History of the Indian Tribes of North America

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
History of the Indian tribes of North America
History of the Indian Tribes of North America.png
Author Thomas L. McKenney, James Hall
Illustrator Three frontispieces after Peter Rindisbacher and Karl Bodmer, and 117 portrait plates after Henry Inman's copies of the original oil paintings mostly by Charles Bird King, drawn on stone by Albert Newsam, Alfred Hoffy, Ralph Tremblay, Henry Dacre, and others, printed and colored by J. T. Bowen and others.
Country United States
Language English
Series 3 volumes
Subject United States History, Native Americans
Publisher First edition of v. 1 published by E.C. Biddle, Philadelphia, 1836.; Volumes 2-3 published by D. Rice and J.G. Clark, 1842-44.
Publication date
Media type Hardcover
OCLC 3331971

The History of the Indian Tribes of North America is a three volume collection of Native American biographies and accompanying lithograph portraits originally published from 1836 to 1844 by Thomas McKenney and James Hall. The majority of the portraits were first painted in oil by Charles Bird King.


From about 1821,[1] Thomas McKenney, the U.S. Superintendent of Indian Trade and soon to lead the Office of Indian Affairs, started to commission portraits from Charles Bird King of American Indians who had traveled to Washington, D.C. as delegates to negotiate treaties with the federal government. King painted portraits of American Indians up to 1837.[1] Additional painters who contributed portraits include James Otto Lewis, Peter Rindisbacher, and Henry Inman.[2]

McKenney would express as his reason a desire to preserve "in the archives of the Government whatever of the aboriginal man can be rescued from the destruction which awaits his race." He believed that American Indians should be "looked upon as human beings, having bodies and souls like ours".[3]

At first, the growing collection of portraits was housed in the War Office. In 1858, the original oil paintings were moved to The Castle, the Smithsonian Institution's first building, then also used as a repository and gallery for artworks.


In an endeavor to reach a wider public, McKenney commissioned lithographs of the paintings to be published in three volumes, with every portrait complemented by a surprisingly extensive biography of the subject. To research and write those, McKenney successfully approached James Hall (born on August 19, 1793 in Philadelphia, died on July 5, 1868 in a town outside of Cincinnati), a judge and Treasurer of the State of Illinois as well as an author.[4] Hall had a great deal of difficulty in finding the source material McKenney promised, and spent eight years tracking the subjects, about whom McKenney had provided little more than a name.

It became clear several times that the substantial price of $120 for the subscription to the whole set was still nowhere near enough to defray the costs incurred during the exacting production process of the original folio volumes. The Panic of 1837 nearly dealt the project a deathblow, depriving many of its subscribers of the means to pay for their subscriptions.

It was then that McKenney finally withdrew from the project completely. Hall and a new publisher brought the series to completion, with the final installment appearing in January 1844, long after McKenney was inspired to make the remarkable series of portraits available to the public. In the end, there were 1,250 subscribers.

Fire at the Smithsonian[edit]

In the winter of 1865, workers relocating the Indian portraits brought in a wood-burning stove to keep themselves warm while they worked, and vented the stovepipe into a ventilation shaft that they mistook for a flue. After some two weeks a fiull fire ignited in the ventilation shaft. The second floor was engulfed, and the roof of the Castle collapsed. In this, the most catastrophic fire in the Smithsonian's history, 295 of the original Indian portraits were consumed; five were rescued. Although one of the painters had made a few copies of his favorite portraits for himself, the great majority of the pictures would have been irretrievably lost had McKenney, Hall, and their colleagues not persevered in their lithography project.



  1. ^ a b Dates according to the list of paintings given by the Library of Congress
  2. ^ The North American Indian Portfolios from the Library of Congress: Bodmer--Catlin--McKenney and Hall (Tiny Folios). Abbeville Press. 1993. p. Verso. ISBN 1558596011. 
  3. ^ Horan, James David (1972). The McKenney-Hall portrait gallery of American Indians. Crown Publishers. p. 61. ISBN 9780517500538. 
  4. ^ Jennifer Anderson, Thomas L. McKenney & James Hall, Art & Architecture of New Jersey website.

External links[edit]