Ireland and the American Indians

By Juliana Adelman

Every once in a while the historian experiences a series of coincidences which makes her take a second look at something and maybe file it under ‘interesting lead to pursue in future’.  While reading through the minute books of the Dublin Zoological Society I came across a tantilizing reference to the visitation of a tribe of American Indians to the gardens in the 1840s.  I assumed it was another example of the distasteful nineteenth-century practice of human displays: public exhibitions of ‘savages’ from all continents were popular attractions and sometimes they were placed alongside animal exhibits.  Soon after, I came across an article on the visiting Indians in a Dublin newspaper.  The coverage surprised me.  There was certainly an element of condescension and titilation, but the Indians were treated as a mixture of visiting foreign dignitaries and actors. Far from the seedy sideshow in native flesh that I had imagined.  The tribe was described as making a visit to the zoological gardens, rather than being on display there, and all the gate receipts for the day were donated to them.  Hmmm, so much for a historian’s assumptions.

I didn’t think much more of it until a few months later I was reading William Cronon’s book Nature’s metropolis: Chicago and the great west (heartily recommended).  Cronon referred repeatedly to George Catlin’s doomed campaigns to save both American Indian tribes and buffalo habitats in the west.  Catlin, one of America’s early environmental campaigners, documented the demise of the buffalo in the face of expanding American cattle grazing. Catlin sounded familiar. A quick search in the National Library’s online catalogue revealed the presence of one of Catlin’s pamphlets advertising his American Indian show in London.  The penny dropped.

On a summer visit to Washington DC I took the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian museum.  There, in the midst of an impressive series of galleries, were George Catlin’s paintings of Indians.  Among them were some of the very same people who had visited Dublin.  The above image is of Chief White Cloud who was certainly on parts of the tour, but I cannot find confirmation of his being in Dublin.  The paintings are worth a visit to the museum on their own.  They are beautiful formal portraits, their subjects posed in the style of any nineteenth-century gentleman or woman. I am sure they are stylized, but they are clearly paintings of individual people executed by someone who knew them.

Catlin visited Ireland in May of 1843, where he delivered a series of lectures in the Rotunda (yes, same as the hospital).  Admission was a relatively pricy 2s/1s and the lectures included ‘tableux vivants’ of the Indians themselves, dressed in costume and performing traditional dances and songs.  They seem to have spent time in Britain both before and after their tour of Ireland.  In December of 1843, the Indians were introduced to Queen Victoria.  The Indians met with a very enthusiastic reception most places that they went and, according to Catlin, very much enjoyed their adventure (particularly the discovery of champagne).

Catlin was certainly no saint and his European tour with the American Indians did no harm to his career as a writer and painter.  His book on this tour is well worth a read, even just for the section on Dublin. Catlin’s principle book on the ‘manners and customs’ of the Indians whom he travelled amongst reads something like a natural history.  Catlin’s view of the Indians, while more sympathetic than most, leaned towards the ‘noble savage’.  Although he called the Indians his friends, he referred to them in the contemporary paternalistic language as savages and simpletons.

I have so far not managed to find any substantial responses to the Indians’ visit in Ireland.  One of their retinue throughout much of the tour in Europe was an Irishman called Daniel.  I think there is an interesting story here still waiting to be told.

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9 Responses to “Ireland and the American Indians”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    How intriguing and what a fantastic image. Thanks for sharing Juliana. I look forward anything else you might uncover. Lisa

  2. Felix Larkin Says:

    Very interesting piece, Juliana. I think the venue for Catlin’s lectures was probably the assembly hall attached to the Rotunda Hospital, the building which some of us will remember as the Ambassador Cinema. There were some plans a few years ago to turn this building into a library (part of the Dublin City Council library service), but this hasn’t happened yet – and there is probably no money available now for the project. A pity, since it is a very fine building. Its refurbishment would much improve the Parnell Square end of O’Connell Street.

  3. Tina Says:

    I agree with Lisa and Felix – what an interesting piece! Not only does it suggest a new perspective on the reception of Native Americans in Britain and Ireland in the early nineteenth century, but it also highlights the at times haphazard manner in which scholars ‘find’ or ‘fall into’ their research topics.

  4. patrick maume Says:

    Another example of Irish interest in North American Indians around the same time; when I was doing the DICTIONARY OF IRISH BIOGRAPHY entry on john O’Connell (Daniel O’connell’s son and political lieutenant) I read his published REMINISCENCES (which cover 1832-43) and found that he referes to a visit to Ireland by the celebrated Belgian Jesuit missionary to the Indians, Pierre-Jean de Smet, in the early 1840s. I don’t have the exact reference to hand but will look it up and post it if I remember to do so.
    Here is Wikipedia on Fr De Smet’s career.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Jean_DeSmet

  5. Juliana Says:

    Hi all,

    thanks for the comments and the interest.
    @Felix: you are of course correct about the Rotunda, it’s the theatre part not the hospital part (the former being built to host events in order to raise money for the latter). Shame about the library plans, the Ambassador would make a great library!

    @Patrick: an interesting overlap in time. I think this reflects a general interest in the Indians during the 1840s as US westward expansion is really getting under way. It would be worth comparing this period to attitudes in the later part of the century when the Americans are, some would say, engaged in more overt attempts to massacre and enclose.

    @Tina: Never having done US history I think I am always looking for a potential way to just put my toe in the water…

  6. puesoccurrences Says:

    Great stuff Juliana, and a great example of how ideas that hang around on the periphery can come to centre stage quite by accident.

    There’s another, quite interesting reference to American Indians that I come across quite frequently in my research and that you’ve reminded me of again with this piece. In the midst of the Famine – I think around 1847-48 – the Choctaw Nation sent a monetary gift to the Irish people by way of assistance to the relief programme. The gift was referred to on at least one occasion by Mary Robinson during the 150th commemoration ceremonies in the mid-1990s, and she eventually became an honorary chief of the Choctaw Nation.

    Kevin

  7. Tina Says:

    Fascinating stuff, Kevin! I never knew that Mary Robinson was an honorary chief of the Choctaw Nation… definitely something to look into when I have some free time!

  8. pachamamados Says:

    This is especially interesting to me as I have been transcribing my great great grandmother’s autobiography (Harriet Pfouts Wright), where she describes Chief White Cloud as a great friend of her father’s and says that he was trying to convince him to lead another European jaunt, as they had profited so from the last one! She also discusses his son who, although taken by missionaries after the death of his father and sent to medical school, in later years repudiated his European training and refused to speak English.

  9. keke Says:

    i dnt like this

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