The piercing eyes of Keokuk, a well-known Sac and Fox chief, look out at us in this 1847 daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Keokuk is wearing a large headdress and a string of bear claws around his neck. His aging face and stern expression suggest wisdom and hardship, yet he seems somewhat fragile in the isolated frame of the daguerreotype. His resolute gaze is suggestive of his alias, the “Watchful Fox.” Keokuk was the chief of a tribe officially recognized by the government as the Sac and Fox band of the Mississippi. At the time, the tribe lived on the Nemaha Reservation, south of the Missouri River, near the mouth of the Little Nemaha. Keokuk’s tribe had been moved there from Iowa just months before he visited Easterly’s studio in St. Louis. Keokuk is one of many American Indians whose image is captured in early photographs or depicted in portraits by famous American artists.
The movement of Keokuk’s tribe from Iowa to the Nemaha Reservation was part of the government’s efforts to move all tribes that had originally inhabited the Mississippi and lower Missouri valleys to Indian Territory west of the Iowa-Missouri-Arkansas border. Keokuk had probably come to St. Louis to attend to official business at the office that managed Nemaha Agency tribes. He may have also appeared at the circus, as a St. Louis newspaper reported that Keokuk, Apponoose (a secondary chief), and their companions were “superbly decorated in genuine Indian style” that included dyed animal hair headdresses and were sure to draw a crowd for their performances.
At the time, many white Americans had a romanticized view of American Indians as exotic “primitives” who looked much as they did before contact with white settlers altered their customs and dress. For decades before this image was taken, artists had depicted American Indians in a dramatized fashion, making the American public think of them in a stereotypical way. In fact, it was common for artists to generalize the appearance of their subjects to conform to popular notions of the dignified “noble savage.” The appeal of these types of images was enhanced by the widely held belief that the American Indian was destined to become extinct as western “civilization” took over their lands.
This prediction was sadly true—a special census of Indians in 1890 showed that there was fewer than one Indian per 1,000 inhabitants in Missouri and fewer than 100 in the entire state of Illinois. By 1910, there was fewer than one Indian per 1,000 people in Missouri. Many American Indians died from European diseases like smallpox as well as starvation and warfare, and thousands more were forced to move to reservations far from their native lands.
The ability to record American Indians truthfully did not come about until photography became widely used. Thomas Easterly, the photographer of this image, was well known for his attempts to depict his sitters realistically. His subjects inhabit most of the frame, giving us the opportunity to see their faces in detail. By the 1860s, many commercial galleries owned collections of Indian props, including full costumes, which they used without regard to tribal customs. Easterly’s portraits do not show evidence of this practice; he was not interested in creating images to serve as “novelty.” Easterly was devoted to the documentary style and to the daguerreotype, even when more advanced photography techniques were developed.