In the collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) in Rochester, New York is a table cover (figures 1a and 1b) that was made by Caroline Parker, a Seneca from the Tonawanda Reservation in Western New York. Although it is undated, stylistic comparison to other similarly beaded items suggests it is from the mid-nineteenth century (figure 2). The most prominent feature on the piece in figure 1 is the large, central floral motif that distinguishes it stylistically from other floral work that was done during the mid-nineteenth century. I believe this motif, and its variations are diagnostic of a style of floral beadwork that was done on the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York primarily by beadworkers in the Parker family; notably Caroline Parker, her mother Elizabeth, and Mariah, the wife of Caroline’s brother Levi. There may also have been others in their immediate circle of beadworkers involved in the production of this style.
Figure 1a – The center section of a table cover in the Rochester Museum and Science Center collected by Lewis Henry Morgan and created by Caroline Parker. The cover measures 4 feet by 5.5 feet. Photo by Deborah Holler.
Figure 1b – Detail of the flower in figure 1. Photo by Deborah Holler.
Deborah Holler has written that
a recent revival of interest in Iroquois beadwork by connoisseurs and art historians has shed new light on Caroline Parker’s artistry in clothing and textiles, widely acknowledged to be pivotal in the 19th century cultural exchange between the Native aesthetic and European influences. This developing aesthetic in clothing and textiles became an inspiration for generations of Iroquois artists, as well as the prototype for Seneca women’s “traditional” clothing styles. Thus Carrie Parker, it can be argued, became an arbiter of change who walked in two worlds; that of her traditional Tonawanda Seneca and Tuscarora communities, and that of the highest social and political realms of white society (Holler 2011:9). [You can read two excellent articles about Caroline Parker by Deborah Holler in Western New York Heritage Magazine, Volume 14, Number 1, Spring, 2011 and in American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 37, Number 4, Autumn, 2012.]
Figure 2 – Tonawanda Seneca. A beaded bag with a diagnostic flower on the back. An old newspaper used as a stiffener during the construction of the flap is dated February, 1848.
During the classic period of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) souvenir beadwork (1800–1840s) bags, hats, moccasins and other fanciful items featured curvilinear and geometric designs and organic motifs. During the dawn of the Victorian era however, (the Victorian era began in June of 1837 with the reign of Queen Victoria and ended with her death in January, 1901) a major design transformation – the rise of the Niagara floral style – took place in Haudenosaunee beadwork (figure 3). The origin of this floral style has long been a topic of discussion among scholars and researchers and evidence suggests it emerged during the late 1830s, in the waning years of the classic period of Haudenosaunee beadwork. (See Chapter 4 in A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee(Iroquois) Art for more on this transition.)
Figure 3 – An assortment of mid-19th century beaded bags in the Niagara Floral style. These were made in most Iroquois beading communities and often sold at Niagara Falls.
Scholars such as Ruth Phillips have indicated that the rapid shift from curvilinear and geometric designs to floral motifs in mid-nineteenth century Iroquois work has been linked to Victorian fashion trends and women’s domestic sphere (Phillips 1998). During this period, floral beadwork became the predominate style that would be made and sold by the Haudenosaunee. The overwhelming evidence suggests that the floral motifs illustrated in figure 3 were produced in most Haudenosaunee beading communities, but the floral style illustrated in figures 1a & b appears to be unique to the mid-nineteenth century Seneca on the Tonawanda Reservation.
[F]loral imagery can also be linked to Haudenosaunee cosmology, beginning with Skywoman, who is also called Mature Flower, and is the model for the image of Haudenosaunee femininity. Once on Turtle Island, Skywoman initiates the cycle of growth of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash), as well as the use of powerful plant medicines, all of which may be included in the symbolic representation of floral imagery (Holler 2012:62).
Caroline’s mother Elizabeth is believed to have lived on the Cattaraugus Reservation before her move to Tonawanda and she may have developed her commercial sewing and beadwork skills under the tutelage of Laura Wright, the wife of the Rev. Asher Wright, a missionary to the Seneca at Cattaraugus. Wright held classes and set up an industrial shop on the reservation.
[Wright’s] next step in the plan for the [Seneca] women was to teach them to make garments for sale, and with the money thus obtained buy more material… The women… had become thoroughly interested and imbued with the healthful fascination of earning something, and were clamorous for more work (Caswell 1892:205-206).
