Thomas Loraine McKenney. Not a name widely recognized these days. But he’s responsible for one of the treasures in our collection.
Beginning in 1816, McKenney was the United States superintendent of Indian trade in Washington, DC, and then head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1822, he hired the well-known local artist Charles Bird King to paint portraits of the Native American chiefs who came to the city. McKenney and Bird thus began a 20-year relationship during which Bird painted at least 143 portraits.
The paintings eventually made their way to the Smithsonian Institution in 1858. Their stay at the Smithsonian, however, was not long and happy. On 24 January 1865, a fire broke out in the museum and completely destroyed the 291 paintings in the gallery where King’s paintings hung alongside those of another Indian artist, John Mix Stanley.*
Happily, this is not the end of the story.
In August 1830, McKenney had left his government post (actually, he was dismissed because President Jackson was not taken with McKenney’s earlier support of John C. Calhoun). But he was able to carry out a project he had envisioned even earlier on: publishing the portraits along with biographies of the Native American leaders. It took years of borrowing the original paintings, hauling them back and forth to Philadelphia (where McKenney had settled), getting lithographs made, and doing the research for the textual material to bring the project to completion. McKenney relied on friends still in government to help with all this.
The resulting 3 volume work was published as History of the Indian tribes of North America, with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred and twenty portraits, from the Indian gallery in the Department of war, at Washington. By Thomas L. M’Kenney and James Hall. Philadelphia: E. C. Biddle [etc.], 1836-1844.
The colored lithographs are stunning, even today. Our Pennsylvania Imprints Collection happens to have one complete and two partial editions of this work. We have 2 volumes of the first edition, a 3 volume set dated 1836-44; volume 2 of a 3 volume set dated 1842-44; and a complete 3 volume set dated 1865 (published in Philadelphia by Rice, Rutter & co.).
The amazing story of these portraits and their publication is well told in The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King by Herman J. Viola. Washington and New York: Smithsonian Institution Press and Doubleday, 1976. [State Library call number: 759.13 K58Z V8]
The Smithsonian has an online exhibit about the paintings and book.
The University of Washington has published digital versions of the text and 121 lithographs.
*[The State Library has a microfiche copy of the Smithsonian Institution’s catalog of the Stanley paintings published in 1852. (There’s also a digital copy in the Early Canadiana Online collection.) His portraits were of Native Americans from 43 different tribes. Unfortunately, as a 19th century gallery guide, there were no illustrations in the pamphlet.]