During the nineteenth century, the western New York Haudenosaunee, particularly the Tuscaroras, were on the frontlines of the world’s most exciting and emerging tourist market. Occasionally on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century beaded bags, but more often on related items of Iroquois fancy beadwork such as picture frames, pincushions, sewing cases, match holders, good-luck horseshoes, etc., sentimental inscriptions were written out in beads. Common phrases were “Think of Me”, “Forget Me Not”, and “Remember Me” along with numerous variations and many pieces dated in beads. It’s not clear exactly when this practice began but an Iroquois bag was exhibited in the Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life exhibit bearing a beaded 1830 date. You can see the bag in this blog posting; it’s the earliest piece dated in beads that I am aware of.
Many other pieces also included the names of the locations where they were sold, such as “Montreal”, “Saratoga Springs” and “Niagara Falls”. In this blog posting, I will explore the origins of the beaded inscription “From Niagara Falls” in Tuscarora work and why it suddenly appeared in their beadwork around 1860.
Prior to 1860, we sometimes see a hand-written inscription on an inside flap or on the back of a piece of beadwork that indicates the item was “From Niagara Falls.” Sometimes a piece is accompanied by an old note indicating that it was purchased there.
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) compelled the curtailment of the Haudenosaunee’s traditional life style and forced many communities to find new ways to subsist. After the Revolutionary War, reservations were established in western New York and in southern Ontario. Each one of these reservations would subsequently produce souvenirs for the emerging tourist trade at Niagara Falls. As colonialist incursions increasingly undermined traditional ways of life, the Iroquois developed survival strategies, the most successful of which was making articles for sale at Niagara Falls, where tourists flocked to witness the grandeur of nature. Iroquois artists made souvenirs and also useful objects, such as moccasins, hats, pincushions, and various types of containers. We may never know exactly when they began producing beadwork for the souvenir trade, but the dating of the earliest material suggests it began soon after the end of the Revolutionary War.
Travelers to the area were confronted by the presence of the Haudenosaunee and many actually sought them out. The traditional arts that existed prior to the American Revolution changed, and in many cases disappeared, to be replaced by the emergence of hybrid styles of commoditized beadwork that in the early nineteenth century were sold predominately at Niagara Falls.
One of the earliest Haudenosaunee souvenir beaded bags that was collected at the Falls is illustrated in figure 1.
According to a note left by a prior owner, the bag was acquired in 1794, which seems rather early for this style of purse. It’s most likely from the first quarter of the nineteenth century as it is stylistically similar to a bag in the New York State Museum in Albany, that was collected in 1807 (see figure 3.5 in A Cherished Curiosity). Another early bag was collected in Lewiston, New York near the Tuscarora Reservation (figure 2).
Figure 2 – Early 19th century beaded bag, likely Tuscarora, that was collected by the anthropologist F.G. Speck in Lewiston, NY in 1916. From the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec, item # III-I-1075.
The earliest published reference I am familiar with to beadwork being sold at Niagara Falls is found in the New England Magazine, Number 8, February 1835, pages 91-96. In an article titled “My Visit to Niagara Falls” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, he writes:
“After dinner – at which, an unwonted and perverse epicurism detained me longer than usual – I lighted a cigar and paced the piazza, minutely attentive to the aspect and business of a very ordinary village. Finally, with reluctant step, and the feeling of an intruder, I walked towards Goat Island. At the toll-house, there were further excuses for delaying the inevitable moment. My signature was required in a huge ledger, containing similar records innumerable, many of which I read. The skin of a great sturgeon, and other fishes, beasts, and reptiles; a collection of minerals, such as lie in heaps near the falls; some Indian moccasins, and other trifles, made of deer-skin and embroidered with beads;… all attracted me in turn. Out of a number of twisted sticks, the manufacture of a Tuscarora Indian, I selected one of curled maple, curiously convoluted, and adorned with the cared images of a snake and a fish. Using this as my pilgrim’s staff, I crossed the bridge.”
In August of 1843, another article appeared in a western Massachusetts newspaper about the Tuscarora.
