• December 9, 2014

In the 1860s Alexander Gardner Captured a Native Life, Now Lost

Melody Rowell

Like a zombie’s hand breaking through the earth, the burial tree stretched skyward. In its clutch was a basket of food and water, hanging above a bundle of blankets. Sewn inside the blankets were the remains of an unidentified Indian man—maybe even a warrior—from one of the many nomadic tribes on the American Plains.

Alexander Gardner stood before the tree with his tripod and large-format camera, his wagon-turned-darkroom only yards away. With a few elegant, carefully timed movements, Gardner permanently captured another aspect of Plains life that no one had asked him to.

Picture of a burial tree near Fort Laramie
Indian burial place near Fort Laramie, 1868

It was 1868, and what he had been asked was to photograph the peace talks at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, between a federally-appointed commission and a conglomerate of chiefs from Plains Indian tribes. Never before, and never again, would so many tribal leaders gather in one place, nor would anyone else have the chance to document a way of life that was so rapidly disappearing.

Picture of a council taking place between government comissioners and the Arapaho and Cheyenne people inside of a tent
Commissioners in council with the Arapaho and Cheyenne, 1868

Scottish-born, Gardner had gotten his American career started on the east coast only a decade earlier. Portrait photographer Matthew Brady hired him to help in his New York studio, and then sent him to Washington, D.C. to manage a new branch. Here, Gardner focused mainly on portraiture, a concentration that afforded him the opportunity to photograph more than 90 members of Indian delegations who had come to the capital to negotiate with the government. Once the Civil War started, Gardner took portraits of soldiers leaving for war. As the war worsened, Gardner lugged his equipment to Gettysburg and Antietam, permanently capturing the horrific aftermath of the battles.

Most notably, he photographed the Commander-in-Chief, the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln—twice as many times as any other photographer. Gardner is responsible for two of the most iconic Lincoln portraits: the head-on Gettysburg portrait taken two weeks before the immortal address, and the chilling last photograph taken two months before Lincoln’s assassination—a crack in the glass yielding an ominous symbol.

Picture of a train crossing tracks near Fort Harker, Kansas
View near Fort Harker, Kansas, 1867

After Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War, a newly reunited nation needed a common mission, a collaborative identity. It lay in the West. The Union Pacific Railroad planned a new route from Kansas City to the Pacific Ocean to make this world more accessible and to tie together the scattered communities that were already there. As was the custom with geographic surveys, they would need someone to photograph the terrain to illustrate the proposed route. The following year the federal government would need someone to photograph the peace talks with Northern Plains Indians at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. And so, Alexander Gardner headed west.

Picture of a a group of people from the Mojave tribe sitting and standing together
Mojave Indians on the Colorado, Arizona, 1867-68

The resulting photographs from both of Gardner’s western excursions are currently on display in an exhibit called Across the Indian Country at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Curated by Jane Aspinwall over several years, these photographs were scattered across the nation in various collections, and this is perhaps the only time they will all be on display together.

Picture of a woman gathering flowers in a field
Gathering flowers in February in Tulare Valley, California, 1868.

What is remarkable about the Western photographs is Gardner’s commitment to illustrating the fullness of life on the plains. So many of the photographs go beyond his simple survey assignments. “Gardner was really interested in the human presence in the West,” Aspinwall says. While his assignment was to photograph the terrain, there is hardly a photograph in the collection that is without people. “He was interested in showing who was there, but also who they were.”

Picture of a large rock with a structure that resembles a mushroom
Mushroom Rock on Alum Creek, Kansas, 1867

Widely regarded as a man of compassion and empathy, Gardner’s photos demonstrate a deeply held belief in equality among mankind. When taking portraits of members of the tribes, other photographers in his situation likely would have considered them as a generic group. In contrast, when Gardner took these photographs, he carefully labeled each individual by name in his notes. Even his composition speaks to his convictions. In group portraits of Indian leaders and members from the government’s delegation, Gardner has no qualms about having the tribal leaders stand while the white men sit—a symbol that many people traditionally would have interpreted as tribal leaders exerting dominance over the white men.

