P.T. Barnum Shares His “Indian Life” Segment of His Famous Show With a Visiting Delegation of Zuni Native Americans and Wants to Know What They Think

He offers to cooperate by providing illustrations relating to Indian “objects and acts as I actually show to the public”

“If you publish the ideas of the Indians about my show, please send copy of the paper…”

In 1843, when his American Museum was only two years old, P.T. Barnum pioneered in the use of Native Americans as a form of entertainment when he transported a collection of Sac, Fox and Iowa...

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P.T. Barnum Shares His “Indian Life” Segment of His Famous Show With a Visiting Delegation of Zuni Native Americans and Wants to Know What They Think

He offers to cooperate by providing illustrations relating to Indian “objects and acts as I actually show to the public”

“If you publish the ideas of the Indians about my show, please send copy of the paper…”

In 1843, when his American Museum was only two years old, P.T. Barnum pioneered in the use of Native Americans as a form of entertainment when he transported a collection of Sac, Fox and Iowa Indians to New York and had them perform their dances and war-like re-enactments. “They will draw,” he predicted accurately. This was a full 40 years before Buffalo Bill started his Wild West Show. Barnum continued to use Native Americans in his shows. In the 1860s he brought some of the most powerful chiefs in the country up to his museum from the peace conference they were having with President Lincoln. Among them were Lone Wolf and White Bull of the Kiowas, and War Bonnet and Lean Bear of the Cheyenne. One of the bunch was a notorious individual named Yellow Buffalo, who was supposed to have killed numerous white people on the frontier. In 1882, by which time he had graduated from museums to the circus business, Barnum toured with a segment entitled “Indian Life”, and traveled with an “Indian Band”. Two years later he presented his Grand Ethnological Congress of Nations in which he presented all the known world’s “uncivilized races” and “savage and barbarous tribes”, including a group of North American Sioux people amongst the Zulus, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines. Of course, colorful posters were created to advertise these events, and some showed Native Americans.

After a brief period at Cornell University, where he put together and curated an exhibit of Indian artifacts, Frank Hamilton Cushing attracted notice from the director of the Smithsonian Institution. At Cushing was appointed curator of the ethnological department of the National Museum in Washington, D.C. There he came to the attention of John Wesley Powell, of the Bureau of Ethnology. Cushing was invited by Powell to join the James Stevenson anthropological expedition to New Mexico. The group traveled by rail to the end of the line at Las Vegas, New Mexico, then on to Zuni Pueblo. Fascinated by this culture, Cushing gained permission to stay at the pueblo. He “went native”, living with the Zuni from 1879 to 1884, and becoming anthropology’s first participant observer.

He often told the Zuni folk tales and legends from his own culture. In addition, in 1882 he took his Zuni father and fellow Bow members on a tour to the Eastern United States to show them his culture. Their journey attracted considerable press attention, as there was great interest in American Indians of the West. Cushing considered the tour part of what he called “the reciprocal method”, where he would introduce his anthropological subjects to his own culture, just as they had introduced him to theirs.

Autograph letter signed, on his ornate circus letterhead, Baltimore but permanent address Bridgeport, Conn., May 4, 1882, to Cushing, offering to comply with the Indians’ request, and curiously inquiring what the Indians think of his show. “I would present the pictures you ask for but they are hundreds of miles ahead of our show in the hands of our advertisers and made up in sets for distribution, and I cannot get them. My manager thinks that if you write stating your object to the following gentlemen saying the Indians desire pictures of such objects and acts as I actually show to the public, they will send them to you at cost, more probably free. Truly yours, P.T.Barnum.” He lists the men as “Mr. Riley colored show ball printer – 12 & 14 Spence St., New York City; The Courier Company, colored show bill printers, Buffalo, N.Y.; Strobridge & Co. lithographers, 140 Race St., Cincinnati, O. You can use my name with these gentlemen. If you publish the ideas of the Indians about my show, please send copy of the paper to Bridgeport, Conn. P.T. Barnum.”

Barnum’s hand-addressed envelope is still present, and his business card also comes with the letter.

This is the only letter of Barnum concerning the Native Americans in his show that we can recall seeing. It was obtained from legendary dealer Bob Tollett in the 1970s, and has been with a collector and his family ever since. It now resurfaces on the market after forty years.

Cushing returned to the Zuni pueblo for more study in late 1882, but frequent illnesses, his spending of much government money, and his controversial involvement in a Zuni-Navajo clash led the Bureau of Ethnology to call him back to Washington in 1884.

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