History of the Indian Tribes of North America by Thomas Loraine McKenney

Susan Durack, Special Collections and Archives, Maynooth University Library

Thomas Loraine McKenney

Who would think that a book on the topic of the Indian tribes of North American could be found in the historic collections of the Russell Library of Maynooth College, Co. Kildare, Ireland? The bookplate on the inside of the front cover gives us a clue. It is that of Rev. John Canon O’Hanlon, whose collection of books now reside in Maynooth University Library.  Born in Stradbally, Co. Laois, O’Hanlon served as a missionary priest in St. Louis, Missouri from 1847 to 1853 when he returned to Ireland.

The O’Hanlon books held among the collections at Maynooth illustrate the former owner’s wide ranging interests in people, place and history. Maynooth’s edition of the History of the Indian Tribes of North America was published in two volumes in Philadelphia in 1872.   It contains eighty large coloured portraits and includes historical and descriptive texts. There is also ‘An essay on the history of North American Indians’ by James Hall in volume two.  Thirty-five sets of the publication were published.

This valued publication represents the forward thinking of individuals such as McKenney and Hall as it is the surviving legacy of a previous project. Thomas McKenney was the US Superintendent of Indian Trade within the War Department.  He commissioned portraits of American Indians from the artist Charles Bird King (1785-1962).

An image of Petalesharro, a Pawnee Brave

American Indians had travelled to Washington to negotiate treaties with the Federal Government. King undertook the portraits of American Indians up to 1837.  While the majority of prints were based on the work of Charles Bird King.  Other artists involved in the project were James Otto Lewis (1799-1858), Peter Rindisbacher (1806-1834) and Henry Inman (1801-1846).

McKenney’s motivation for the project was based on his belief that the Indian people were in danger of destruction due to the expansion of European-American society. He hoped to preserve “the likenesses of some of the most distinguished among this most extraordinary race of people” because he believed “that this race was about to become extinct, and that a faithful resemblance of the most remarkable among them would be full of interest.” Women such as Pocahontas, interpreters such as Paddy Carr and educationalists such as Sequoyah (Sikwayi) are represented in the collection of portraits.

The collection was housed at first in the United States Department of War that was responsible for Indian Affairs and then moved to The Castle, the Smithsonian Institution’s first building.

McKenney undertook to commission lithographs of the paintings, with each portrait supported by a biography of the subject. McKenney commissioned James Hall (1793-1868), judge, writer and Treasurer of the State of Illinois. Hall spent eight years working on and completing the project undertaking much of the research himself. The publication was to pay for itself through subscription at a cost of $120 per person.  The financial crisis of 1837 proved to be a hindrance as subscribers could not afford the luxury of paying the subscriptions.  McKenney withdrew from the publication project at this point. Hall persevered and brought the project to fruition in 1844.

A fire in 1865 in the Smithsonian Institute saw 295 original portraits destroyed. Only 5 were rescued. This record of the portraits would have been irretrievably lost had McKenney, Hall and other colleagues not had the foresight to undertake and complete the lithography and publication project. The volumes remain a record of prominent Native American leaders of the first half of the 19th century. These images form the only record of the individuals portrayed and represent the works of 19th Century American artists.

One interesting Irish connection in the biographies is that of Paddy Carr, a Creek translator who was the son of an Irishman who married a Creek woman. Paddy Carr was born near Fort Mitchell in Alabama and taken in by the family of Colonel Crowell, an Indian agent. He was raised in white society, but served as a translator for his people on a number of important occasions. He accumulated land and wealth and had a keen interest in horses and racing.

The famed Pocahontas also appears in the publication. There are testimonials as to the veracity of her likeness at the end of volume two.

Statement as to the veracity of Pocahontas’ portrait likeness


Sequoyah (Sikwayi)

Sequoyah (Sikwayi), ca. 1760-1843 (Cherokee (Aniyunwiya)), also known as George Guess, was born in Tennessee, the son of Nathaniel Gist and a mixed-blood Cherokee woman.  He is best remembered for his development of the Cherokee Alphabet.  His name was given to some of the oldest and largest trees in the world – the Sequoia.

Tshusick (Ojibwa) is perhaps unfairly described as a con-artist.  She appeared in Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1826-1827.  Described as attractive and possessing remarkable conversational skills in both English and French, she was received warmly in Washington, entertained in the highest social circles and received many gifts.  She was baptized Lucy Cornelia Barbour.  Her so called deception was discovered after her departure from Washington, when it was found out that she was the wife of a scullion and that she regularly went on adventures such as her trip to Washington.  King painted her portrait in Washington, D.C. in 1827. 

This is a remarkable book not only because it is the surviving record of the portraits project including the artists involved. The inclusion of biographies opens up the subject matter to wider audiences at the time. One has to be mindful of the mind- set of the authors, compilers and society of the time as we read the biographies. The sitters are proudly posed in traditional attire and a large proportion are wearing medals.  According to McKenney American Indians attached great importance to medals, as he summarised in 1829 “without medals, any plan of operations among Indians, be it what it may, is essentially enfeebled”.  

Apart from its historical content, it is the visual impact of the beautiful, colourful and inspirational images in the publication that first draws the reader’s attention.                 

Asseola: A Seminole Leader



3 thoughts on “History of the Indian Tribes of North America by Thomas Loraine McKenney

  1. Audrey April 15, 2019 / 9:35 am

    An informative, interesting and enjoyable post 🙂


  2. Anna Porter May 17, 2021 / 5:37 pm

    That’s fascinating. I wonder how many of the original 35 sets still survive? This copy really is a library treasure. Will it be digitised at some point?


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