Smithsonian Institution, old map
Small inset of Smithsonian Institution from an 1856 wall map of the U.S. (from our inventory).

[NOTE: The vernacular of the time included the use of the word “Indian” to represent the indigenous people of the North American continent. Most of the individuals named in this article held a deep reverence for indigenous cultures, including a desire to preserve their peoples and heritage. There is no doubt that they gladly would have adapted to modern vernacular that differentiates between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and those from the subcontinent of India. Here, we refer to an Indian portrait, for example, in the same context as the artists and commissioners.]

The Smithsonian Institute launched in 1846 through an endowment by British scientist John Smithson. In the beginning, a few people lived at the castle. Some 20 years later, in January 1865 as the country was winding down the Civil War, some of the workers accidentally set the building on fire. This happened despite a fireproof construction upgrade around 1852. As the story goes, some workers thought they were connecting a stovepipe to an exhaust flue. But it turns out, it wasn’t a flue. Rather, faulty construction merely led to a hole that emptied behind the wall.

When people inside realized the castle was on fire, they began salvaging all they could. Some were throwing books out the windows and others were gathering papers, scientific specimens, and anything they could. The fire only damaged part of the building, but the loss of collections and artifacts was major. Indeed, much of the loss was actually due to water used to put out flames rather than from fire damage itself.

Located in Washington D.C., the burning of the Smithsonian actually led Congress to shut down while in the middle of session. Said one journal, “Mr. Patterson told us the Senate was discussing a very important bill when it announced that the Inst. was on fire and immediately adjourned.”

Smithsonian Institute fire of 1865 - photo by Alexander Gardner, lost Indian portraits
This photograph of the Smithsonian on fire was taken and heavily retouched by Alexander Gardner. (Image: siarchives.si.edu)

Losing an Indian Portrait or two…hundred

Among the many losses were two hundred original oil paintings of American Indians by John Mix Stanley as well as another well-known Indian portrait painter Charles Bird King.

The Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thomas McKenney, commissioned King to paint portraits of a large delegate of Native Americans visiting President Monroe in 1821. For almost four decades, the portraits hung in the War Department until they were moved to the Smithsonian in 1858. Regarding Stanley and King, Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post writes:

“Stanley, then 49, was an artist and explorer who had roamed the country, joined expeditions and painted Native Americans in settings where they lived in the 1840s, from Arkansas to Washington state.

He often maneuvered around the violence between Indians and settlers to do his work. At least 150 of his Indian paintings had been at the Smithsonian since 1852, scholars believe.

King, who lived in Washington and died in 1862, had been hired by the government to paint portraits of the scores of Indian leaders who came to the capital to negotiate treaties, settle grievances or meet the president.

King’s 139 paintings had joined Stanley’s at the Smithsonian in 1858.

Together, they made up “the most valuable collection in existence of illustrations of the features, costumes and habits” of Native Americans, wrote the Smithsonian’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, according to a study of King’s work by Herman J. Viola.”

Indian portrait, Chippewa Chief, the Berry Picker - Indian portrait by James Otto Lewis
Indian portrait of Famous Chippewa Chief (the Berry Picker) by James Otto Lewis

“The Aboriginal Portfolio”

King’s work also included many faithfully copied works of the famous frontier artist John Otto Lewis. In our collection, we are fortunate to have some rarer prints done by Lewis from his well-known work The Aboriginal Portfolio. We have several in very good condition and are happy to share them. Pictured here is an Indian portrait of a famous Chippewa Chief known in English as Berry Picker. According to the print, this portrait was painted in 1825. You can purchase it here. Alternatively, ask us about a reproduction at lower cost.

To learn more about the Smithsonian fire and its devastating effects, check out these articles:

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