Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hunting for Cowboys and Indians—The Story Behind the Photos

About a year ago, at an indoor “yard sale” on a college campus in Worcester, MA., I bought these three photo postcards for very little money. (Can’t remember how much, but it was less than $20.)  They were: a sepia photo with the words “ancient Sioux Squaw” marked on the negative, a man dressed as a cowboy holding two snakes over the words “Rattlesnake Joe—Souvenir of the Fair”,  and a photograph of a white-haired man wearing a white shirt , vest and jacket, with no identification at all, but I guessed he was Native American and probably of importance, to be dressed in European style.

(Let me say up front that I understand the name “Indian” is offensive to Native Americans, because it’s not accurate, and even more offensive is the derogatory term “Squaw” for female Native Americans.   But I often have to use such words when researching antique photos in my collection, because they were used to identify 19th century photos, since the terms were in common use at that time.)

I usually don’t collect postcards for several reasons:  I’m more interested in photos taken in the nineteenth century (the earliest photographs) and photos on postcards didn’t appear until the beginning of the twentieth century:  1903.  Also, postcard collectors number in the millions—it’s the third largest collectible hobby in the U.S.—and at ephemera auctions they buy boxes of hundreds of old postcards, which are worth pennies each.  I have no expertise in postcards and little patience for sorting through them, but I do know that authentic vintage photos concerning Native Americans and scenes of the Old West are always of greater value than most.  (By the way, if you find yourself in possession of a daguerreotype or any antique photograph of gold miners in California --or maybe an original image of Jesse James’ dead body, you can probably sell it to finance your retirement.)

Thus began my hunt to determine the identity and value of the three individuals in my “Western” postcards.  (As any collector will tell you, this is the fun part:  trying to track down the story behind your latest acquisition, hoping to find a nugget of gold amid all the pebbles and stones.)  Starting with the white-haired gent, I typed “Indian Chief” into Google.  (How did I live before the internet?  My life through high school, college and graduate school was one long trek from one library to another.). As soon as I clicked on Google Images, I said, “Bingo!  This is Geronimo!”

I had heard of Geronimo, of course, but never knew the fascinating story of his life.  Will try to sketch the highpoints. Geronimo was born June 1829. Became prominent leader and medicine man from Apache tribe.  1850 to 1886 joined fellows to carry out raids and resistance against U.S and Mexican military in Mexico and New Mexico. His fellow Apaches thought he had supernatural gifts, including foreknowledge. He had nine wives, the first one named Alope.  They had three children.  She and the children and Geronimo’s mother were all killed in a raid by Mexican soldiers in 1858.

In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to Lt Charles B. Gatewood, an Apache-speaking West Point graduate who had earned his respect.  He was a prisoner of War in Fort Bowie, Arizona, then exiled to Florida.  In his old age, Geronimo became a celebrity and appeared at World’s Fairs, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where he sold souvenirs and photographs of himself and even buttons off his coat—sewing on new buttons overnight!  He died at the Fort Sill Hospital in 1909, at the age of 80, still a prisoner of war.

Convinced that my guy was Geronimo, I set the photos and research aside and recently came back to them, to write this blog post.  But in browsing, I came upon a photo of Sitting Bull and said, “Uh oh! He looks a lot like my Geronimo!”   Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader born about 1831, led his people during years of resistance to United States government policies.  Like Geronimo, he was believed by his people to have precognition—after he had a vision of his tribe achieving a great victory against Custer’s troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 (also known as Custer’s Last Stand.)  Here's Sitting Bull below.

Sitting Bull evaded capture by U.S. soldiers until 1881 when he and his band surrendered to U.S. Forces.  After that he worked as a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, becoming, like Geronimo, famous and feared.

But did I have Geronimo or Sitting Bull?  (That's  three photos of Geronimo above.) I turned into my Nancy Drew Girl Detective persona and started raking the internet for photos of both men with white hair in their old age.  But it didn’t work. I couldn’t find an elderly, white-haired Sitting Bull.  Then I had a moment of illumination, went to the computer, and learned that Sitting Bull was shot to death by an Indian Agency policeman who was trying to arrest him on Dec. 15, 1890.  Sitting Bull was only 58 or 59—so he died before his braids turned white!

Then I began to study with a strong magnifying glass my photo of the white-haired gent. Looking very closely, I saw he had what seemed to be two large warts just below his left eye.  A clue!  So I went back to internet photos of Geronimo as he aged, and quickly learned that he had warts all right—a very prominent one, but it was on the fullest part of his right cheek.  It’s visible in many photos taken as he aged, including the wonderful portrait of him below, taken by Edward Curtis in 1905. Geronimo died at the age of 79. After he was thrown from his horse while riding home, and lay in the cold all night, he died of pneumonia on February 17, 1909, as a prisoner of the United States at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

So at this point in my detective story, I can’t claim a verified Geronimo Real Photo Post Card, which, according to the Price Guide of Stefano Neis would be worth $50 to$125.  (Check it out at ). But I’m not giving up yet!

In my next blog post I’ll tell you what I discovered about my two other Western characters, as well as explaining how to tell when a postcard is a valuable  Real Photo Post Card (RPPC) or a nearly worthless printed postcard. And what you can learn from the blank back of a vintage postcard.  Stay tuned!

1 comment:

lactmama said...

Heartbreaking to read the fates of both of these leaders.
Great post- as usual.