The Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers

It’s funny where you find something you didn’t know before. Just like many others during the pandemic, I’ve spent more time rewatching old TV programmes. Recently I watched some episodes of Auf Weidersehen Pet, an old British comedy about a group of labourers from the North East of England who look for building work abroad. Some of the last episodes of the programme, which are about 20 years old, have the characters helping a Native American tribe to build a bridge, which they brought from England, on land on their reservation. I had no idea before watching these episodes, despite being fascinated by Native American history (which if you’re a regular reader, you’ll have guessed by now), that Native Americans were fundamental in constructing high-rise buildings. So I decided to do some research into this and the story behind it is amazing.

The Mohawks, who are part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, are known in their mother tongue as Mohowawogs. This was anglicized to Mohawks by Europeans.[1] They traditionally lived along the Hudson River, which straddles the American/Canadian border. Prior to European settlers coming to the area, their lands made up much of what is now known as New England, but as with all Native Americans, they have been forced onto reservations. The Mohawks now mainly live on the Kahnawake Reservation in Quebec, which lays on the shore of the St Laurence River, just outside of Montreal. Their association with building steel bridges and skyscrapers began by accident.

The Wreckage of the Quebec Bridge Collapse of 1907 in Holgate, Henry; Derry, John, G. G.; Galbraith, John, Royal Commission Quebec Bridge Inquiry Report, Sessional Paper No 154. S.E. Dawson printer to the King Ottawa. Appendix 19, figure 20, Wikimedia Commons

In 1886, the Dominion Bridge Company began work on a bridge over the St Laurence River for the Canadian Pacific Railway.[2] As the bridge was to be built on Mohawk land, permission to build the bridge relied upon some of the Mohawk men being employed by the company. Initially they were used as day labourers to suppliers.[3] Many of those employed were young men who attempted to climb the structure on their lunch breaks, proving that they were more than adept to working at height. This meant the company promoted them to working on the bridge. They realised the advantages of continuing in this type of employment would include a stable job and good wages to support their families. However, this would also include long periods away from home.

On 29 August 1907, the Quebec Bridge collapsed, killing 96 men who were working on it, 35 of which were Mohawks. In fact, only 11 men were ever recovered alive following the collapse.[4] The disaster had been caused due to financial issues with Quebec Bridge Company who were in charge of the bridge’s construction. The company had purposefully chosen a cheaper design that required less steel than was necessary for a bridge of its size, meaning it couldn’t take the weight needed.[5] The bodies of the Mohawks who sadly lost their lives were returned to the Kahnawake Reservation. Their graves were marked with steel beams to show how they had died, a tradition which is still continued.[6]

New York skyscrapers from Jersey City (1908), Library of National Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Whilst the dangers of working at height wouldn’t have been lost on the Mohawks or any of the other men working on such projects, a decision was made to stop such large scale deaths from happening again. The Mohawk women proposed that any men wishing to become steelworkers should be split into smaller groups to work on different projects, rather than only focusing on one.[7] With this decision, the Mohawks were able to work on many different building projects around America. However, they mostly concentrated on the many skyscrapers that were being built in New York in the early 20th century. They are known to have worked in the city as early as 1901, but it was only from the 1920s that they began to work on the numerous high-rise buildings that the city became known for.[8]

Mohawks have helped construct some of the most iconic buildings in New York. Here is a list of just some of them: Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre, World Trade Centre, Chrysler Building, United Nations Secretariat Building and Madison Square Gardens.[9] It’s amazing to realise just how much the building of skyscrapers at this time relied upon not just Native Americans, but also other emigrants. It is thought that more than a dozen ethnicities worked on skyscrapers during their construction.[10] Perhaps the Mohawks were so good at it as they were a people who “fostered cooperation and community effort”, which can be seen in the gangs they worked with on the construction sites.[11] We have all probably seen that most famous photograph of workers eating their lunch on a girder hanging in the sky. At least three of them men in that picture are Mohawk.[12]

Lunch atop a Skyscraper, published in the New York Herald-Tribune, Oct2 1932, Wikimedia Commons