In August of 1843, another article appeared in a western Massachusetts newspaper about the Tuscarora.
We find an interesting letter from a correspondent of the N.Y. American, the following account of a visit of Mr. Adams, during his late northern tour, to the Indians of the Tuscarora “reservation.”
“A most agreeable incident of our visit has been the presence of the illustrious ex-President, John Quincy Adams. He arrived late on Saturday evening, after a long, rapid and fatiguing journey, by way of Montreal and Ogdensburg, and yesterday morning, accompanied by Gen. Peter B. Porter, and other friends, went to the Tuscarora reservation, and attended the public worship of the Indians—many of whom, before and during the service, were lying in picturesque groups under the trees about the chapel, with their broadcloths blankets, their ears, hats, leggings and moccasins glittering with beads, medals, and other finery. The little papooses were snugly strapped to flat boards about as long as themselves, with only the head exposed, encased like little Egyptian mummies, except that they were bandaged with embroidered scarlet instead of cerements—They were in the laps of the squaws or suspended on their backs, or leaned up against trees or rocks, much as you would place an umbrella against the wall or in a corner—They lolled their little tawny heads about, and with their bright black eyes gazed wonderingly over the beautiful domains of their fathers.
“In the chapel the sermon was rendered in to the Indian language, sentence by sentence, by the chief. The congregation were about as somnolent as white Christians are apt to be; and the new blue silk shawl, in which (instead of her blanket) a young and beautiful squaw has enveloped herself, produced about as much “sensation” among the other dark belles, as any similar splendor would among the paler beauties of a city congregation. The singing by the Indians was delightful, and I have rarely heard sweeter and softer voices. After the services were concluded, the ex-President was desired to address them. When it was announced that he would do so, the Indians looked and listened with great intentness. Mr. Adams’s unpremeditated discourse was admirable, and delivered with much feeling and effect. The chief rendered it, as he had done the sermon, sentence by sentence, in the Indian language.
“Mr. Adams alluded to his advanced age, and to this being the first time that he had ever looked upon their beautiful fields and forest—that he was truly happy to meet them there and join with them in the worship of our common Parent—reminded them that in years past he had addressed them from the position which he then occupied in language at once that of his station and his heart, as “his children”—and that now, as a private citizen, he heard them in terms of equal warmth and endearment as his “brethren and sisters.” He alluded with a simple eloquence which seemed to move the Indians much, to the equal care and love with which God regards all his children, whether savage or civilized, and to the common destiny which awaits them hereafter, however various their lot here. He touched briefly and forcibly on the topics of the sermon which they had heard, and concluded with a beautiful and touching benediction upon them. Among the elders of the congregation were several who had fought at Fort Erie, Chippewa and Lundy’s Land, under General Porter, to whom they look up with affection and reverence as their steady friend, and as the ‘great counselor and warrior’” (From: The Pittsfield Sun, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, August 17, 1843, page 2). I would like to thank Grant Wade Jonathan for bringing this article to my attention.
Nineteenth-century travelers were most likely to find the “cherished curiosities” they were seeking at Niagara Falls. The best views of the cataract were from Goat Island, but to get there, an 1839 guide book informs the traveler that they would first have to cross the bridge to Bath Island, then “ascend the bank, enter the toll-house, and pay the charge of twenty-five cents each; which gives the individual the privilege of visiting the island during his stay at the Falls, or at any time thereafter for the current year (fig. 2a).
They register their names, and look at the Indian and other curiosities,” in the bath house that was operated by a Mr. Jacob, “which are kept there for sale; and generally make some purchases, as remembrances of the Falls, or for presents to friends or children” (DeVeaux 1839:56). DeVeaux goes on to say that “Niagara Falls has also become a mart for Indian curiosities. Of the same gentleman [Mr., Jacob] may be obtained moccasins, worked with beads and porcupine quills. Indian work pockets, needle cases, war clubs, bark canoes, maple sugar in fancy boxes ornamented with quills, & c” (DeVeaux 1839:163).
