In 1715, a patent for distilling corn was issued to Thomas and Sybilla Masters. In addition to purifying the corn, their petition indicated that “…the said Corn so refined is also an Excellent Medicine in Consumptions & other Distempers” (Armstrong and Armstrong 1991:159). They received a license for the first “patent” or over-the-counter medicine in America and it had the distinction of being called Tuscarora Rice.
By the nineteenth century, the heyday for patent medicines, the countryside was replete with peddlers hawking remedies that claimed to cure everything from consumption to cancer. Between 1865 and 1900, there were hundreds of them touring the country (figure 1). In an effort to attract crowds and spur interest in the languishing sales of their products, traveling salesmen began providing entertainment with their presentations. The pitchman was often surrounded by performers drawn from the circus, traveling theater troupes and minstrel shows. Before radio, movies and television, these “medicine shows” were a leading form of entertainment both in metropolitan areas and remote towns across America.
Company representatives had to present at least the perception of authenticity in merchandising their products, especially if they were hawking purported “Indian Medicines.” Non-Indian enactors who performed in these events had to look and dress like Indians as many popular products had indigenous or Native American sounding names. Products such as Allen’s Indian Blood Corrector, Dr. Seneca’s Gall Remedy, Dr. Roger’s Indian Fever Cure, Aztec Pile Cure and Dr. Kilmer’s Indian Cough Cure Consumption Oil claimed to ameliorate cancer, syphilis, kidney disease and a host of other ailments. These were just a few of the thousands of remedies that were offered for sale with names that implied they were an indigenous cure for practically any illness known to man.
Figure 2 – Cabinet card, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. A group of Iroquois medicine show entertainers. Period inscription on the back of the card reads: Caughnawaga Indians with the Kickapoo Medicine Company. Season 1891. R.W. Tilford, Manager.
The medicine shows were the forerunners of the Wild West Shows. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, based for a time in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Oregon Indian Medicine Company, based in Corry, Pennsylvania were two of the largest. They chose a different approach to selling and took the medicine shows to another level by including actual Native performers (figure 2) who were paid, on average, $30 a month for their services. Native people were employed by these outfits to demonstrate Indian life which gave the company’s patent medicines an air of authenticity.
Many nineteenth century photographs have survived that depict Native people who were involved in these medicine shows and in a fair amount of them the subjects are identified as Iroquois (figure 3 and 4).
Figure 3 – Cabinet card, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. Circa 1890. The subjects in this image are identified on the back as Caughnawaga Mohawks. Photographer: Howie, Detroit, Michigan.
|Figure 4 – Cabinet card, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. Circa 1890. The subjects are identified on the back as Senecas. Photographer: Chas. Latham, Bradford, Pennsylvania. Bradford was located just a few miles from the Seneca Reservation in Salamanca, New York.|
The 1892 New York State census indicated that the use of traditional medicine practices among the Iroquois had almost disappeared.
The days of the old “medicine man” have passed away. Young men from each of the reservations including Chief Philip T. Johnson, of Tuscarora, are “travelling men” for so-called Indian medicines, and make themselves welcomed and successful through the prestige of their Indian character and good address (Donaldson 1892:50).
This same statistical study also listed 20 Mohawks from Akwesasne as traveling show men (Donaldson 1892:51) and no doubt there were many more from Kahnawake, in Canada, who were not included in the New York census.
Figure 5a – The back side of figure 5.
On the back of a recently discovered image (figure 5 & 5a) the subjects are identified as “Running Antelope and family, Warm Spring Indians, from Galion, Ohio” (the Warm Spring Indian Reservation was in Oregon). In one of two other images of this same family group (figures 6 and 7) they are identified as Mohawks. Their clothing style would also confirm this. The inked note on the back of figure 5 is faded and it appears to be from the period; so why were they identified as Warm Spring Indians?
Figure 6 – Cabinet Card, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. Circa 1890. The subjects are identified on the back, in a period note, as Caughnawaga, Mohawks. Photographer: J.C. Patrick, Coalport, Pennsylvania.
Figure 7 – Cabinet Card, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. Circa 1890. This is the same group depicted in figures 5 & 6. Photographer: E.J. Potten, Mansfield, Ohio.
Another interesting image from the same period (figure 8) holds the key and sheds light on this. The subject, identified as Chi-la-Kaw, is wearing an Iroquois style yoke and his headpiece has Mohawk elements to it yet he is posing for the Oregon Indian Medicine Company which was located just a short distance from Seneca Reservation in Salamanca, New York.
Figure 8 – Circa 1890 photograph, 4.5 x 6.5 inches. Portrait of Chi-la-kaw, Wounded Wolf, a photographic advertisement for the Oregon Indian Medicine Company. Both sides shown.