As it’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, I feel it rather appropriate to talk about the Mohawks role on that fateful day. As previously mentioned, many had helped build the Twin Towers during their construction between 1968 and 1972. Around 500 men worked on the construction, 200 of which were Mohawks.[13] The last girder put in place in skyscrapers in New York are usually signed by the people working on it. In the case of the World Trade Centre, it was a Mohawk gang.[14] There were also other buildings in the complex added after this date. However, many rushed to the World Trade Centre as they were working on nearby building sites. They offered help to survivors and also helped in the clearing of wreckage and search for victims following the attack.[15] For this reason, I feel it rather fitting that many of them then went on to work on the Freedom Tower and memorial that are now on the site of the World Trade Centre.[16]

Many Mohawks still continue to work in steel construction. Following the demand for them in New York, many chose to move their families to New York as it was around a 12 hour journey from Kahnawake to the city. They mainly lived around 4th Avenue and many grocery stores selling traditional Native foods and church that spoke in their native tongue also tended to their needs.[17] However, since a freeway/motorway was built in the 1970s, many chose to move back to their homeland as the commute was made easier.[18]

I hope that as the anniversary for both the Quebec Bridge disaster and 9/11 are both coming up, that this post has helped show the reliance the steel construction industry has had (and continues to have) on the Mohawks. At the time of the Quebec Bridge disaster, none of the Mohawk fatalities were ever mentioned in the news.[19] I hope that this goes at least some wat to highlight the legacy they, and all those Mohawks who have worked on these important projects, have left us with.


[1] Weitzman, D., Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (New York: Roaring Brook Pres, 2010), p. 4.

[2] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/;  Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[3] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[4] University of North Carolina, The Collapse of the Quebec Bridge, 1907, https://eng-resources.uncc.edu/failurecasestudies/bridge-failure-cases/the-collapse-of-the-quebec-bridge-1907/

[5] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[6] Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[7] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[8] ‘The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Adams, C., ‘Why Do So Many Native Americans Work on Skyscrapers’, Straight Dope, https://www.straightdope.com/21341828/why-do-so-many-native-americans-work-on-skyscrapers

[9]The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Budd, J., ‘High and Mighty’, The Guardian, 19 June 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/19/artsfeatures1

[10] Korum, J. J., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940 (Boston: Branden Books, 2008)

[11] Weitzman, D., Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City (New York: Roaring Brook Pres, 2010), p. 4.

[12] Budd, J., ‘High and Mighty’, The Guardian, 19 June 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/jun/19/artsfeatures1

[13] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[14] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[15] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html; Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[16] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

[17] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[18] The Mohawks who Built Manhattan’, http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2012/09/the-mohawks-who-built-manhattan-photos.html

[19] Bjornland, K., ‘Honouring Native Americans Who Built Skyscrapers and Bridges’, The Daily Gazette, 16 April 2017, https://dailygazette.com/2017/04/16/honoring-native-americans-who-built-skyscrapers-bridges/

Book Review of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you may remember a post I did at the end of last year about the murder of Sitting Bull, the chief of the Lakota nation who fought for the rights of Native Americans and their way of life. This is a cause very close to my heart and I have much respect for Sitting Bull and the Native American way of life in general. This post is something a bit different as I’ll be reviewing a book I asked for at Christmas, written by a descendant of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe. I decided to do a book review because I feel the message of the book is a particularly important one and needs to be shared with others.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

Ernie LaPointe, the author of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy, is a great-grandson of Sitting Bull, and just like his ancestor, is an advocate of the traditional way of life of the Lakota and seeks to tell the truth of the life of the famous chief. I believe this book manages to successfully do both of these things as Sitting Bull’s life is retold in the oral tradition, almost like a story, rather than chronologically. This made it a very easy read and contributed to me not wanting to put the book down.

For me, I have never been so emotionally connected to a book in a very long time. The early parts of Sitting Bull’s life are told in a way which reflects the characteristics highly prized by the Lakota: honour, respect, humbleness and compassion. All of these traits are something I have always associated with Sitting Bull, so I especially liked learning the circumstances he showed these from an early age. The great chief showed these despite the hard times, including the loss of many loved ones, which I find utter commendable.