Some uncertainty remains over the attribution and dating of early Haudenosaunee fancy souvenir beadwork because of the lack of well-documented examples. It’s often difficult to attribute tribal identity to a piece because of the meager ethnographic evidence and the extensive trading that occurred between Native communities.
Additionally, the Iroquois sometimes wholesaled their work to middlemen, shopkeepers, and to other Indians; designs and motifs were borrowed and exchanged between Native communities. Added to this is the movement of pieces by tourists. So extensive was the trade with the Tuscarora that
"…they were unable to manufacture enough souvenirs to meet the demand. So they became middle men buying the beaded pouches, moccasins, baskets, etc., from the Mohawks of Caughnawaga, St. Regis, and Lake of Two Mountains, from the Senecas on their neighboring reservations in New York State, from the Iroquois at Six Nations, from the Ottawa, the Algonquin at River Desert (Maniwaki), and others" (Dodge 1951:4).
Figures 3 & 4 are two other mid-19th century bags with hand-written inscriptions indicating that they were acquired at Niagara Falls.
Figure 4 – A beaded bag in the Parker style collected at Niagara Falls in 1846.
Sometime in the early 1840s, a new style of beadwork emerges that likely had its roots in Niagara Falls, and possibly with the Seneca (See A Cherished Curiosity for more information about the development of the Niagara Floral Style). Examples of beaded hats, moccasins, bags (fig 5) and a host of other items were done in this style which became the predominate beadwork style produced in many Haudenosaunee communities during the second and third quarters of the 19th century.
The historical record of attributed examples points to the fact that these were made in most Iroquois communities, although the details that allow us to distinguish an example that is say Tuscarora, Seneca or Mohawk is less clear. For as long as I have been collecting and researching Iroquois beadwork (almost 30 years), this style has been referred to by people in the antiques field as the “Niagara Floral Style”. This can lead to some confusion as some non-Natives think there was a tribe called the Niagara but there isn’t. The term, as I’ve always understood it, doesn’t refer to a specific Nation but rather to a style of beadwork that was often sold at the Falls. Additionally, to add to the confusion, the fancy beaded picture frames, pincushions, sewing wallets, good-luck horseshoes, beaded canoes, beaded birds, etc. that the Tuscarora sold at the Falls beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, are sometimes referred to as Niagara beadwork. The Tuscarora and others do not agree with the use of the term “Niagara beaded” when it applies to their beadwork. They feel it’s culturally insensitive and if collectors and museums are going to call Mohawk beadwork by its name, the same should be true of Seneca and Tuscarora beadwork. They consider the term to be deceiving and inappropriate.
Another style of beadwork that was sold in Niagara Falls, beginning in the 1850s, was beaded primarily with crystal beads and usually on a red fabric ground (fig. 6). This particular piece has a hand-written inscription on the back indicating it was collected in July, of 1857.
Figure 6 – Watch pocket, Tuscarora with the inscription on the back that it was collected at Niagara Falls in 1857.
By about 1860, another development arose in the beadwork that was produced for sale to travelers who visited the Falls. Now we begin to see more pieces that contain dates and sentimental inscriptions, beaded onto the piece itself, and especially prominent is the beaded addition of the place of purchase, such as “From Niagara Falls” (figs 7 & 7a).
Figure 7a – Detail view of the sewing wallet in figure 7.
Like many of the pieces from the 1850s, they were also embroidered primarily with crystal beads. The sewing wallet in figure 8 has a similar inscription, although on this example it is not beaded onto the piece but rather appears to be applied in the form of a rubber stamp or printed onto it.
It also incorporates the use of the term “present” but this designation appears to have been dropped from pieces produced after the early 1860s to simply “From Niagara Falls,” “From Niagara,” or “Niagara Falls.” The sewing wallet in figure 9 is very similar to the one in figure 8 and here we can see “Present From Niagara Falls” and a date of 1862 beaded onto the piece.
Figure 9 – Sewing wallet with the inscription “Present From Niagara Falls” beaded in metal beads. This piece is also dated 1862 in metal beads.
