McKenney's Research

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Thomas Loraine McKenney founded of the Bureau of Indian Affairs where he worked for sixteen years. Under four presidents he was responsible for important treaties and starting school systems for a number of tribes including the Five Civilized Tribes, the Southern Indian nations of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. But many feel that McKenney's most significant contribution was the series of Indian portraits he caused to be created.

As the U. S. superintendent of Indian trade in Georgetown, McKenney hired the painter Charles Bird King and began developing a governmental collection of portraits of prominent Indians who visited Washington. McKenney's plan was "preserving 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 in after times."

Many Indian chiefs and elders came to Washington to negotiate treaties and King painted over 100 portraits between 1821 and 1842. There were so many portraits to do, King got his friend and student, George Cooke to assist. In addition James Otto Lewis painted some in the field that King later copied.

With dedication, McKenney began the long process of getting the paintings reproduced as lithographs with original hand coloring. This expensive and elaborate process was aided by Edward C. Biddle, a Philadelphia printer, who published the first volume of what would be a three-volume set in 1836. James Hall was hired to write text based on McKenney's research. These volumes became one of the highlights of 19th Century lithographic printing. They also documented the extensive collection of the King paintings, many of which were lost in a fire that destroyed part of the Smithsonian castle in January 1865. Now all that is left to us are these wonderful hand colored lithographs.

For further information on this subject see:

Cosentino, Andrew F. The Paintings of Charles Bird King (1785-1862). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.

Horan, James D. The McKenney-Hall Portrait Gallery of American Indians. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972.

Viola, Herman J. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King. Washington, D. C. and New York: Smithsonian Institution Press and Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976.