If you are looking for more information on Sitting Bull’s time in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, you’ll probably be disappointed as this only grants a couple of paragraphs. Personally, I don’t feel that is a problem as the sole purpose of the book is to show the character of Sitting Bull, which of course is not defined by his time in the Wild West Show, but more in the personal moments, of which the book is full of.

The book contains quite a few appendices that may put people off, but I found that these helped explain the animosity that has arisen from the descendants of One Bull, the nephew who was part of the Indian Police who arrested and killed Sitting Bull in 1890, against the direct descendants of Sitting Bull through his children. Perhaps the most useful of these is a glossary explaining the many many Lakota words found in the text. I did quite enjoy learning these words, although I’m pretty sure my pronunciation is terrible.

All in all, I found this a very enjoyable and educational book. It helps to demyth some of the life of Sitting Bull that has been given to us by white historians, rather than through the Lakota oral tradition. This is partly because one of the early historians never visited the children of Sitting Bull, despite the fact they were all present at the time of his murder. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Sitting Bull, or the way of life of the Native Americans. After reading this, I now have a newfound respect for the chief, even more than I already had. I hope that if you read it too, you would feel the same.

To read more on the murder of Sitting Bull, please have a read of my post on the subject using the following link.

The Death of Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull was one of the most notable advocates for Native American rights in the last part of the nineteenth century. He is probably most known for his appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For me, he personifies the struggles of the Native American people in their fight to keep their way of life. This was also evident in the circumstances that led up to his murder by the Indian Police, helped by the army, in 1890. They saw this ageing man as the last remaining beacon of hope for all Native Americans who were being forced to leave their once nomadic existence to live reservations. Life on reservations was purposefully meant to stop their traditional way of life. They were no longer free to move as they pleased, were forced hundreds of miles away from their ancestral land and subjected to forced assimilation wherever possible. Especially by sending Native American children to boarding schools so they could ‘unlearn’ their traditions and languages, instead imposing Western education upon them.[1]

In Sitting Bull’s own words on the subject, this was an injustice to his people:

“We were once free to come and go, and to live in our own way. But white men, who belong to another land, have come upon us, and are forcing us to live according to their ideas. That is an injustice; we have never dreamed of making white men live as we live.”[2]

These very opinions made him a much-reviled figure to the American authorities, especially as this was a man who had fought at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where George Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U. S. Army were defeated by an army of Native Americans, made up of different tribes, but led by visions Sitting Bull had had.

Sitting Bull photographed and published by Palmquist & Jurgens, St. Paul, Minn, ca. 1884. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94500412

The bitterness the army and other authorities had towards Sitting Bull stemmed not just from his brave fight at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but from his flee to Canada following the bad winter of 1876-1877. That winter was full of bad weather meaning food was scarce. Many of the Native Americans decided to give in to being put on reservations, believing it would mean a guaranteed food source. Sitting Bull and his people refused to do this and instead fled to Canada, which was viewed as a safe place for the indigenous people. This meant that all the Native Americans still living in America were now all living on reservations.[3] Their time in Canada didn’t last long though as the buffaloes they relied on began to dwindle in numbers. It forced the Chief and his people back to America and onto the Sioux Reservation.

Under the Sioux Act of 1889, the government wanted to reduce the size of the Sioux Reservations into six smaller ones, rather than just one large one. This purposefully sought to reduce the amount of land available for the Native Americans, so that larger parts could be sold on to settlers.[4] You can imagine how Sitting Bull and many other leaders in the community reacted to this. For them, it once again showed how the white man could not be trusted. Many promises given had been broken, and not for the first time. Just as before, their opinions and complaints, despite being just, “and loud, and bitter, but were little heeded”.[5] Out of the ashes of the brokenness this brought, there was one glimmer of hope that began to arise: The Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual revival within the Native American communities living on reservations, most notably the Sioux. It believed that through performing this dance, it would prepare the way of a messiah, along with ghosts of the ancestors and buffalo, to save them from their current misery in order to re-establish their old way of life.[6] Whilst the initial ‘prophet’ of this movement was Wovoka, who believed he had had a vision, Sitting Bull played a major part in the movement. Another Sioux Chief named Kicking Bear believed in revelations that the Great Spirit had entrusted Sitting Bull to oversee and conduct the dances.[7]

Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America, 1891. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006681363/

These dances caused great concern for those in charge of the Sioux reservation that Sitting Bull lived on. Major McLaughlin believed that Sitting Bull was the root cause of this new movement and wanted it to end. On the 17th of November 1890, McLaughlin and an interpreter went to one of these dances to gauge how many of the Native Americans were involved. They found 100 people dancing and another 100 people watching.[8] Following this, McLaughlin began negotiations with Sitting Bull about how to stop the dances, despite Sitting Bull’s instances that this was nothing to fear. When the Major invited Sitting Bull to the reservation headquarters at Fort Yates, it was seen as a trap for the elderly chief. Sadly, the authorities responded with punishments that included attempting to starve the warriors. The ghost dancers were also worried and fled into the wilderness away from the camp. Sitting Bull wished to follow to carry on peaceful talks about the situation. Sitting Bull needed permission to do this and had a letter translated for this. However, it was poorly translated and instead looked like a threat.[9] He was told no and instead put under house arrest.

Within a month it seemed like the Chief’s fate was sealed. Orders were given to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him to Fort Yates. Others had sent a warning telegram to Buffalo Bill, a former friend whilst he was in the Wild West Show, was sent, hoping he could be an intermediary. Despite arriving at Fort Yates, he was suspiciously plied with drink and turned away the next day.[10] This was probably to maintain the secrecy surrounding the idea of murdering the Chief. The Indian Police went to the camp early in the morning of 15 December 1890 with a hidden group of soldiers. They dragged Sitting Bull out of his cabin and placed him on a waiting horse. Rather than quietly submit to his fate, Sitting Bull shouted orders to his followers, despite being threatened by the Police with guns.[11] A gun fight ensued between the Police and those in the camp. During the fight, Sitting Bull and two of his sons, Blackbird and Crow Foot, as well as 6 of the Indian Officers, 2 of which died from their wounds afterwards. Another version told at the time was that the Indian Police had shot Sitting Bull and his sons inside the cabin, only to later smash the Chief’s face into pieces.[12]

Kurz & Allison. Capture & Death of Sitting Bull, ca. 1891. Jan. 5. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656865/

Despite the death of the famous chief, that was not the end of the story. His body was buried at the cemetery at Fort Yates, but many other stories surfaced about what subsequently happened to the body. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that the body buried at the fort was a fake and that the real body was in fact “now in a dissecting room”.[13] Others included quicklime being placed into the coffin to disintegrate the remains, his body being taken to Canada, and drunken soldiers stealing a thigh bone before the Fort closed in 1903.[14] All of these rumours complicated the legacy of the once great chief and in some ways meant he was forgotten, even more so when his body was the only one not to be moved when the fort closed.

Fiske, Frank Bennett, photographer. Sitting Bull’s grave / F.B. Fiske. North Dakota, ca. 1906. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91482751/

The sad part is that the grave was left unattended and unloved. It would have been a sad legacy for him had it not been for his descendants, who were finally allowed to move his body to a spot looking over the Missouri River in April 1953. This was divisive as one granddaughter believed the site chosen was unsuitable because of antisocial behaviour that was known in the area. Yet, it happened, and 2 cars moved the remains to the chosen site in snowy weather. His new resting place now has a bust to commemorate him, which is more than he had whilst buried at Fort Yates.[15]

Whenever I think of the death of Sitting Bull, I feel incredibly sad to know he was killed for what he believed in. My heart has always agreed with the Native Americans, that they have been treated with injustice and still continue to be to a greater extent. Was it really a crime to hope that your life would improve if only you could practise your traditional way of life? I will also leave you questioning whether if Buffalo Bill could have reached Sitting Bull, whether the outcome would have been any different. Whatever may have happened if he had, I like to remember the small kindness in that Buffalo Bill attempted to bring his old friend some of his favourite sweets that he new he loved. What a contrast to the treatment he was given by the Indian Police, one of whom was his nephew, One Bull, who was actually an informant for McLaughlin.

[1] ‘Boarding Schools, https://americanindian.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter3.html#:~:text=Beginning%20in%20the%20late%20nineteenth,Code%20Talkers%20attended%20boarding%20schools.

[2] ‘This Land Belongs to Us’, in McMaster, G. and Trafzer, C. E. (eds), Native Universe: Voices of Indian America (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2004), p. 92.

[3] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, 1831-1890 (Mankato, Minnesota: Blue Earth Books, 2003), p. 24.

[4] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, p. 26.

[5] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull: And History of the Indian War, 1890-1891, Reprint(DSI Digital Reproduction, 2000), p. 169.

[6] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[7] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[8] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[9] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[10] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[11] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 185.

[12] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 187; Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[13] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 188.

[14] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

[15] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,  http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/sittingbullsburials.htm

To find out more about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, please visit https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/02/11/buffalo-bill-and-his-wild-west-show/

Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show

Anyone who knows me will know that I have an interest in the Wild West, with most sympathy towards the plight of Native Americans. Yet, Buffalo Bill, real name William F. Cody, appears to be someone in the middle of the ‘Cowboys vs Indians’ connotations of the Wild West. I first came across him with a trip to Disneyland Paris when I was little, including seeing the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. As a child, and even going to see it again in the last few years, I watched with wide-eyed wonder. Was this really what the American West was once like? Of course, the part that enthralled me the most was that the famous Chief Sitting Bull was part of the show. More recently, I have begun to question just how ‘real’ the show was, after all it was first and foremost an entertainment show, and how the Native Americans were treated by Buffalo Bill in particular. After all, Buffalo Bill earned his name by his massacre of the buffalo that the Plains Native Americans relied on for their way of life.[1] What a contradiction of a life.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was created in 1883 following the popularity of Buffalo Bill as a character, based on the life of Cody, in cheap novels written by Ned Buntline.[2] This character took inspiration from parts of Cody’s life as a frontiersman, scout, Pony Express rider and buffalo hunter.[3] The show portrayed the cowboy as a hero and this status was closely linked to fighting and hunting skills and “his ability to live off the harsh land and to fend of the savages”.[4] This was a fictional and watered down image that removed the reality of violence that existed between the frontiersmen and Native Americans. Buffalo Bill himself played on this and accentuated the ideal life of the cowboy this showed.[5]

buffalo_bill_poster
Courier Lithography Company, Buffalo Bill poster, 1900, (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

However, the story of the show is more complicated than the fictionalisation and accentuated aspects it is full of. For instance, this was not how audiences viewed these shows. Just as I enjoyed watching it in the 21st century, so did the contemporary audiences from all over the world on the various tours around America and Europe. For those who had only heard of and not witnessed the Wild West portrayed in the show, it unwittingly was viewed as a serious attempt to tell the history of the frontier times.[6] It was this belief that helped create the connotations that still exist today about what the American West actually was.[7] In a world where this was often people’s first encounter with Native Americans, it was easy to understand why the simplistic stereotypes of the cowboy as ‘hero’ and the Indian as ‘enemy’.[8] Cody himself was known to respect the Native American performers behind the scenes and it took them away from the inhumane reservations they were forced to live in back home. With this example, it’s evident just how much more complex the reality of the Wild West Show was. It did offer Native Americans, most notably Sitting Bull, a chance to represent all Native Americans to an international audience, but how the accuracy of this representation was totally out of their hands.

3b03102r
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Troupe of Indians posed before tepees (c. 1886), Photo by Saron and held by the Library of Congress

The international mass entertainment of Buffalo Bill is perhaps the more important aspect, rather than how real or not. At a time before the internationalisation on a mass scale that we now know, Buffalo Bill was an international celebrity. His celebrity status was helped by the mass advertising and circulating images created for Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show.[9] The posters in particular often focused on violence between white men and Indians but in a cartoon way that promotes it as entertainment.[10] The press agents who created these images intentionally focused on the romanticism of the frontier that Buffalo Bill specialised in, with hopes that it was reinforce it in the memory of audiences both past and present.[11] It did this in a way that idolised Cody and create a fascination with the women, Native Americans and cowboys who were his performers.[12]