Why did “From Niagara Falls” suddenly appear beaded on pieces of Tuscarora work about this date? Did a traveler request it and the practice stuck? There were non-Indian made souvenirs sold to tourists in the bazaars at the Falls, many of which were imported, and some of them included the “From Niagara Falls” cachet (fig 10). The reason why the Tuscarora started using it about this time is still unclear although by adding “From Niagara Falls” to their work, the beadwork may have taken on a new purpose; primarily to distinguish it from the work of outsiders. Perhaps a shopkeeper suggested its use as travelers wanted a memento that reminded them of their trip and where they had been. There may have been other factors that led to its use as well as we shall see below.
Figure 10 – Non-Native made clamshell purse with hand-painted flowers and the “From Niagara Falls” cachet. Second half of the nineteenth century.
The Niagara Falls scholar, Karen Dubinsky, relates that
“Edward Roper, visiting Niagara for a second time in the 1890s, noted, “There are the same Indians about as of old; they say the squaws come generally from ‘ould Oirland’ [Ireland].” Many visitors complained about “Irish Indians” or “Indian curiosities” made in New York or England or France, or later, of course, Japan), and by the 1890s one of the popular guide book series edited by Karl Baedeker was warning readers that “the bazaar nuisance [at Niagara] continues in full force…. Those wishing Indian curiosities should buy them from the Indians themselves” (Dubinsky 1999:64-65).
The composer Jacques Offenbach, while on a trip to the Falls in the 1870s, wrote that after having enjoyed the spectacle of Niagara Falls
“I crossed the bridge and set foot on Canadian soil. Here, I had been told, I would see Indians. I expected to find savages, and was surprised to find only dealers in bric-a-brac. They were hideous, I confess; they looked quite ferocious, I admit also: but I doubt whether they were genuine Indians. However that may be, they surrounded me on all sides, offered me bamboos, fans, cigar holders, and pocket-books of a doubtful taste… Nevertheless, I made a few purchases; but I verily believe I brought back into France some curiosities which had been procured at the selling out of some Parisian bazaar” (Offenbach 1875:168).
Mark Twain also complained about the Indians at the Falls in the 1860s, believing most of the ones he encountered were Irishmen disguising themselves as Indians for the sole purpose of selling bogus Indian souvenirs to tourists and he wrote a satirical essay about it titled “Niagara.”
One of the reasons travelers came to Niagara Falls in the nineteenth century was to see Indians (Dubinsky 1999: 60-61). For those making the journey, Niagara represented a pure and pristine environment, which was seen as healthful and invigorating but, just as the Falls became a symbol of America, the Indian became a symbol of the Falls and an icon of this untamed wilderness.
Karen Dubinsky writes that:
“The passion for colleting Indian ‘curiosities’ also signals something of the ambivalent relationship between whites and Native people in the contact zone…. Female beadwork vendors, such as the often-photographed sisters Delia and Rihsakwad Patterson, proved a great hit, for visitors seemed as interested in the merchants as the goods” (Dubinski 1999:66).
But there were other forces at work during this period that could turn a visit to the Falls into a harrowing and costly experience; hackmen, swindlers and con-artists of every sort preying on the unsuspected. Most points of interest at the Falls, such as the Cave of the Winds, The Inclined Railway, the Ferry to Canada and Prospect Park, crossing the bridges to either the Canadian or American side, The Whirlpool Rapids, The Burning Spring, Lundy’s Lane Battle Ground Observatory, and a host of other attractions charged visitors an admission fee or a toll. In some places, travelers were led to believe admission was free and only when they tried to leave were they charged a fee – to the chagrin of many. To complete the Niagara Falls experience, travelers were not required to visit each point of interest but they were often intentionally taken there by deceitful hackmen where they had to pay the toll or admission fee. Hackmen, or carriage drivers, (fig. 11), worked for the hotels, and other large business establishments at the Falls and they had arrangement with the owners of many area attractions to bring them visitors.
Figure 11 – Circa 1860 ambrotype of a hackman and his carriage ferrying visitors around the Falls.