The Oregon Indian Medicine Company was founded by Thomas Augustus Edwards who was born in 1832 in Saugerties, New York. By his twenty-third birthday, he was already on a career in the entertainment business when he became the manager for the Spaulding and Roger's Circus. In 1866, during the Snake War (fought between the United States and the Snake Indians), he traveled to Oregon.
It was in Oregon that Edwards learned about Indian medicine through Dr. William C. McKay, one of four sons of Alexander McKay… McKay was a physician to the Indians. His brother, Donald McKay was a prominent scout and Indian fighter. Both men had Indian wives. Both McKays returned east with Colonel Edwards about 1874, taking with them a party of Warm Spring Indians. Edwards and the Indians toured Europe and then New England demonstrating Indian skills and customs. In 1876 he took the Indian show to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was there that he began selling Indian medicines (Dary 2008:259).
It wasn’t long afterwards that he established the Oregon Indian Medicine Company. It was originally based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and their principal cure-all was a tonic called Ka-ton-ka. In 1882, the company moved to Corry, Pennsylvania and was in full operation by 1885.
Edwards claimed his business partners in this venture were the McKays from the Warm Spring Reservation in Oregon. Donald McKay (figure 9) worked for both the US Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the captain of the Warm Spring scouts during the Modoc War (1872-73). His success in this endeavor earned him a good deal of publicity and fame with the public. He eventually left his life as a government scout and embarked on a career in “Wild West” shows. Mckay’s step-mother, Isabelle Montour, was Iroquois and during the 1880s, he and his wife (Susan) and daughter (Minnie) toured the country promoting products for Edwards and the Oregon Indian Medicine Company.
Figure 9 – Stereoview (circa 1873) of Donald McKay, captain of the Warm Spring Indian scouts during the Modoc War (1872-1873). Photographer: Louis Heller, Yreka, California.
While the operation was not as extensive as that of the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, the Oregon Indian Medicine Company at its height had several shows touring much of the nation simultaneously (Dary 2008:259).
Edwards took advantage of McKay’s notoriety and used the old Indian scout’s likeness in many of the company’s advertisements. There were numerous medicine shows touring the country in those days and firms that incorporated an Indian theme had the most success. Americans wholeheartedly believed that Indians had a deep knowledge of natural medicine and that their products would help cure their ailments.
Figure 10 is a facsimile of a late-nineteenth century advertisement that was posted in an Altoona, Pennsylvania newspaper by the Oregon Indian Medicine Company to advertise the appearance of the Warm Spring Indians in Altoona. It announced that the Indians would perform at the Opera House. No year date was found for the advertisement although it likely occurred sometime after 1885 when the Oregon Indian Medicine Company had moved to Corry, Pennsylvania. The Indian medicine men were presumably curing patrons at each performance with the company’s patent medicine.
Figure 10 – Facsimile of an advertisement that appeared in an Altoona, Pennsylvania newspaper (1885-1890) advertising that the Warm Spring Indians would be appearing at the Opera House. Original from the collection of John Odell.
Some of the Indians listed in the advertisement were from out west but others were Mohawks. In 1886, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show played on Staten Island, in New York and the Oglala chief American Horse replaced Sitting Bull as the Indian star of the show. That winter they also performed at Madison Square Garden (Scarangella McNenly 2012:25). The Altoona Opera House advertisement mentions that American Horse would be appearing there. Did Colonel Edwards somehow entice American Horse to leave Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show to perform in his medicine show? It’s not likely as I point out below. As the Oregon Indian Medicine Company grew, Edwards hired more Native representatives and his company’s proximity to the Seneca Reservation, in Salamanca may have provided a ready resource of Haudenosaunee representatives or a gateway to other Iroquois reservations.
In the nineteenth century, the entertainment business played an important role in the lives of many Native people as it provided them with another means to earn a living. It was also important for another reason; the Wild West and Medicine shows were a way for Native people to maintain many of their traditions. The Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) together with the Indian schools such as Carlisle (as well as the church run residential schools), discouraged Indian participation in these events because they believed the shows were counterproductive to their assimilation efforts. Show promoters on the other hand encouraged these displays as they were good for business. For the Indians, it was a way to openly perform their traditional dances and ceremonies, thereby overtly circumventing the work of the schools and the OIA. Kahnawake Mohawks in particular had a good deal of experience in the entertainment business and show recruiters sought them out because “people there were well suited to the industry and participated willingly” (Scarangella McNenly 2012:104-105).
|Figure 11 – Group photograph of Dove Wing, Scar Face Bear, Nisculitte, and American Horse, in St. Marys, Ohio, ca. 1880-1889. From the collection of the Ohio Historical Society.|
Chi-la-Kaw, pictured on the advertising card in figure 8, is listed on the Opera House advertisement as is Dove Wing, a sharpshooter from Kahnawake. The Ohio Historical Society has several old images of her in their collection. In at least two of them she is depicted with the Mohawk chief American Horse and Scar Face Bear (figure 11). She may have been American Horse’s wife, Charlotte “Sara” Beauvias, as she looks remarkably like her (see figure 12). In both images she is wearing the same underdress with the identical border design at the bottom.