54796v
The Springer Litho. Co., First appearance of Buffalo Bill’s new enlarged and greater wild west and congress of rough riders (c. 1895), held by the Library of Congress

Buffalo Bill was so good at portraying fiction as fact to create entertainment, particularly the insensitive portrayal of Native American culture, it is impossible to untangle.[13] For that reason, this post has only aimed to highlight the different levels of complexity with interpretations of the Wild West Show, rather than try and unpick them. The legends surrounding Buffalo Bill are many and deep to totally understand. By using the example of his educational background, it can be seen in the fact that Cody was often the main person behind such legends, for he always claimed he had never been schooled. The opposite was actually true, he went to a local school with his sisters but didn’t actually make much academic progress.[14]

Regardless of the opinions that exist on whether Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a positive or negative thing, it cannot be avoided that it actually helped create the images we now connect with that period of history. The show was created at a time when the frontier lifestyle was beginning to die out and became popular because of nostalgia towards it.[15] However, this idealised version of Buffalo Bill and the show slowly changed and by the 1960s it was solely associated with war and violence.[16] With the dwindling lack of fame, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody died virtually penniless.[17]

07833v
F. Barry, Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill (c. 1897), held by the Library of Congress

The difficulty of such a show will be forever connected with the oppression of the Native Americans and it could be argued that this type of show accentuated that. Again, even this is complex. Perhaps running the Wild West show had changed Cody’s perception because his friendship with Sitting Bull was well known. When Sitting Bull returned to the reservation he was forced to live on in 1885, after leaving the Wild West Show, it was the beginning of the end. Before long he had been killed by the tribal police who tried to subdue the culture of the Native Americans. Sitting Bull was viewed with contempt by Major McLaughlin who ran the reservation. He used the elderly chief as a scapegoat for the rise of the Ghost Dance movement, which used dance as an expression of the belief that ghosts of the buffalo would return and mark the return of their old way of life.[18] Before Sitting Bull’s death, Cody received a telegram asking him to come and calm the situation, but he only just missed arriving in time.[19] If he had arrived on time, I wonder if he would have been able to save the life of his friend in return for the loyal service many Native Americans had given as performers in his show.

[1] Smith, H. N., ‘Buffalo Bill: Hero of the Popular Imagination’’, Southwest Review, 33.4 (1948), p. 379.

[2] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, Western Journal of Communication, 69.2 (2005), p. 86.

[3] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 86.

[4] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 101.

[5] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 101.

[6] R. Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (1992) cited in Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 86.

[7] Hodgson, J., Buffalo Bill Scrap Book – A Hidden Treasure of the John Rylands Library, 10 March 2013, https://rylandscollections.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/buffalo-bill-scrap-book-a-hidden-treasure-of-the-john-rylands-library/

[8] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), p. 10.

[9] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 7.

[10] Dickenson, G., Ott, B. L. & Aoki, E., ‘Memory and Myth at the Buffalo Bill Museum’, p. 99.

[11] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 11.

[12] Delaney, M., Art and Advertising in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, p. 11.

[13] Warren, L. S., Buffalo Bill’s America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. XI.

[14] Russell, D., The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), p. 7.

[15] Wrobel, D., ‘Exceptionalism, Globalism, and Transnationalism- The West, America and the World Across the Centuries’, in Christianson, F. (ed), The Popular Frontier: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Transnational Mass Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), p. 6.

[16] Warren, L. S., Buffalo Bill’s America, p. XI.

[17] Warren, L. S., Buffalo Bill’s America, p. XI.

[18] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

[19] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, https://www.history.com/news/the-unlikely-alliance-between-buffalo-bill-and-sitting-bull

To find out more about Sitting Bull and the events surrounding his death, please visit: https://voyagerofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/10/24/the-death-of-chief-sitting-bull/ 

The Construction of the Male Dominated Narrative of Pocahontas

I have always had an interest in the lives and culture of Native Americans. In the stories that have been told about the violent struggles between settlers and the Native Americans, I have always found my sympathies lay with the Native Americans. As a very young child, I must admit this probably stemmed from Disney’s Pocahontas, but my parents always taught me, when I was old enough to understand, the hardships and discrimination the Native American nations were forced to endure, most notable the Trail of Tears and the forced movement away from their ancestral land to reservations on the other side of America.

