I’m surprised to see that Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935, Pages From A Visual History, edited by Janet Catherine Berlo (1996 Abrams) – a wonderful book – is out of print, so I’ll show a few of the pictures here.

I know very little about the history of the Plains Indians, but it seems that after the US civil war many of them were imprisoned at Fort Marion camp, near St. Augustine, in Florida.

Poster, 1938. The Spanish fortifications were completed in 1695.

In a guide to Florida published in 1875 the poet Sidney Lanier wrote about Fort Marion:

For, alas ! and alas! the old lonesome fort, the sweet old fort, whose pyramids of cannon-balls were only like pleasant reminders of the beauty of peace, whose manifold angles were but warm and sunny nooks for lizards and men to lounge in and dream in, whose ample and ancient moat had converted itself with grasses and with tiny flowers into a sacred refuge from trade and care, known to many a weary soul,—the dear old fort is practically no more: its glories of calm and of solitude have departed utterly away. The Cheyennes, the Kiowas, the Comanches, the Caddoes, and the Arapahoes, with their shuffling chains


and strange tongues and barbaric gestures, have frightened the timid swallow of romance out of the sweetest nest that he ever built in America. It appears that some time about the middle of 1874 the United States Government announced to the Indians in Northwest Texas that they must come in and give a definite account of themselves, whereupon a large number declared themselves hostile. Against these four columns of troops were sent out from as many different posts, which were managed so vigorously that in no long time the great majority of the unfriendly Indians either surrendered or were captured. Some of these were known to have been guilty of atrocious crimes ; others were men of consequence in their tribes; and it was resolved to make a selection of the principal individuals of these two classes, and to confine them in old Fort Marion, at St. Augustine.

And so here they are—”Medicine Water,” a ringleader, along with “White Man,” “Rising Bull,” “Hailstone,” “Sharp Bully, “and others, in the terrible murder of the Germain family, and in the more terrible fate of the two Germain girls who were recently recaptured from the Cheyennes; “Come See Him,” who was in the murder of the Short surveying – party; “Soaring Eagle,” supposed to have killed the hunter Brown, near Fort Wallace; “Big Moccasin” and “Making Medicine,” horse-thieves and raiders; “Packer,” the murderer of Williams; ” Mochi,” the squaw identified by the Germain girls as having chopped the head of their murdered mother with an axe. Besides these, who constitute most of the criminals, are a lot against whom there is no particular charge, but who are confined on the principle that prevention is better than cure. ” Gray Beard,” one of this latter class of chiefs, leaped from a car-window at Baldwin, Florida, while being conveyed to St. Augustine, and was shot, after a short pursuit, by one of his guards. “Lean Bear,” another, stabbed himself and two of his guards, apparently in a crazy fit, when near Nashville, Tennessee, en route, but has since recovered and been sent to join those in the fort. One of the Kiowas died of pneumonia shortly after arriving at St. Augustine, leaving seventy-three, including two squaws and a little girl, now in confinement. Their quarters are in the casemates within the fort, which have been fitted up for their use. During the day they are allowed to move about the interior of the fort, and are sometimes taken out in squads to bathe; at night they are locked up.*

* The Indians were released in May, 1878, by order of the War Department and turned over to the Interior Department, by which the older ones were sent to Fort Sill, Indian Territory, and the younger ones to Hampton (Va.) Normal Institute to be educated and taught different trades—an experiment that has so far proved very successful.

They have a passion for trying their skill in drawing, and are delighted with a gift of pencil and paper.


Criminals as they are, stirrers-up of trouble as they are, rapidly degenerating as they are, no man can see one of these stalwart-chested fellows rise and wrap his blanket about him with that big, majestic sweep of arm which does not come to any strait-jacketed civilized being, without a certain melancholy in the bottom of his heart as he wonders what might have become of these people if so be that gentle contact with their white neighbors might have been substituted in place of the unspeakable maddening wrongs which have finally left them but a little corner of their continent. Nor can one repress a little moralizing as one reflects upon the singularity of that fate which has finally placed these red-men on the very spot where red-men’s wrongs began three centuries and a half ago; for it was here that Ponce de Leon landed in 1512, and from the very start there was enmity betwixt the Spaniard and the Indian…

They were turned much against their will into respectable members of society.

Inspection of Indian Prisoners, Fort Marion, Fla 1876-77. Artist: Making Medicine (Cheyenne)

Here is one of the saddest pairs of before-and-after pictures you’ll ever see:

Tom Torlino (Navajo) 1885.

I confess I’ve never read the text, I love this book for its pictures. They depict the lives that the artists and their fellow tribesmen had led including their recent encounters with the United States soldiers.  The first ones here are Cheyenne:

Cheyenne warriors count coup on Sioux women & a Crow counts coup on a Cheyenne 1890

Here’s the Wikipedia explanation of the phrase “to count coup”:

Counting coup refers to the winning of prestige in battle by the Plains Indians. Warriors won prestige by acts of bravery in the face of the enemy, and these acts could be recorded in various ways and retold as stories. Any blow struck against the enemy counted as a coup, but the most prestigious acts included touching an enemy warrior, with the hand or with a coup stick, then escaping unharmed. Counting coup could also involve stealing from the enemy. Risk of injury or death was required to count coup. Coups were recorded by notches in the coup stick, or by feathers in the headdress of a warrior who was rewarded with them for an act of bravery.

The artists are known to us collectively as Ledger Artists.  They were drawing in army accounting ledgers, sometimes on pages that already had sums or lists of supplies scrawled on them.  The names of some artists aren’t known.  Of those names we know we have either the English version of their actual name or the incongruous English name they were assigned instead. “Frank Henderson”  is an example of the latter.

A close encounter with a soldier 1878-81 (Cheyenne) Artist unknown.

Attack on a teamsters’ camp 1878-81 (Cheyenne) Artist unknown.

A Cheyenne Warrior Confronts The Pawnee c.1890

Counting Coup on a Crow Man & Woman 1871-76 (Cheyenne) Artist Unknown

Last Bull Captures a Horse 1871-76 (Cheyenne)

Here are three Arapaho drawings:

Artist: “Frank Henderson”. 1882 (Arapaho).

Little Shield. c.1876 (Arapaho).

Kiowa portraits, 1877. By Wohaw.

Warrior Engages Enemy. 1871-76.

I probably ought to read the text.  Some overlapping of images and the even continuous lines around the horses (most of them) make me think the artists were cutting out stencils and tracing their outlines.  They got more movement into their battle scenes than many European artists have achieved.  Uccello’s horses are chess pieces or rocking horses by comparison.

Paulo Uccello. Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano, c. 1438–1440

I have photographed pages from the book here.  There’s a dreary greyness in the reproductions that isn’t helped by the work having been drawn in old accounts ledgers. Try and imagine the work as it was when it was first made 140 years ago: the colours were brighter and the lined brownish paper wouldn’t have intruded on the image, making it look a bit like a palimpsest.

There’s a 1997 article by Janet Catherine Berlo here.

On the influence of the Plains Indians’ ledger drawings, MMcM directed me to Paul Tsosie’s delightful “Horse Race”, made sixty years later. I believe it’s in the collection of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s Laboratory of Anthropology as item #53970/13 (though this reproduction of it is from a Santa Fe cookbook).  It’s so much a 1930s American  image as well as being in the tradition of the ledger artists.

Horse Race, by Paul Tsosie (Navajo). 1937.