The American West, and in particular the Native American peoples that inhabited western lands, were a source of fascination for Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century. As the nation expanded westward guided by the doctrine of "manifest destiny," authors, artists, and photographers followed and documented the settlement of the western frontier.
The late-nineteenth century was a period of upheaval and cultural change for Native Americans tribes confined to sections of Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Tribes were forced to merge with other tribes and adopt a Euro-American agricultural lifestyle. In 1889, the “Unassigned Lands” in the heart of Indian Territory were officially opened to white settlement. Towns such as Guthrie, Stillwater and Oklahoma City sprang up overnight as thousands of settlers or “boomers” staked their claim to choice lands in these newly opened regions.
Professional and amateur photographers alike flocked to Oklahoma-Indian Territory where they set up studios and documented frontier life. These photographers ventured into surrounding Indian reservations and captured images of the Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Osage, Otoe, Ponca, Sac (Sauk) and Fox, Pawnee and other tribes. Photographic images of Native Americans were in demand by people in the eastern United States and throughout Europe who were fascinated by the rapidly vanishing customs and traditions of these indigenous cultures.
The motives of frontier photographers varied; while some considered themselves to be visual historians and strived to accurately record life in Indian Territory, numerous others capitalized on the plight of the Indian and perpetuated stereotypical images of the stoic “noble savage” held by Euro-Americans.
Studio portraits of Native American subjects were common during this era, as were field photographs of individuals and families in their everyday surroundings and lodgings. The subjects of these photographs ranged from tribal chiefs and elders to young braves, women and children. Portraits of the “wild Indian” – posing in “traditional” garb including feather headdresses, buckskin, breechcloths and regalia – were in great demand, as were images of the “civilized Indian” dressed in western attire.
Frontier photographers frequently used painted backdrops, props and costumes, and arranged their subjects in staged poses. It was common for photographers to use the same props in their portraits, making it difficult to authenticate tribal affiliation. The use of props and staged scenes only furthered misconceptions and stereotypes of the Native American.
Prints of Native Americans were commonly mounted on cabinet cards, boudoir cards and stereographs, and sometimes included a title and name of the photographer. These conveniently formatted cards were marketed to western tourists, as well as eager buyers in eastern U.S. cities where they were displayed prominently on cabinets and bureaus.
While many of the images perpetuated stereotypes and did not accurately depict Native American life and customs, they do give us a glimpse into a period of displacement and acculturation for the Southern Plains Indian tribes in Oklahoma-Indian Territory as they struggled to adapt to a new lifestyle forced upon them by government policies and encroachment by white settlers. Furthermore, these images give us insight into the motives, techniques and work of the frontier photographer.
One of the most important frontier photographers of the late-1800s was William S. Prettyman, who early in his career photographed numerous outlaws, cattlemen, and Civil War veterans. Shortly after opening a gallery north of Indian Territory in the town of Arkansas City, Kansas, Prettyman was approached by a group of Osage Indians to have their picture taken. This was the beginning of a new interest for Prettyman, who made several trips into Indian Territory and the Cherokee Outlet photographing many of the principal chiefs of the Osage, Comanche, Otoe, Sac and Fox and Pawnee. He was also witness to the early land openings in Oklahoma and photographed numerous scenes of boomer settlers and settlements.
Prettyman resented the acculturation he observed of the Native American peoples in Indian Territory and aimed to document their indigenous customs and rituals. According to Oklahoma author and historian Robert S. Cunningham, “Indians needed beads and blankets, tipis and savage dances, medicine men and the bloody trophies of war, if they were to be fit subjects for his [Prettyman] camera.”
In 1893, Prettyman settled in the newly formed town of Blackwell in Oklahoma Territory where he served for two terms as mayor. In 1905, he sold his photography studio in Blackwell and moved west to California. Prettyman’s former partner and protégé, George B. Cornish, is responsible for preserving many of his original plates and later published an album of Prettyman’s work titled Oklahoma Indian and Cowboy Views.
Thomas Croft was another prominent photographer in Arkansas City and an associate of William Prettyman and George Cornish. Like Prettyman, Croft made several trips into Indian Territory in the 1880s and captured images of reservation life.
William J. Lenny and William L. Sawyers operated a photography studio in the town of Purcell in Indian Territory, circa. 1889-1991. These two entrepreneurs photographed the Indian tribes who lived on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache (K-C-A) and Wichita-Caddo reservations, and marketed their portraits of “wild Indians” - including tribal chiefs, braves and women and children - to “curiosity seekers” back east.
Lenny, a field photographer, was thought to have taken most of the photographs, while Sawyers managed the studio in Purcell. Many of their photos were reproduced in the 1890 U.S. Census.
The Native American/Western Photograph Collection  is housed in the Special Collections Department of the Kansas City Public Library. The collection contains over 143 glass plate negatives, boudoir/cabinet cards and assorted prints of Native Americans from the late-1800s through the early-1900s. In addition, there are numerous scenes of boomer settlements in Oklahoma-Indian Territory and cowboy images. Many of these photographs can be accessed through the Local History Database . Digitization of the collection is ongoing.
Article written by: Jeremy Drouin, Special Collections.