3782664
Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images

As a bit of a whim recently, I decided to investigate where this anti-Native American sentiment came from. I guess this was probably from my knowledge that their culture is focused around hospitality and the greater good of the tribe. Did the early settlers experience this side of the Native American culture and how did things manage to turn violent? These were the questions I wanted to answer for myself. What became clear is that despite the early settlers portraying the Powhatan nation as pagans and fundamentally different, Pocahontas was regarded, and has continued to be, a large part of the founding story of English settlement in America.[1] Unfortunately this founding myth has been based on what has been written by the white men who encountered her and her people, as Pocahontas left no written record for herself. This has meant that a very Western and male view has been placed upon her.

Pocahontas’ narrative has had two main focuses placed upon it: her friendship and/or possible relationship with John Smith and her eventual conversion and marriage to John Rolfe.[2] These have tried to place her in contexts that could be understood from the contemporary viewpoint that the New World was a female figure, hence the naming of Virginia by Walter Raleigh.[3] From this viewpoint various images were used to symbolise the New World. First, the New World became a female gendered space to suggest that it was just passively waiting to be conquered by male settlers.[4] Secondly, America was later represented by a Native American princess in some form, whether this be an unclothed one, one as the daughter of Britannia or as the embodiment of qualities that would later be attributed to United States sovereignty.[5] With Pocahontas’ role as the first female native the settlers mixed with, it was clear that she easily mixed with these ideas. It has led to the story of her and her relationship with the early settlers to be retold more “than any other American historical incident” during the colonial period.[6]

246613
Simon de Passe, Captain John Smith, Private Collection, Peter Newark American Pictures / Bridgeman Images

The first misunderstanding about Pocahontas that has been inherited is how she became acquainted with the early settlers. A letter from John Chamberlain to the Hague ambassador during her visit to James I’s court in 1617 suggested that Pocahontas had “ben with the King and graciously used, and both she and her assistant placed at the maske. She is on her return (though sore against her will)”.[7] Chamberlain in his description of Pocahontas made her seem to be at the mercy of others but still able to have her own will.[8] The theme of Pocahontas using her own will derives from the belief that settlers had about her early visits to Jamestown. They believed she had flouted the will of her father in order to meet and know the new Englishmen. However, this was a misunderstanding of how Powhatan society and Pocahontas’ own status within it worked.

Pocahontas was the favourite of Powhatan’s many children. This was because her mother was his love match made before he became the paramount chief of the Tsenacomoca nation. In Powhatan tradition, it was custom for the paramount chief to marry women from each of the tribes he controlled to create unity and relationships between each of them.[9] No woman was forced to marry any man, not even the paramount chief, but it would have meant higher status for the woman and it was only a temporary match until they gave birth.[10] Once they had given birth, they were free to choose whether to stay in the capital Werowocomoco as a wife of the chief, or to return to their village to find a love match.[11] This meant that Pocahontas meant a lot to Powhatan, even more so as her mother died giving birth to her. Due to this bond that subsequently formed between Powhatan and his daughter, it is clear that if Powhatan had believed the English to be a threat, he wouldn’t have let a child, and his favourite child at that, go to Jamestown. Instead, in the Powhatan culture, a child was often placed at the front of a group entering the village of another tribe to show they came in peace.[12] Pocahontas was also still a child and so would have had supervision, as a royal child, she would have also had a large amount of bodyguards as well as Powhatan’s permission to visit the Jamestown settlers.[13] As selfishness and the advancement of personal welfare over others and the greater good of the tribe was seen as one of the worst things a person could do, it would not have been in Pocahontas’ nature to go to Jamestown against her father’s will.[14]

The band of warriors and priests that would have accompanied Pocahontas were showing the English settlers the general sharing of food and hospitality customs that were second nature to their people.[15] This helped the unprepared settlers to survive during the periods of harsh weather and poor health that threatened the entire existence of the settlement. However, it is also due to the status the Powhatans placed on John Smith. Just as the settlers saw Powhatan as a King, the Powhatans saw Smith as the ‘chief’ of the English.[16] The position that the Powhatan’s viewed Smith as having sheds light onto the infamous saving of Smith by Pocahontas.

