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A “Magnificent Pecuniary Return”: Thomas McKenney’s “Indian Portraits” in London

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Abstract:

In 1839 Thomas Loraine McKenney, chief administrator in U.S. Federal “Indian Affairs” from 1816-1830, wrote several letters to a Philadelphia acquaintance about an investment scheme involving a collection of “Indian Portraits” presumably up for sale. In McKenney’s estimation, a number of conditions made a co-purchase of these paintings promise a “magnificent pecuniary return.” McKenney’s diplomatic connections from his tenure in Washington, the fact that some of the paintings “faithfully” represented a “Treaty of the North American Tribes,” and, finally, “the lights [he] could throw on the history of these interesting people” due to his years interacting with and studying those from whom he negotiated massive land cessions “would tend to multiply the profits, greatly.” In fact, McKenney asserted, the collection of paintings was likely to find the “patronage of the entire [British] Royal Family” in London, where McKenney was more than happy to travel to broker the deal.

McKenney’s letters indicate important shifts in elite Euro-American figurations of “the fate of the Indians” that would be central to the valuation of portraits “documenting” the appearance of important leaders of Indian nations. During McKenney’s early years in Washington, he witnessed several treaties brokering enormous Indian land cessions. However, despite consistent Euro-American encroachment on Indian lands, political discourse frequently centered around “civilizing” Native peoples. According to this logic, individual Indians could be accepted into the U.S. body politic as long as they learned to appreciate and practice Western gendered-divisions of labor, nuclear family life, land ownership, European agricultural practices, and, for those with enough resources, could understand the “benefits” of racial slavery. By the time of McKenney’s letters, however, Andrew Jackson, along with McKenney’s help, had passed the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830, which insisted upon the relocation of all remaining Southeast Indian nations to the trans-Mississippi west. Along with this forced migration of tens of thousands of individuals came affirmation for those who believed the American Indian would eventually disappear from the continent. Portraits of Native Americans as they “once existed,” therefore, would prove increasingly valuable in their documentation of U.S.-America’s extinct former inhabitants. According to McKenney, the paintings’ value would be appreciated most by “enlightened” viewers across the Atlantic, who would find McKenney’s historical narration about, and the imagery of the vanishing people of a former colony most fascinating.

In this paper, I interrogate changing federal policies and their relationship to visual, political, and historical discourses on American Indians living within the imagined expanse of U.S. territory. I am especially interested in the trans-Atlantic circulation of such discourses and how they served both to unite and differentiate the U.S. and Britain for broader transnational audiences. In a political moment when British-Indian collaborations no longer threatened U.S. sovereignty as they did during the War of 1812, did the trope of the “vanishing Indian” serve to connect the U.S. and Britain in related imperial histories? In what ways did imagery of the American Indian point to the “uniqueness” of U.S. territorial expansion and an expansive nationalism that disavowed imperialism?
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Peterson, Dawn. "A “Magnificent Pecuniary Return”: Thomas McKenney’s “Indian Portraits” in London" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186550_index.html>

APA Citation:

Peterson, D. , 2007-10-11 "A “Magnificent Pecuniary Return”: Thomas McKenney’s “Indian Portraits” in London" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186550_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In 1839 Thomas Loraine McKenney, chief administrator in U.S. Federal “Indian Affairs” from 1816-1830, wrote several letters to a Philadelphia acquaintance about an investment scheme involving a collection of “Indian Portraits” presumably up for sale. In McKenney’s estimation, a number of conditions made a co-purchase of these paintings promise a “magnificent pecuniary return.” McKenney’s diplomatic connections from his tenure in Washington, the fact that some of the paintings “faithfully” represented a “Treaty of the North American Tribes,” and, finally, “the lights [he] could throw on the history of these interesting people” due to his years interacting with and studying those from whom he negotiated massive land cessions “would tend to multiply the profits, greatly.” In fact, McKenney asserted, the collection of paintings was likely to find the “patronage of the entire [British] Royal Family” in London, where McKenney was more than happy to travel to broker the deal.

McKenney’s letters indicate important shifts in elite Euro-American figurations of “the fate of the Indians” that would be central to the valuation of portraits “documenting” the appearance of important leaders of Indian nations. During McKenney’s early years in Washington, he witnessed several treaties brokering enormous Indian land cessions. However, despite consistent Euro-American encroachment on Indian lands, political discourse frequently centered around “civilizing” Native peoples. According to this logic, individual Indians could be accepted into the U.S. body politic as long as they learned to appreciate and practice Western gendered-divisions of labor, nuclear family life, land ownership, European agricultural practices, and, for those with enough resources, could understand the “benefits” of racial slavery. By the time of McKenney’s letters, however, Andrew Jackson, along with McKenney’s help, had passed the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830, which insisted upon the relocation of all remaining Southeast Indian nations to the trans-Mississippi west. Along with this forced migration of tens of thousands of individuals came affirmation for those who believed the American Indian would eventually disappear from the continent. Portraits of Native Americans as they “once existed,” therefore, would prove increasingly valuable in their documentation of U.S.-America’s extinct former inhabitants. According to McKenney, the paintings’ value would be appreciated most by “enlightened” viewers across the Atlantic, who would find McKenney’s historical narration about, and the imagery of the vanishing people of a former colony most fascinating.

In this paper, I interrogate changing federal policies and their relationship to visual, political, and historical discourses on American Indians living within the imagined expanse of U.S. territory. I am especially interested in the trans-Atlantic circulation of such discourses and how they served both to unite and differentiate the U.S. and Britain for broader transnational audiences. In a political moment when British-Indian collaborations no longer threatened U.S. sovereignty as they did during the War of 1812, did the trope of the “vanishing Indian” serve to connect the U.S. and Britain in related imperial histories? In what ways did imagery of the American Indian point to the “uniqueness” of U.S. territorial expansion and an expansive nationalism that disavowed imperialism?

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