Mrs. Wright was also clever in devising ways to get Seneca women to listen to her moralizing and religious instructions. Often, she would invite them to what we might today call a “tea meeting.”
They were at the liberty to bring their needlework, which consisted in ornamenting their deerskin moccasins with porcupine quills, or their broadcloth skirts and leggings with beads, or perhaps fastening a quantity of silver brooches upon their short gowns or hats. While thus occupied, she read and explained the gospel truths in their own language, sang hymns with them, and frequently encouraged them to tell her some story of old times. The simple repast, which had really brought them there and held them through the afternoon, was then served, and they went away to think of the “good words” that had been spoken to them about the “new way” (Caswell 1892:65).
Because her so called “tea meetings” were accompanied by the teaching of the gospel, they were opposed by many Seneca traditionalists.
Elizabeth Parker’s daughter Caroline was born sometime before 1828 and she was known to her family as “Ga-ho-na, meaning the Blue Bell” (Parker 1919:58).
By 1855, when many white settlers around her were illiterate in English, and most American Indians did not speak English with fluency, Caroline was teaching the “3 R’s” to Indian children on the Tonawanda Reservation. Although the laws at the time dictated that women could not own property, and very few of the emerging middle class worked outside their homes, Caroline earned a living teaching and occupied a cabin of her own on the reservation. She also worked on her parents’ farm. As her brothers left home to serve in the U. S. military and advance their careers, she managed the family business accounts, represented her parents to public officials and corresponded with her brothers on all aspects of family and community life. Caroline sometimes acted as a translator of official business for the Tonawanda Chiefs and seems to have been something of a political operative in times of crisis (Holler 2011:12).
In 1864, she married Tuscarora Chief John Mt. Pleasant and moved to the Tuscarora Reservation.
Figure 4 – Engraving of Lewis Henry Morgan, from the 1901 edition of his League of the Hodenosaunee or Iroquois.
Lewis Henry Morgan (figure 4), an attorney from Rochester, New York, had an inquisitive mind and a curiosity about the Haudenosaunee. He was also loosely affiliated with New York State Cabinet of Natural History (NYSCNH). By chance, he met Caroline’s younger brother Ely in a bookstore and a friendship ensued. Through Morgan’s influence, the Parkers were retained to produce examples of Seneca material culture for the NYSCNH, the predecessor to the New York State Museum in Albany. Although many of these items were destroyed in a devastating 1911 fire, Morgan had illustrations made of the beaded items, in full color, which were published in two reports for the State of New York (Morgan 1850, 1852) as well as in a 1901 reprint of his classic work on the Iroquois (Morgan 1901). Morgan also kept examples of Caroline’s beadwork for himself, some of which were later returned to the New York State Museum and others to the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
Regarding Caroline’s dress (figures 5 & 6), that was collected for the state, Morgan wrote:
This is without question the finest specimen of Indian beadwork ever exhibited. Next to the article itself the plate will furnish the best description. It was made by Miss Caroline G. Parker (Ga-Ha-No), a Seneca Indian girl, now being educated in the State Normal School, to whose finished taste, and patient industry the State is indebted for most of the many beautiful specimens of beadwork embroidery now in the Indian collection. (Morgan 1852:110–111).
During the approximately three month period between November 1849 and the end of January 1850, the Parkers provided Morgan with over 200 items, of which about 16 pieces were beadwork. These were collected by Morgan for the Third Regents Report. Morgan’s correspondence with the Parkers indicates that Caroline made many of the items that were supplied to the Cabinet of Natural History in Albany although some scholars dispute this point as Caroline was attending school in Albany at the time and wrote that she was overwhelmed with school work and other obligations. More than likely, the beadwork that was provided to the state was from an existing inventory and it’s impossible to determine at this point how much of it was made by Caroline or by other members of her family.
One of Caroline’s relations wrote that there was a “what-not” or curio cabinet that her mother Elizabeth kept at the family farm. One shelf contained a display of “fancy Indian beadwork,” presumably made by Elizabeth, but there is no description of it (Parker 1919:194). Elizabeth also “made very fine bead-work too and Aunt Carrie [Caroline] learned from her” (Parker 1919:235).
Figure 5a – Illustration of a dress made by Caroline Parker and featured in the Fifth Regents Report to the State of New York, 1852.
Figure 5b – An illustration of Caroline wearing the same dress. From the front plate in Morgan’s 1901 edition of his League of the Hodenosaunee or Iroquois.
Figure 6 – Circa 1850 daguerreotype of Caroline wearing that dress.
Figure 7 – Image on left is a detail of the bag in figure 6. The bag on the right is the one illustrated in Morgan’s report to the Regents of the State of New York. They appear to be the same bag.
The beaded bag that Caroline is holding in figure 6 is virtually identical to the colored illustration in figure 7. Beaded bags in this style are seen in both museum and private collections. They usually have a scalloped flap and a scalloped lower edge, as well as several strings of beads sewn in a tight band along the perimeter (figure 8). The scalloping along the edge of these bags may have originated in response to the Victorians’ love for scalloped borders as it’s rare to find a Haudenosaunee bag with scalloped edges that predates the Victorian era. The Schedule of Articles that Morgan donated to the State of New York in 1849 included five varieties of Ga-ya-ah [work bags] and six varieties of Got-gwen-da [pocket books] (Tooker 1994:277) so it would seem that Morgan collected a range of bag styles from the Tonawanda Seneca.
The floral design in figure 1 is a documented example of Caroline’s work and there are numerous objects that have survived that incorporate a virtually identical floral motif in the design (see figures 11, 12 & 22). Except for the example in figure 1, there are no records that assure us Caroline made any of the other items but the bead colors, delicacy and refinement of the designs and their stylistic similarity to the design in figure 1 suggests to me that there is a good possibility that she did; they represent the highest level of Haudenosaunee beadwork.
Art historian Ruth Phillips has written that Caroline Parker’s work
is characterized by its flatness, great delicacy, relatively high degree of naturalism, and its use of small, pastel, white, and translucent beads (Phillips 1998:224).
Figure 8 – A group of mid-19th century bags that are stylistically similar to the one in figure 7. Each has a scalloped lower edge and several strings of beads sewn in a tight band along the perimeter.
In Morgan’s Fifth Regents Report to the State of New York, he illustrates a pincushion that he collected from the Parkers (figure 9) which is very similar to one that was collected at Niagara Falls in 1850 (figure 10). They both have similarities to the large floral design described above and likely represent a Tonawanda Seneca style, though not necessarily one that was made by the Parkers. Beadworkers seldom worked in isolation so there might have been some borrowing of ideas and designs among mid-nineteenth century Tonawanda beadworkers which would account for the similarities in their work.
Figure 9 – Pincushion collected from the Parkers and illustrated in Morgan’s Fifth Regents Report to the State of New York January 22, 1851, Plate 19.
|Figure 11 – From the collection of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, Massachusetts. The similarity of the flower to the one in figure 1 is striking.|
The bags in figures 12 through 17 also have a variation of that large, central floral motif. Other distinguishing features on these bags include a tight band of beads along a scalloped perimeter. Additionally, like the table cover in figure 1, they incorporate some variation of the dendrite or spray work along the perimeter of the flower that might symbolizes the world tree from the Iroquois creation story (Parker 1912:616-620). The large flower could be a stylized representation of the sun depicted atop the celestial or world tree also from the creation story. Although the Parkers adapted their lifestyle to co-exist with Europeans and presented their work to Victorian consumers in a way that was acceptable to them, they could still covertly incorporate symbols in their work that had cultural significance to them.
Figure 12 – Beaded bag, likely Tonawanda Seneca, mid-19th century.
Figure 13 – Beaded bag, likely Tonawanda Seneca, mid-19th century.
Figure 14 – Beaded bag, likely Tonawanda Seneca, mid-19th century.
Figure 15 – Beaded bag, likely Tonawanda Seneca, mid-19th century.
Figure 16 – Beaded bag, likely Tonawanda Seneca, mid-19th century.
Figure 17 – Beaded bag, likely Tonawanda Seneca, mid-19th century.
“The art of flowering” – as the Parkers termed it – is what they were noted for:
In doing this work, the eye and the taste are the chief reliances, as they use no patterns except as they may have seen them in the works of others. In combining colors certain general rules, the result of experience and observation, are followed, but beyond them each one pursued her own fancy. They never seek for strong contrasts, but break the force of it by interposing white, that the colors may blend harmoniously. Thus light blue and pink beads, with white beads between them, is a favorable combination; dark blue and yellow, with white between, is another; red and light blue, with white between, is another; and light purple and dark purple, with white between, is a fourth. Others might be added were it necessary. If this beadwork is critically examined it will be found that these general rules are strictly observed; and in so far as beadwork embroidery may be called a systematic art. The art of flowering, as they term it, is the most difficult part of the beadwork, as it requires an accurate knowledge of the appearance of the flower, and the structure and condition of the plant at the stage in which it is represented (Morgan 1852:111).
Figure 18 – Beaded Glengarry hat on red wool Stroud with a green silk ribbon edging. Mid-19th century. The top panel incorporates the large diagnostic flower. Other flowers are depicted in various stages of blossoming, a characteristic found on work by the Parkers.
Figure 19 – Large beaded pillow in the Tonawanda Seneca style.
We are not limited to examples of beaded bags in our search for items with this characteristic flower. Figures 18 – 20 highlight other examples of souvenir art with this diagnostic element. The Glengarry hat in figure 18, although missing the dendrite or spray work along the perimeter of the flower, incorporates other elements that point to a Tonawanda origin and possibly to Caroline Parker. In many of the objects that can be stylistically attributed to the Parkers, flowers are often represented in different stages of blossoming and that feature is most apparent on the side panels of the hat. The large flower on the top could also be a stylistic representation of the sun mounted atop the world tree. Figure 19 is a large pillow which again shows the characteristic central floral element with the dendrite or spray work. This is surrounded by many strings of beads in a scalloped perimeter very much like the beaded bags. Other features are the flowers that are represented in different stages of blossoming. The piece in figure 20 is a lovely tri-fold, calling card wallet shown opened. There are also numerous pieces that don’t have the large central flower but incorporate other elements that are seen in examples that do (figure 21).
Figure 20 – Tri-fold calling card wallet with the diagnostic flower.
Figure 21 – A group of beaded items without the large diagnostic flower yet still incorporating other elements found on examples that do.
Perhaps two of the most striking pieces that incorporate floral elements attributable to the Parkers are the large bags/satchels in figures 22 and 23.
The example in figure 22 is from a remarkable collection that was illustrated in the publication titled: Pleasing the Spirits by Douglas C. Ewing in 1982, figure 252 although there is no known record linking it directly to Caroline. The bag in figure 23 is from the estate of William Waldegrave Palmer, the Second Earl of Selborne (1859 – 1942). Palmer served for a time as High Commissioner to South Africa and before that was Under Secretary to the British Colonies. This bag could have belonged to his father Roundell Palmer (1812 – 1895), the First Earl of Selborne, who may have been one of the many foreign dignitaries that were frequent visitors to the Parker/Mt. Pleasant homestead near Niagara Falls. What is remarkable about this example is its similarity to a satchel illustrated in Morgan (figure 24).
Figure 24 – Beaded satchel attributed to the Parker's and illustrated in the Report on the Fabrics, Inventions, Implements and Utensils of the Iroquois, Made to the Regents of the University, Jan. 22, 1851, by Lewis Henry Morgan, plate 18.
Morgan described the satchel in his 1850 Tonawanda field notes as a beautiful example of Seneca beadwork.
Upon one side of the lower figure is designed to represent a rosebush, with its flowers at different stages of maturity from those [which] are just opening to those [which] are in full bloom. The success of the imitation although not perfect by any means is yet quite striking. It is quite easy to detect the opening rose in the bud at the left. The same thing is attempted on the rose at the top. On the reverse side are two stars, which as specimens of fancywork, are certainly very tastefully and ingeniously made. It is an imitation of the ordinary travelling bag of the whites, and not an Indian article. [As quoted in: (Tooker 1994:152–153)].
The beading technique used for the floral decorations on both Palmer’s bag and Morgan’s satchel appears identical, and each depicts flowers that are in various stages of blossoming. Even the method used to create the stems is distinctive, comprised of adjacent and repeated bead segments which create the illusion that the beads are twisted together. Morgan indicated in his notes that the Parkers sent him five of these sizable bags in 1849. Both these bags were conceivably made by the same hand, and possibly by one of the Tonawanda Parkers.
|Figure 25 – Late 19th century cabinet card of Caroline Parker wearing a dress with beaded decorations, possibly by her own hand.|
Caroline (figure 25) died in 1892 and her obituary appeared in the New York Times.
A Noted Indian Woman Dead.
The Widow of the Chief of the Six Nations.
Lockport, N.Y., March 20. – The death of Caroline Mountpleasant, wife of the late chief of the Six Nations, John Mountpleasant, yesterday, aged sixty years, removes one of the most prominent Indian women of the time. Mrs. Mountpleasant was a sister of the celebrated Indian General Parker, now of New York, who served so gallantly in the civil war, earning his title of brigadier General.
The deceased had received an academic education and was well read in literature, particularly regarding Indian matters. She proved of great help to her husband in his efforts to elevate and educate the various tribes of the Six Nations. Mrs. Mountpleasant, after his death, retained her home with the Tuscaroras, on the reservation, where her influence in religious, educational, and commercial matters was strongly felt. Her home was a large finely appointed house in the midst of the reservation, very picturesquely situated. It was one of the most complete museums of Indian relics and curiosities, and was visited by thousands of prominent American and noted English and foreign tourists. The other appointments of the place, such as barns and out-dwellings, were on a mammoth scale.
The funeral of the dead Indian woman will be held to-morrow (New York Times, March 21, 1892, page 4).
If you have an interest in Northeast Woodland beadwork you might find my book of interest. Titled: A Cherished Curiosity: TheSouvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by GerryBiron.
Published in 2012. This is a brand new, hard cover book with dust jacket. 184 pages and profusely illustrated. 8.5 x 11 inches. ISBN 978-0-9785414-1-5.
Since the early nineteenth century, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beaded bags have been admired and cherished by travelers to Niagara Falls and other tourist destinations for their aesthetic beauty, detailed artistry, and the creative spirit of their makers. A long neglected and misunderstood area of American Indian artistry, "souvenir" art as it's come to be called, played a crucial role in the subsistence of many Indian families during the nineteenth century. This lavishly illustrated history examines these bags – the most extensively produced dress accessory made by the Haudenosaunee – along with the historical development of beadworking both as an art form and as a subsistence practice for Native women.
In this book, the beadwork is considered in the context of art, fashion, and the tourist economy of the nineteenth century. Illustrated with over one hundred and fifty of the most important – and exquisite – examples of these bags, along with a unique collection of historical photographs of the bags in their original context, this book provides essential reading for collectors and researchers of this little understood area of American Indian art.
2012 A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art. Published by the author. Saxtons River, Vermont.
Caswell, Harriet S.
1892 Our Life Among the Iroquois Indians. Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, Boston and Chicago.
2011 “The Remarkable Caroline G. Parker Mountplasant, Seneca Wolf Clan.” Western New York Heritage Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring.
2012 “Fashion, Nationhood and Identity: The Textile Artistry of Caroline G. Parker.” American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 37, Number 4, Autumn.
2012 “Fashion, Nationhood and Identity: The Textile Artistry of Caroline G. Parker.” American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 37, Number 4, Autumn.
Morgan, Lewis Henry
1901 League of the Hodenosaunee or Iroquois, A New Edition, with Additional Matter. Edited and Annotated by Herbert M. Lloyd. Volume I & II. Dodd, Mead and Company, New York.
1850 “Report to the Regents of the University, upon the Articles Furnished to the Indian Collection.” In The Third Annual Report of the Regents of the University on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History and Antiquarian Collection, Annexed Thereto pp. 63 – 93. Revised Edition: Printed by Weed, Parsons and Company, Albany.
1852 “Report on the Fabrics, Inventions, Implements and Utensils of the Iroquois, Made to the Regents of the University, Jan. 22, 1851; Illustrative of the Collection Annexed to the State Cabinet of Natural History, with Illustrations.” In The Fifth Annual Report of the Regents of the University on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History and the Historical and Antiquarian Collection, Annexed Thereto, pp 68 – 117. Printed by Richard H. Pease, Albany.
Parker, Arthur C.
1912 “Certain Iroquois Tree Myths and Symbols” in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 14.
1919 The Life of General Ely S. Parker, Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s Military Secretary. The Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo, New York.
1998 Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700 – 1900. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston.
1994 Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. The University of Arizona Press.