They would drive them around to the different sites but what was unknown to most travelers is that the hackmen were actually paid a commission, usually 50% of the admission fee, to get them there. So rather than take a visitor directly to their desired destination, the hackmen had a strong incentive to take them to every other attraction first, to get their commissions, before taking them to their requested station.
In his 1884 Complete Tourist Guide to Niagara Falls, David Young wrote, warning visitors that
“[As] it had ever been… swindling has become more systematic than in former days, and the public will be surprised when they find who are connected with it. It is gradually driving visitors from the place, and has given Niagara Falls a name not to be coveted by the poorest hamlet in Christendom. For instance, a gentleman arrives at Niagara Falls and puts up at one of the principal hotels and depends upon his Host for directions in visiting the various points of interest in the vicinity. He naturally expects reliable information, but the chances are he will be deceived. It may be and often is the case, that someone in connection with the hotel is connected with one or more of the points of interest on either or both sides of the river. He goes to the office and asks for information concerning the points of interest, and there, only such points as are of in the interest of the hotel or of those connected with the hotel, are pointed out to him as points of interest visited by the great multitude, while all other points are represented as not being worth the time to go and see.”
“Immediately he is put into a hack, the driver mounts his seat, and the individual has really commenced his sight-seeing. The driver who knows his business as well as the pedagogue knows his multiplication table, plies his victim… with marvelous narrations of the events and occurrences that have taken place at those points which they intend visiting, thus drawing the man’s mind away from other points that the driver knows he dare not drive to on pain of INSTANT DISMISSAL. Should the gentleman mention any other point, he is promptly discouraged, is told that the place is not worth seeing or that it is not safe to visit, and should he still insist upon going, the driver would be compelled, point blank, to refuse to take him, and should the party yet persist in going he would have to walk or procure another hack” (Young 1884: 3-4).
The hackmen were not the only ones taking advantage of visitors. Gift shops and bazaars were notorious for charging foreigners, unfamiliar with the local area, considerably more than the usual price for goods.
Cigars that cost a cent and a half each are sold for twenty cents. Lager beer goes up to ten cents a glass; pop the same, and everything else in proportion. Ornaments that come from England are sold to the stranger as Table Rock ornaments, and fabulous stories are told of the difficulty experience in procuring them (Young 1884:16).
Bogus items were routinely sold as genuine and if a hackman brought a traveler to one of these shops he would also get a commission on the sale of items his passengers purchased. Hackmen controlled the lines of business – the shops and attractions they favored would succeed – others not willing to pay their commissions were doomed to failure. Throughout all this, the Tuscarora continued producing exquisite examples of their beadwork. They also sold their work through shops in Niagara Falls. It’s unclear what sort of arrangements they may have had with area establishments but a local businessman – perhaps one slighted by a hackmean – might have suggested the addition of the beaded “From Niagara Falls” as a way to offer his customers something unusual; a genuine keepsake from Niagara Falls that confirmed they had actually been there and was made by the very exotic people that many Victorians had come to see. Since the early nineteenth century
Native peoples have been woven into the natural history of Niagara Falls. Along with waterfalls and wax museums, Native people were established as tourist attractions, extensions of the natural landscape. The tourist gaze is created by symbols and signs, and thus one’s journey consists of collecting—visually, through souvenirs or photograph—the appropriate symbols. And nothing was a more important signifier of North America than the peoples of the First Nations (Dubinski 1999:61).
As the Niagara area developed, civic officials were concerned that growth be balanced among the different sectors of the economy and not centralized on tourism. Focusing on balanced development was a way of establishing distance from the old days of tourist gouging and by 1919, the local Chamber of Commerce actually encouraged local manufacturers to advertise that their products were made in Niagara Falls. What follows is a gallery of Tuscarora pieces that contain the beaded “From Niagara Falls” on the work. As we will see later, the Tuscarora were not the only Native people selling at the Falls and using the “From Niagara Falls” cachet (figs 12-26).
Figure 12 – One panel from a circa 1870 George Barker stereoview of a group of Tuscarora women selling beadwork at the Falls. The Victorian lady on the left is considering the purchase of a Tuscarora barrel purse.
