Sitting Bear, and the Millard Fillmore medal

January 13, 2011

Sitting Bear, Chief of the Arikaras, wearing a medal commemorating Millard Fillmore - Photo by Edward S. Curtis, Library of Congress image

Sitting Bear, Chief of the Arikaras, wearing a medal commemorating Millard Fillmore - Photo by Edward S. Curtis, Library of Congress image

In the 19th century, the U.S. Mint struck medals with the likeness of the sitting president, for use as gifts to foreign dignitaries.  Often these medals would be given to Native Americans as tokens of friendship between the government and the tribe, or as a ceremonial gift on the striking of a treaty.

Description from the Library of Congress:

Photograph shows Sitting Bear, an Arikara chief, in full regalia, with a medallion around his neck. The medallion appears to bear the image of Millard Fillmore and the words: … President of the United States, 1851(?).

Famous photographer of American Indians Edward S. Curtis took this photo.  The photo was copyrighted on November 19, 1908.

  • Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-136605 (b&w film copy neg.)
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Call Number: LOT 12321-D [item] [P&P]
  • Other Number: H118592
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
  • Notes:
    • H118592 U.S. Copyright Office.
    • Title from item.
    • Curtis no. 2894-08.
    • Forms part of: Edward S. Curtis Collection (Library of Congress).
    • Published in: The North American Indian / Edward S. Curtis. [Seattle, Wash.] : Edward S. Curtis, 1907-30, Suppl. v. 5, pl. 166.

Is the medal the 1851 Indian Peace Medal, perhaps?

Without medals, any plan of operations among the Indians, be it what it may, is essentially enfeebled. This comes of the high value which the Indians set upon these tokens of Friendship. They are, besides this indication of the Government Friendship, badges of power to them, and trophies of renown. They will not consent to part from this ancient right, as they esteem it; and according to the value they set upon medals is the importance to the Government in having them to bestow.

Thomas L. McKenney, head of the Indian Office, to the secretary of the War Department, 1829

And, by the way — isn’t that a grand photo of Sitting Bear?  Even knowing that Curtis might, on occasion, take some liberties in clothing Indians he photographed, it’s a great photo in a great setting of a great man.


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