Picture of a group of people, both from the government and from the local tribes, posing for a photograph
Group portrait with Packs His Drum, Man Afraid of His Horses, and Red Bear, 1868

As taken as he was with the interpersonal relationships, Gardner was equally as fascinated with the deep relationship between people and their land. At times, individuals look like a permanent fixture in their landscape, and it feels like the horizon will never end. In the coming years, the population of western settlers would swell, nomadic tribes would be forced to disperse and disband, and Gardner would quit photography to start an insurance company. But before then, along the proposed railroad route and all around Fort Laramie, Gardner photographed women and children, churches and schools, a woman picking flowers in a field, and a burial tree—all subjects that had nothing to do with his assignments, but that he was compelled to preserve as he documented the fleeting, full life of the plains.

Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867–68 is on display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri until January 11, 2015. Admission is free.

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There are 17 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. ron
    December 18, 2014

    Interesting how in the dust Europeans wore suit or blazer type outfits even neckties. Then after JFK and the silicon-valley progressives’, casual dress now dominates.

  2. rebecca
    December 17, 2014

    Dna also shows all of us came from same place till water split everyone

  3. Joe Nebus
    December 17, 2014

    Appreciate being able to see the 1860s photos by Alexander Gardner. Hopefully, I can learn from them, take interesting photos and share with future generations.
    Since I wasn’t present when these photos were made– I say then– who am I to judge what we think we see in the photos? If it’s something good, then enjoy– if it’s something negative let us move away from things mean spirited and aim toward a better place.

  4. Sean Ellis
    December 11, 2014

    Dennis- Your preconceived notions are held so strongly that you feel they have been challenged – by nothing but your own perception. The author said nothing about ‘idyllic’, or anything similar. I believe you saw something like that your own irrepressibly spiritual self from the photographs, and that you gleaned that inkling despite your iron grasp of absolute truth about the despicable character of Native Americans. Despicable character that neatly absolves our white ancestors of any sins they may have committed against American Indians. Something about what you can see in the photos nags at you. Funny.

  5. devyn sutton
    December 11, 2014


    • jerry kaufman
      December 11, 2014

      Actually the tribes were not native or indigenous as they migrated to north america from asia. DNA proves it

  6. Ratna
    December 10, 2014

    This is a grat display of Alexander Gardner’s photograph. He was showing all photograph with people

  7. Dennis
    December 10, 2014

    ….once again the commentators want us to believe the Indian tribes of North American were some kind of idyllic hunter gatherers….until the white man arrived. That is a bunch of rubbish. Most tribes were warrior clans…..attacking, robbing, kidnapping, raping and stealing from neighboring tribes. It was a violent way of life LONG before any white man sat foot on these shores. The white man just perfected the practices. Some of the Indian tribes fought and fought bravely…..but in the end they were and are a conquered people. Its been the history of this world since the first caveman decided he liked his neighbors cave better than his own. I don’t feel one bit sorry for them.

  8. Lisa
    December 10, 2014

    I agree, it was genocide. Whenever we lose any species to extinction, it is a tradgedy. However, people were different back then. People were expendable. Lives were not valued by any race except perhaps the native Americans. And due to their gentle nature they were devoured by a far more volatile being. We all recognise that, but people were different back then.

  9. Brian
    December 10, 2014

    Jerry Kaufman, the peoples of Asia were not native or indigenous to that region either, as it is recognised that they had migrated originally from Africa. So according to your rationale any invader anywhere around the world would be justified in exterminating those who had migrated to any region or continent??
    The destruction of the Native American population was genocide – nothing less!

  10. Jim
    December 10, 2014

    “….13,500 years ago….”

    • jerry kaufman
      December 10, 2014

      Jim and Brian: you guys need to calm down. My comment was directed at the use of the word “Indigenous”

  11. Jim
    December 10, 2014

    Jerry, you are right. They only migrated to North America 13,500 hundred years ago (some say 40,000), which is why the European settlers – who came after Christopher Columbus “discovered” America 500 years ago – were right to force them off the land.
    I’m a Celt and we arrived in Scotland about 2,600 years ago so I’d better keep an eye on you guys. By your logic I have even less right to be here than the Indians had in N America. I will be worried if I start receiving parcels of second hand blankets!

  12. Ramon
    December 9, 2014

    i like the pics and the writings

  13. Dolf
    December 9, 2014

    Is there any photo of what happened to the community Across the Indian Country?

  14. jerry kaufman
    December 9, 2014

    Ronan the nondic tribes were nit native or indigenius as they migrated to north america from asia. DNA proves it

  15. Ronan
    December 9, 2014

    Interesting the words used here “lost”, “disappearing” here, and the “nomadic tribes would be forced to disperse and disband”. Can you not speak plainly about what was done to the indigenous population of the continent?

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