Figure 13 – A Tuscarora barrel purse decorated with an owl and a squirrel, themes often seen on Tuscarora beadwork. Last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Figure 14 – Two Tuscarora beaded boots with the From Niagara Falls cachet. Circa 1900.
Figure 15 – Two Tuscarora sewing wallets. Their similarity suggests that they were likely made by the same person. Circa 1900.
Figure 16 – Tuscarora barrel purse. Last quarter of the nineteenth century. Birds are prominent on many of the pieces from this period.
Figure 18 – A group of six Tuscarora sewing wallets decorated with crystal beads. 1860s-1880s.
Figure 19 – Two Tuscarora sewing wallets decorated with crystal beads. 1860s-1880s.
Figure 20 – A Tuscarora beaded bird dated 1899.
Figure 21 – An exceptional “Good Luck” horseshoe, possibly Mohawk, and decorated mostly in amber colored beads - dated 1905.
Figure 22 – Beaded picture frame, Tuscarora with bird and leaf motifs. Circa 1900.
Figure 23 – Beaded picture frame, Tuscarora with bird, leaf and birds nest motifs. Circa 1900.
Figure 24 – Beaded picture frame, Tuscarora with bird and leaf motifs. Circa 1900.
Figure 25 – Beaded picture frame, Tuscarora with bird and leaf motifs. Circa 1900.
Figure 26 – Beaded bag with bird motif. 1900-1910.
By 1900, some Tuscaroras were objecting to the competition they were getting from the Mohawks. An article published in The Niagara Falls Gazette in July of 1900, reported that:
“[T]wo squaws have come to Niagara from Montreal, Quebec, says the local correspondent of the Buffalo Commercial, and have taken up a stand in the park [Prospect Park] close beside the faithful Tuscarora women. Of course the latter object, but they have so far said little. The Canadian squaws, it is said, brought five big trunks of work with them this season, and they have already announced that next year, Pan-American year, they intend to be on deck May first.
The Tuscarora squaws cannot see why the white man’s law does not protect them, as well as the products of the whites. Furthermore the Tuscaroras point out that years ago Tuscaroras were faithful to the Stars and Stripes … [a reference to their participation in the War of 1812 for the American cause.] People who learned of the situation in the park yesterday plainly stated that they thought the Montreal squaws should be asked to retire to Victoria Park … [on the Canadian side.] Public sentiment is that the Tuscarora should be undisturbed by foreign competition” (Niagara Falls Gazette July 28, 1900:6).
The Mohawks were also adding the “From Niagara Falls” cachet to some of their work (figs 27 & 28).
Figure 27 – Mohawk box purse with the From Niagara Falls cachet. 1890s-1910.
Figure 28 – Mohawk beaded boot with the From Niagara Falls cachet. Circa 1900.
There was also the Six Nations Indian Store located at the foot of the bridge that led to Bath and Goat Islands (fig 29) and they, like many of the local bazaars and gift shops, carried work from Nations other than the Tuscarora. The Tuscarora had the exclusive right to sell on Goat Island, but elsewhere at the Falls, especially in the shops, there was work available from a host of diverse Indian Nations. In 1843, Theodore Hulett published a guidebook to the Falls titled Every Man His Own Guide to the Falls of Niagara, or the Whole Story in a Few Words, to Which is Added a Chronological Table Containing the Principal Events of the Late War Between the United States and Great Britain; Third Edition, Faxon & Co., Buffalo, and it gives a detailed list of the Indian Nations that were supplying his shop with work. There is also the possibility that Pawnee Bill, the Wild West showman, hired Plains Indians to produce so-called Iroquois whimsies that were purported to be sold in shops at Niagara Falls. This link will take you to a blog posting I did onthat some time ago.
Figure 29 – One panel from a stereoview of the Six Nations Indian Store, located in Tugby’s & Walkers variety store at the foot of the bridge to Bath Island which led to Goat Island. Early 1860s. Published by E.A. Anthony, & Company, New York City.
The Tuscarora continued to make pieces throughout the twentieth century (figs 30-39) that were embellished with the “From Niagara Falls” cachet.
