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  McKenney & Hall, Three Folios. Important Indian Portraits and Biographies. (1836, 1842, 1844).
MH Folios


“The most colorful portraits of Indians ever executed. . . .
The original oil paintings of which the plates were copies
were all destroyed in the 1865 Smithsonian fire.”

Howes, USiana, M 129

Col. Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall. History of the Indian Tribes of North America with biographical sketches of the Principal Chiefs embellished with one hundred and twenty portraits from the Indian Gallery in the Department of War, at Washington. Three folio volumes: vol. I (Philadelphia: Edward C. Biddle, 23 Minor Street, 1836); vol. II (Philadelphia: Daniel Rice and James G. Clark, 132 Arch Street, 1842); and vol. III (Philadelphia: Daniel Rice and James G. Clark, 132 Arch Street, 1844). 120 lithographed plates with superb bright original hand color heightened with gum arabic: 117 portraits after King and 3 frontispieces after Rindisbacher and Bodmer; uncolored lithographed sheet with two maps and one chart: “Localities of all the Indian Tribes of North America in 1833,” “Present Localities of the Indian Tribes west of the Mississippi,” and “Statement showing the number of each tribe of Indians;” 17 pages of facsimile signatures of subscribers on 9 leaves. Includes original subscription wrappers and bindery instructions. All three volumes in original binding, with spine restoration: original boards, marbled end papers, and original spine leather overlay with seven compartments containing gilt title and decorations. Binding boards worn at corners. Vol. I front free endpaper, with minor cracking. Some foxing on text as usual, some staining at lower edges of text pages in vol. II. (See separate sheet for remarks on individual plates.) Very clean and bright condition, overall excellent.


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This excellent example of McKenney and Hall’s renowned color-plate book documenting significant Native Americans includes portraits and extensive (sometimes unflinching) biographies of these important leaders and personalities of the frontier. Ostensibly the life work of Col. McKenney, the lithographs were based primarily on the oil portraits painted from life by Charles Bird King, although the work of many other artists was included in the form of copies of their work by King and Henry Inman. James Otto Lewis, Henry Schoolcraft, Gustavus Hesselius, Peter Rindisbacher, Karl Bodmer, and even Thomas Sully are among the important portraitists represented in the work. McKenney’s work was originally issued between 1836 and 1844 in 20 parts with paper wrappers. Each subscriber would later combine the parts and have them bound into volumes according to his personal taste. The changes in publishers reflect some of the trials that McKenney endured in the process of issuing the work.

Thomas Loraine McKenney (1785-1859) held several offices in the administration of U.S. Indian affairs, finally serving as Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. During his service, McKenney instituted a national archives of the American Indian, effectively creating the first museum in Washington D.C. The archives included native artifacts, ethnographic texts, and portraits commissioned especially for the collection. The portraits, which McKenney exhibited in his office, proved extremely popular among visitors to the capital and later served as the basis for the illustrated History. Since McKenney had traveled to the nation’s frontiers to negotiate treaties, and hosted Indian delegations at the capital, he acquired a unique perspective on the subject of Native Americans. In realizing a publication of an unprecedented scope, however, little went smoothly for McKenney.

McKenney had completed an initial text draft for the History by 1831, and sent it to former president John Quincy Adams for editing. After Adams could no longer work on the project, a number of editors were engaged, until James Hall finally joined the project in 1836. In the many years it took to produce the History, McKenney was beset by incessant production setbacks, beginning with his initial difficulty in retaining an editor and continuing with the business difficulties of his several publishers. Added to these were problems of competition, debt, humiliation, and scorn. Fortunately for us, McKenney’s vision and determination saw the project through to the best possible standards of the time. The History is a beautiful testament to his life and an invaluable document of the American Indians in the last days of their full glory. This is an excellent example of McKenney’s superb work of Americana.

The distinguished provenance of this set speaks to its significance as both an artistic and ethnographic treasure. The most recent owner of these volumes is Dr. Herman J. Viola, Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and former director of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. Viola has authored numerous books on American history and is a renowned specialist on Native American history. His publications include Exploring the West, After Columbus, Magnificent Voyagers, Little Bighorn Remembered, Seeds of Change, and Diplomats in Buckskins. Viola’s studies of the McKenney History are include in his Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King, Washington’s first museum: The Indian Office collection of Thomas L. McKenney, and Thomas L. McKenney, Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830.

Ownership of the set by one of America’s most important McKenney authorities combined with the volumes’ excellent condition make this example of McKenney’s classic work one of the best that we have seen on the market.

Refs.: Whitman Bennett, American Nineteenth Century Color Plate Books, p. 79; Field, Indian Bibliography, no. 992; Howes, M 129; William S. Reese, Stamped with a National Character, no. 24; Sabin, 43410; Herman J. Viola, Thomas L. McKenney, Architect of America’s Early Indian Policy: 1816-1830.

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot