able to get them.
McKenney's interest also caught the attention of others who were willing to
assist him. Viola, who retired years ago as the Smithsonian's National
Anthropological Archives director, wrote that McKenney even received
sketches of burial mounds in the Mississippi Valley and encouraged the
missionary who sent them to him to learn more about the people buried
there, even if it meant digging up their bones. Other offers such as one by
a writer seeking help in publishing a history of the Six Nations were
declined due to a lack of funding. Still, McKenney continued to broaden his
collections by including information on Indian medicine such as their cure
for rabies and snake bites.
In 1824, McKenney sought alphabets and grammars of Indian languages, urging
missionaries working with the Indians to move quickly on those because the
interest in preserving Indian culture was lagging, according to Viola. He
eventually did receive grammars of the Sac, Cherokee, Shawnee, Osage,
Chippewa, Choctaw and Nottoway Indians - the latter tribe only being a
listing of words that had actually been compiled at the request of Thomas
Of the word lists, McKenney wrote in a letter to Indian agents,
superintendents and missionaries, "The subject increases in interest as
time removes us from those to whom it relates, but how will this be
increased when antiquity shall invest it with its charms, and when the race
of human beings who preceded us in the occupancy of this vast continent,
will be known no more," according to Viola.
McKenney then encouraged them to find anyone who may be considered the last
of a tribe, "Such a man may be looked upon as the connecting link between
time and eternity, as to all that regards his people; and which, if it be
lost, all that relates to his Tribe is gone forever."
In 1830, McKenney was dismissed from the Indian Affairs office, and his
archives, too, were no longer exhibited there. Many of his collections were
either sold or given eventually to the Smithsonian Institute. A fire in
1865 nearly destroyed all of the portraits. The remainder of these are held
in the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives under McKenney's
JoAllyn Archambault, director of the American Indian Program at the
National Museum of Natural History with the Smithsonian Institute, and a
member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said she was very familiar with
McKenney's collections, but she wasn't sure if any of the surviving pieces
from his collection were exhibited in the museum.
But Archambault said, "They [McKenney's books, Indian grammar manuscripts
and portraits] certainly were significant primarily because of how early
these pieces were."
For more information about the McKenney collection, visit www.siris.si.edu.