Figure 30 – Beaded boot with bird motif. It appears to be dated 1911 although it should be 1941 as there are some missing beads on that digit. Tuscarora.
Figure 31 – Two Tuscarora beaded boots, dated 1900 and 1906. Their similarity suggests that they might have been produced by the same maker.
Figure 32 – (a) Photograph of an unidentified family. Circa 1920. The child is holding the beaded purse illustrated in the image on the right. (b) Beaded bag, Tuscarora, with a squirrel motif; both sides shown. Approximately 3.5 inches by 5 inches.
Figure 33 – Beaded Tuscarora purse dated 1939.
Figure 34 – Beaded heart-shaped pincushion, Tuscarora, dated 1937.
Figure 35 – A beautiful Tuscarora beaded bag with a bird motifs on the both the front and back. Dated 1939.
Figure 36 – Beaded Tuscarora boot with an animal motif. Dated 1932.
Figure 37 – Three Tuscarora beaded boots dated 1928, 1981 and 2000.
|Figure 38 – Three Tuscarora beaded pincushions from the 1960s|
Figure 39 – Beaded pincushion by Tuscarora artist Grant Jonathan. 2009.
Rosemary Hill (fig 40), one of the foremost beadwork artist and teachers at Tuscorara recalled a conversation with her mother telling her of a woman named Viola Russell who lived on the reservation. This would have been in the 1930s and early 1940s.
“Viola was an elderly woman at that time and her and her husband would go up to the park [Prospect Park] at Niagara Falls and sell the beadwork,” relates Rosemary. “The beadwork she sold there was from four different Tuscarora women. One was my great-grandmother Delilah Bissell, on my mother’s side. My great-grandmother also had a bark stand at end of her driveway where she sold her beadwork on the reservation. My mother said different people went to help Viola out and sometimes Viola’s husband would go. I know Viola was Tuscarora but I’m not sure about her husband. My mother said they would go by horse and buggy and sometimes stay with friends or rent a hotel room. Viola ran the show,” says Rosie. She also said that Viola didn’t buy the items she acquired from the Tuscarora women but did take a small commission on the beadwork that she sold.
Rosemary also recalled another point that is of interest here. “In the 1970s, there was a shop in Niagara Falls that was selling Tuscarora beadwork and the shop owner asked my friend, Penny Hudson, to re-date old beaded pieces that he had in his shop, you know with beads. He told her his person who was doing it had moved, and he needed someone to take over the task, but Penny refused.” Why this shop owner felt it necessary to re-date older pieces is unclear but this brings the dating of some twentieth century pieces into question.
For Tuscarora artists, beadwork was a form of artistic, spiritual, and cultural expression and their designs recorded the workings of their spirit. Beyond their intrinsic beauty, the beadwork has a value as a medium through which a living tradition was maintained. The art survives, and the traditions continue as a testament to the beauty of the human spirit, exemplified by their craft.
I would like to thank Grant Jonathan at Tuscarora for allowing me to use images of some of his old pieces in this blog posting.
Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life exhibit was a traveling exhibition of Haudenosaunee beadwork organized and circulated by the McCord Museum of Canadian History, in partnership with the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, and the Iroquois communities of Kahnawake and Tuscarora. It opened at the McCord in June, 1999, and travelled to several other venues until February, 2003.
A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art. 2012.
The Falls of Niagara or Tourist’s Guide to this Wonder of Nature, William B. Hayden, Buffalo. The Press of Thomas & Co. 1839.
Dodge, Ernest S.
“Some Thoughts on the Historic Art of the Indians of Northeastern North American,” Massachusetts Archaeological Society Bulletin, 13, vol. 1, 1951.
The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls. Published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. 1999.
Offenbach in America. Notes of a Travelling Musician. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., Publishers. Paris: C. Levy. 1875
The Humbugs of Niagara Falls Exposed With a Complete Tourist Guide, Giving Hints That Will Enable the Visitor to Avoid Imposition. Likely published by the author. Suspension Bridge, New York. 1884.