654788
Pocahontas saves Captain Smith’s Life (19th century), Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

There has been much debate about whether Pocahontas really did save John Smith from a near death by the hands of her father. What makes the difficult to understand is Pocahontas real motivations behind the act, we only have Smith’s side of the story.[17] The early seventeenth century writings on Jamestown are surprisingly quiet on the matter. Smith himself didn’t even mention the rescue until 1624, seventeen years after the event was supposed to have occurred and ironically after both Pocahontas and Powhatan had died.[18] Among many interpretations that have been put forward, most have been sceptical about its occurrence. It may have been added for political reasons after the 1622 massacre of the settlers by the Powhatans as a response for the increasingly violent treatment towards them, in order to vilify the Powhatans.[19] Another option for it not appearing is that if it did happen, Smith had purposefully emitted it for as long as possible as it ruined his reputation as a military and brave man.[20] Philip Barbour suggests a more logical explanation that runs alongside the contemporary explanation given by the narrative passed down through the Mattaponi people’s oral history. He argues that the rescue did happen but as Smith was not aware of local customs, he misinterpreted the situation. Both the Powhatans and the settlers have been known to misinterpret each other’s cultures in these early interactions as they could only base their knowledge of it on their own assumptions as a comparison to their own culture. Barbour argues that it may have been a ritual re-enacting a fake execution, rather than an actual one, to show that he was accepted by the nation and was seen as a chief in his own right.[21]

Unfortunately, we may never know the exact truth of some of the things that occurred in those early stages of the English colonisation of America. What is known that the early settlers began a narrative that was to be seen as mainstream until fairly recently (in some ways still is). It paved the way for Pocahontas being the embodiment of voluntary cultural connection and assimilation, whilst forgetting that she was in fact a captive between the ‘rescue’ and her marriage to John Rolfe.[22] This narrative became especially prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when a lot of the legend of Pocahontas started to become invented by various writers.[23] The creation of this narrative coincided with wider circulation of John Smith’s writings, which portrayed her as saviour of Jamestown, and also to create a founding myth to justify the increasingly despicable treatment of Native Americans.[24] Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe was also more prevalent at this time to provide evidence of the supposed harmony and less cultural violence more interracial marriages would have created.[25]

3622816
The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1613, From The History of Our Country, published 1899 / Bridgeman Images

The only thing that is certain is that without contact with the English, Pocahontas’ life would have carried on much the same as her predecessors. Powhatan’s sister was a village chief in her own right, so Pocahontas probably could have easily followed in her footsteps.[26] She also wouldn’t have died from the Western disease that killed her, of which there is also much speculation. However, whatever the ifs and buts of her life, she has remained one of the key figures of Native American history and I hope will continue to be for centuries to come.

[1] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America (London: Trascript Verlag, 2014), p. 89.

[2] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[3] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, pp. 91-92.

[4] S. Schulting, Wilde Frauen, Fremde Welten: Kolonisierungsgeschichten aus Amerika cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 92.

[5] E. McClung Fleming, ‘The American Image as Indian Princess, 1765-1783’, Winterthur Portfolio, 2 (1965) cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 93.

[6] Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge: Press Syndicate, 1994), p. 1.

[7] John Chamberlain, The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert Chirelstien cited in Robertson, K., ‘Pocahontas at the Masque’, Signs, 21.3 (1996), p. 552.

[8] Robertson, K., ‘Pocahontas at the Masque’, p. 552.

[9] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007), p. 5.

[10] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, pp. 5-6.

[11] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 6.

[12] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 26.

[13] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 25.

[14] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p.

[15] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 23.

[16] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 24.

[17] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 95.

[18] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 96.

[19] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[20] G. Mackenthun, Metaphors of Dispossession: American Beginnings and the Translation of Empire, 1492-1637 cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 96.

[21] Philip Barbour, Pocahontas and Her World cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[22] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 102.

[23] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 102; Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 10.

[24] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 103; Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 11.

[25] Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 12.

[26] Tremblay, G., ‘Reflecting on Pocahontas’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 23.3, p. 121.