Item #8587 [Photographic portrait of a northern plains couple, being a Native American woman and a Euro-American trader.]
[Photographic portrait of a northern plains couple, being a Native American woman and a Euro-American trader.]
[Photographic portrait of a northern plains couple, being a Native American woman and a Euro-American trader.]

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[Photographic portrait of a northern plains couple, being a Native American woman and a Euro-American trader.]

Northern Plains, circa 1875. Tintype, 4.175” x 2.75”, in a quarter plate thermoplastic case with ornamental brass mat; sight size 3.5” x 2.5”; overall case size 5” x 4”, outer covers with relief of woman on horseback within ornamental border.

An unusual and intriguing tintype picturing a Native American woman and her Euro-American husband, presumably a trader, evidently taken somewhere in the northern plains region in the 1870s.

The woman, seeming somewhat shy and set a bit further back than the man, is nevertheless striking in her full length robe and plaid shawl, wearing five rings on her fingers, a dentalium choker and four strands of dentalium ear ornaments, the latter two commonly worn by the Sioux but also by the Cheyenne and others. With his walrus mustache, beadwork leggings and moccasins, what appears to be a Remington Model 73 between his legs, ammunition belt around his waist, and beadwork pouch and pipe bag, the man is a western character of the first order. His beadwork and articles of clothing derive from various regions of the southern, central, and northern plains. The moccasins are probably Cheyenne, his pipe bag and strike-a-lite pouch are Sioux, and the mescal bean trim on his leggings comes from the southern plains.

Photographs of such unions are quite unusual, especially those of such an early date for the region. While similar images are probably lurking in various collections, public and private, we have been unable to locate any truly comparable original photographs. The only image of an interracial plains couple in the western Americana collection at Beinecke Library, for instance, is a copy photo of George Bent (also known as Ho-my-ike, who was half Anglo and half Cheyenne and was raised in the Cheyenne community) and his wife. Our searches of the Smithsonian digital database, as well as the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians and various relevant photo books have been similarly unproductive.

Before the concerted westward expansion of the United States during the post-Civil War era, interracial relationships in North America were relatively common, especially in areas where the fur trade brought European and Native Americans into close contact. Indeed, across many regions west of the Mississippi where white people remained scarce and the “legal (and cultural) influence of the state was weak,” unions between white men and Indigenous women established and maintained racially mixed economic and socio-political fabrics that one scholar has dubbed a “middle ground” (White, p. 81). One such middle ground formed in the plains of southeastern Colorado, where in the early 1830s William Wells Bent (father of George), several of his brothers, and their partner Ceran St. Vrain founded a trading post along the Santa Fe trail known as Bent’s Fort. In 1835 Bent married Owl Woman, the eldest daughter of a Cheyenne leader and medicine man, who became an important ambassador between the region’s Native, white, and—increasingly—mixed race inhabitants.

The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush heralded the end of the middle ground at Bent’s Fort, however, and following the Civil War, widespread “collision between hard-charging White migrants on the one hand, and racially mixed societies on the other, produced spasms of bloody conflict,” and the erasure of such mixed and integrated societies from the written record (Graybill, p. 108). While interracial unions continued to take place—also, though perhaps less frequently, between white women and Native American men—the societal and economic balance which such couples supported was largely crushed as colonial violence and social norms spread westward. (A major exception to this loss of mixed Native American and white identity is, of course, the Métis peoples of the Great Lakes and western Canada). Taken circa 1875, this tintype documents an increasingly rare interracial relationship, providing evidence for the still growing effort to account for Native-white couples, families, and societies both before and after the Civil War.

A captivating photo-document of interracial coupling on the plains, and quite simply a “killer” western photograph.

REFERENCES: Graybill, Andrew R. “Native-White Intermarriage and Family in 19th-century North America,” History Compass, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2016); White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1991). We are indebted to George Miles, former curator of the Western Americana Collection at Beinecke Library, and Wes Cowan, founder of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., for their gracious and expert assistance in evaluating this tintype.

Item #8587

Price: $25,000.00

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