Indian War Photographs

Posted on: August 7, 2019
Topics: Collections

By Julia Tcharfas, Collections Cataloger, Autry Museum of the American West

Those browsing the Autry’s Collections online will sometimes come across a “binder” icon on the upper-right-hand corner of the page. This icon is reserved for certain items in the archives and manuscripts collections that one might want to browse, page-by-page, in high resolution. Clicking on the binder icon will open a new window. This not only makes the documents easier to read, it also draws attention to the physicality of the original pages, the details, the wear and tear, the handmade markings, and the captions that may be left in the margins.

There is no “library science” that determines how we designate an item as a binder item. It is more of a feeling that a particular document warrants closer inspection. One such recent addition is an album of American Indian War Photographs by the U.S. Army War College and a printed Catalog that accompanies it. Both documents were compiled around 1916 and purchased by the Southwest Museum a few decades later.

The U.S. Army War College was established in 1901 at the Washington Barracks in D.C. to instruct young soldiers in the principles and techniques learned in over a century of warfare, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, as well as the numerous frontier conflicts and wars with Native American tribes throughout the nineteenth century. Presumably, the college’s photo album functioned like a lecturer’s slide deck, illustrating the history lessons in the classroom. We can assume these visual aids were originally intended as instruments for communicating military strategy. However, they also demonstrate a particular kind of historical narrative, as told from the perspective of the U.S. Army. Beyond documenting the main characters, locations, and events of combat, the album also reveals the military’s romanticized mythology of the Indian Wars: sublime Southwest landscapes annotated as maps of pursuit; highly stylized studio portraiture of Indian prisoners in full traditional dress; and aerial vistas of newly built Army fortifications. The catalog is captioned with exotic tales of “brave soldiers,” “noble savages,” and “American progress.”

The first half of the album is dedicated to the Apache Wars (1849–1886). It opens with landscape photographs of those woodland and mountainous regions of the Sierra Madre turned fortified strongholds, which were once the refuge of the great Apache Chiefs and their people. The Army College’s captions add a new layer of description to images of grassy hill slopes: “It was in such ranges as are shown in the photograph that the [A]pache trails led when in fear of pursuit.”

The album then follows a cast of infamous characters from the Apache Wars, starting with the rebel Geronimo, who led the resistance against the U.S. and Mexican militaries. Geronimo became a celebrity after his imprisonment and was even displayed as a curiosity in the 1898 International Exposition in Omaha. These images of the “enemies of the state” are complicated by the fact that they are staged as studio portraits adorned with decorative traditional tribal dress and painted backdrops. They showcase a portrait of otherness preserved as the artifacts of a bygone time. Again, the images are further complicated by the captions provided by the college. Many of these were written by Britton Davis, the First Lieutenant of the U.S. Army (played by Matt Damon in the 1993 film Geronimo: An American Legend) and credited as one of the key players in the Geronimo Campaign. Britton’s captions reflect a rather ignorant and cruel view of the Apache leaders and people:

Geronimo was not a Chief—not even a Sub-Chief. He made some pretensions to be a medicine man, but was not a success even at that as the Indians universally disliked him. He was extremely crafty and suspicious, but a man of very strong character and unusual ability as a warrior. These latter qualities account for his leadership. When he came on the reservation in 1884 he brought with him a squaw who had been for several years a captive of the Mexicans and had lived for a time in the city of Chihuahua. This woman, Huerra, had great influence over him and was a thorn in Britton Davis’[s] side in dealing with Geronimo. For some reason she has a acquired a deep[-]seated hatred of the whites and was a prominent fact in the outbreak of May 1885, when about one-fourth of the Chiricahuas and [W]arm [S]pring Indians left the reservation—one hundred and forty-three men, women and children—out of a total of five hundred and fifty-odd. Geronimo is reported to have said that [M]ickey [F]ree and Mr. Britton Davis was responsible for his leaving the reservation. If he made such a statement, it was simply a lie to save his face. Mickey [F]ree had nothing whatever to do with it and the cause of the outbreak [was] matters entirely beyond my control.

The second half of the album focuses on the built environment of the U.S. Army, their forts, barracks, Indian Agencies, reservations and Indian schools. Within the Indian Wars, much of the military strategy was centered on discipline and control. The Army forts, initially built to combat the Native populations, were turned into reservations, while Indian schools took children away from their families and embedded them in the American education system. One of the more notorious examples in the album is the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which became the current home of the U.S. Army War College in 1951. Serving as the flagship Indian boarding school from 1879 through 1918, the Carlisle School took Chiricahua Apache students and immersed them in mainstream American education. The students were given haircuts and Anglo-American dress. The before-and-after photographs of their transformation construct a narrative of primitive, wild youth entering and assimilating into the American culture outside the reservation.

The American Indian War Photographs album and its catalog show a different side of American military history, documenting the political and cultural front of the Native American wars instead of combat. It frames the military adversary as peoples and cultures that are curiosities of the past, to be defeated or assimilated through architecture, education, dress, and custom.

As a collection item we might see this album and its catalog in two ways. First, we can see the photographs and the subjects in the photographs as artifacts in their own right. The album contains historically significant images of Apache Indians. Second, we can zoom out and see the album not as just an artifact of Indian War photographs but one that also tells us something about the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army War College that assembled these documents. When we examine the photographs in relation to the captions, one finds that there is as much to learn from what is said about the photographs and how they are presented as there is to learn from the pictures themselves. The binder window gives us a platform for seeing this dual narrative within the album by showing the images in the context of the album pages, with their captions and markings digitized as a whole.