Understanding Ethnographic Photographs

Contributed by Deirdre Hutchison

My name is Deirdre Hutchison and I am currently studying for my B.A. in history at UMass Lowell. One of the things I love most about college is delving into archival research, unraveling forgotten stories, and the thrill when making connections that reveal new pieces of information, or even reshape the original context.

Recently I came across Warren K. Moorehead through his publication “The Merrimack Archaeological Survey.” Intrigued by this contradictory personality, I was excited to get the opportunity to do an internship at the Peabody and expand my knowledge on his work. Given my previous exposure and interest, curator Marla Taylor suggested I work on identifying information on approximately 30-50 photographs at the Peabody. The collection depicts ethnographic images of Native Americans. My objective was to discover how these images came to the museum, what was the purpose of the photos, and who may own the copyright. Given the magnitude of the search, it made sense to focus initially on only a few photographs. Several images had dates (early 20th century), captions with “101 Ranch, Oklahoma”, tribal names, and even a photographer name. Collectively, this seemed to occur during Moorehead’s tenure, and thus the investigation began with the Peabody’s first curator.

An example of one of the photographs being researched

As I eagerly navigated box after box of Moorehead records, I felt sure it was only a matter of time before I would make a connection between the man and the photos. After combing through his publications, correspondence centered on Oklahoma and the early 1900s, and hundreds of lantern slides later, a different narrative was emerging, though no less intriguing. Despite the vast array of articles, records and collections at the museum, disappointingly, no connection could yet be found between Moorehead and these early images. Details on the named photographer, Kent Chandler of OK, proved equally elusive. However, as we all learn in high school, never underestimate the importance of a comma. With no comma between Kent and Chandler on the photograph mount, I assumed it was his full name. Further digging finally revealed a gentleman named James Kent who lived in Chandler and worked with the 101 Ranch in OK.

My next investigative step was the Library of Congress. For three of the photos held at the Peabody I found a match. Excitedly I noticed the details confirmed those at the Peabody – the photos were of the Ponca tribe and taken at the 101 Ranch in Bliss, OK. However, I now had another new piece of key information, the publisher was H.H.Clarke. Investigation into the 101 Ranch revealed the Miller Brothers, famed for their wild west shows for decades, as the brainchild behind the images. Further insight came from a bio on the Oklahoma Historical Society of photographer James B. Kent, revealing he was a resident photographer for the Miller Brothers.

Despite making headway, H.H. Clarke, the publisher of the images, also proved difficult to trace. Finally, I found a reference to publishers H.H. Clarke on the Cherokee Strip Museum website in Perry, Oklahoma. Clarke and his wife operated a small newspaper and native curio store but also had a sideline in publishing postcards. Once again, up popped the 101 Ranch as the backdrop for many of their postcards. All roads keep circling back to the Miller Brothers. It seems they had quite the operation! The Oklahoma Historical Society has an interesting documentary from c.1950 that highlights the magnitude of the activities of the brothers and the ranch which can be watched here.

At the “Oklahoma Gala day” exhibit in 1905, the Millers had their ranch hands and Native Americans demonstrate their skills and featured the incarcerated Geronimo killing a buffalo as a special attraction.

Geronimo skinning a buffalo from the Peabody’s image collection – a similar image to the one in the Library of Congress yet with notable differences

It appears the brothers showcased many Native Americans performing a range of similar publicity stunts. Kent was one of their preferred photographers for these staged events and H.H. Clarke often published them.

How the images came to the Peabody is still not clear. However, I hope I can uncover more information from the archives of the Oklahoma Historical Society which has a great deal of information on the Millers and the ranch.

There is no doubt headway has been made on the purpose of the photos. As I navigate the vast empire of the Miller brothers, propaganda, and unashamedly, profit, seem to be the key factors in their relationship with Native American photos. The question stills remains of how the images came to the Peabody. As I move through the next few weeks, I am hoping to find a link between the Miller brothers, 101 Ranch, and the Peabody. At the same time, establishing who has reproduction rights on the images that I have identified will be key to achieving my goals. As with any historical research, and in the absence of records, there are no guarantees. However, I hope to get as close to the truth as one can and there is no doubt that this journey is as exiting as the destination. More to come…

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