The Ohio Historical Society records list the individual seated in the center of figure 11 as the “Dakota chief American Horse” yet he is clearly not the same chief who participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (see figure 13).
|Figure 13 – Circa 1900 photograph of Oglala Chief American Horse by photographer John Alvin Anderson (1869-1948). This is the American Horse who toured with Buffalo Bill in his Wild West|
Along with American Horse, Chi-la-Kaw and Dove Wing, the Altoona Opera House advertisement also listed Kaw-shaw-gan, the Red Wild Cat. The following narrative indicates that this individual was also Iroquois. In John Owens 1889 account of the exploits of William Glazier, he writes that:
At one time he [Glazier] joined another eccentric character named Tom Lolar, an Indian of the Seneca tribe, whose lands in the long ago of Indian history bordered the blue waters of Lake Seneca in central New York. This peculiar pair proceeded to electrify certain rural communities in their immediate neighborhood with huge posters, announcing that on a given night:
The Red Wild Cat,
The Great Chief of the Walaitipu Indians,
now traveling for the benefit of his tribe, proposes to exhibit to an
enlightened public the
trophies won by his braves,
in their battles with other ferocious tribes beyond the Rocky
Mountains, and the Great Chief will likewise give an
exhibition of the
WAR DANCES OF HIS NATION.
Accordingly, upon the night in question, Tom Lolar, as “Kaw-shaw-gan-ce,” and Henry Glazier as ticket agent, reaped such an excellent harvest that the latter concluded to start a “live Indian” upon his own account (Owens1889:51).
It sounds like Tom Lolar invented Kaw-shaw-gan for the purpose of entertaining audiences and the financial remuneration that ensued and he was most likely the Kaw-shaw-gan listed on the Altoona Opera House advertisement.
The photographic and written record indicates that entire Indian families worked and traveled together in both the Medicine Shows and Wild West shows. The subjects in figure 14 are identified and they, as well as those in figure 15 may have been working for one or more of the Indian Medicine Companies. Native performers, photographed in their best regalia, were making statements of their identity, even if these images were likely taken to promote the company and convey an air of authenticity on the medicine shows and their patent medicines.
The American Horse that Dove Wing is depicted with in figure 11 is not the Sioux chief that traveled with Buffalo Bill but rather he is the Mohawk deer clan chief Angus Montour. Other identified images of him confirm this. Additionally, Scar Face Bear, also depicted in figure 16, was from Kahnawake and he has descendants that are still living there today. In this image he is incorrectly identified on the back as a Warm Spring Indian.
So this brings us back to the image of Running Antelope and his family (figure 5). Why were they identified as Warm Spring Indians when they were certainly Mohawks? It’s clear that they, along with many other Iroquois, were working for the Oregon Indian Medicine Company. It’s not likely the public had a personal interest in the specific tribal origin of the company representatives. Since the company’s advertisements always claimed their representatives were Warm Spring Indians, the public more than likely regarded all the Indians that worked for them as Warm Spring Indians, hence the note on the back.
2009 “The Lady and the Indian: Representing an Inter-ethnic Marriage in Dutch and Canadian News Media (1906-1928).” Published in the International Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue international d’ètudes canadiennes 38.
Armstrong, David and Armstrong, Elizabeth
1991 The Great American Medicine Show, Being an Illustrated History of Hukcsters, Healers, Health Evangelists and Heroes from Plymouth Rock to the Present. Prentice Hall, New York.
2008 Frontier Medicine from the Atlantic to the Pacific, 1492-1941. Alfred A. Knopf, New York,
1892 The Six Nations of New York – Cayugas, Mohawks (Saint Regis), Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, Tuscaroras. Eleventh Census of the United States. Robert P. Porter, Superintendent. Extra Census Bulletin. Indians. Washington, D.C. United States Census Printing Office.
1997 Indian Bottles and Brands. Self-published by the author.
Owens, John Algernon
1889 Sword and Pen; or Ventures and Adventures of Willard Glazier (the Soldier-Author) in War and Literature: Comprising Incidences and Reminiscences of his Childhood; his Checkered Life as a Student and Teacher; and his Remarkable Career as a Soldier and Author; Embracing also the Story of his Unprecedented Journey from Ocean to Ocean on Horseback; and an Account of his Discovery of the True Source of the Mississippi River, and Canoe Voyage Thence to the Gulf of Mexico. P.W. Ziegler & Company, Publishers. Philadelphia.
Scarangella McNelly, Linda2012 Native Performers in Wild West Shows from Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney. University of Oklahoma Press.