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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Myth of the Vanishing Indian

Art in the White House Collection

Diplomatic Reception Room Wallpaper, 2010

White House Historical Association

The White House Diplomatic Reception Room is perhaps best known for its scenic wallpaper, installed during the John F. Kennedy administration in 1961. The highly detailed panorama, designed by French artist Jean-Julien Deltil and produced by Jean Zuber and Company, depicts notable American places including Niagara Falls, Boston Harbor, West Point, and the Natural Bridge in Virginia.

It is worth noting that Deltil likely never visited the United States during his lifetime; rather these scenes are one French artist’s interpretation of nineteenth-century America.1 Created in 1834, the wallpaper prominently features several Native Americans dancing and playing the drums for white onlookers in its Virginia panel.2 Interestingly, Zuber specifically requested Indigenous representation in Deltil’s work; the artist obeyed, writing: “I hope that this scene of Indians will completely satisfy you…I believe that there are few landscapes in which you will find as many Indians as these.”3

This detailed view of the Zuber wallpaper shows the inclusion of Native Americans.

White House Historical Association

Deltil was correct; his representation of Native Americans was very different from American counterparts of the same period. While the Frenchman included Indigenous people in his depiction of the United States, American artists from the same period consciously and subconsciously excluded Native Americans from their portrayals of the national landscape, which is evident in many fine and decorative arts pieces found in the White House Collection today.

Indeed, during the nineteenth century, Americans embraced a larger theme in artwork, literature, and political rhetoric which historians call the Myth of the Vanishing Indian.4 This trope posited that Native Americans were doomed to extinction. According to historian Paul Jentz, white Americans felt the deaths of Indigenous individuals “could be mourned” while simultaneously believing that “Indians must die away into the ‘untrodden West’ as white civilization took its racially superior place on the continent.”5 In reality, Native Americans were not “vanishing.” They were being displaced by war and coercion and dispossessed of their ancestral lands through illegal seizures and illegitimate treaty negotiations.

Indigenous Removal in the Nineteenth Century

The Myth of the Vanishing Indian was a national self-fulfilling prophecy pursued by federal government officials and agents throughout the nineteenth century that aligned with a wider belief in “Manifest Destiny,” or the idea that American territorial expansion by white settlers was both inevitable and preordained by God. 6 Indigenous removal and North American imperialism predate the creation of the United States, but the first major expansion of American territory occurred in 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson bought over 827,000 miles of territory from the French government, known as the Louisiana Purchase.7 Over the subsequent decades, national expansion increased at a breakneck pace as the Unites States acquired new territories and citizens pushed West across the Mississippi River. Indigenous groups who had lived in these places for generations now faced displacement at the hands of white settlers, often resulting in violent conflict between the two groups.

This highly symbolic image of American expansion in the West shows Native Americans being driven out by white settlers and embodies “Manifest Destiny.”

Library of Congress

This behavior was supported by federal legislation throughout the century, reaching its zenith when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.8 Jackson strongly believed that Native Americans were obstacles to civilization, and he negotiated nearly seventy removal treaties throughout his administration.9 At his annual message to Congress in 1830, Jackson proclaimed:

It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation… Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home…10

Here, the Myth of the Vanishing Indian is evident. Jackson claims that removal will “save” Native Americans from “utter annihilation” when in fact, his policies exacerbated the problem. Despite claims that that these removal policies were “generous,” Jackson’s plans led to unimaginable suffering among Indigenous groups, including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole peoples.11 These efforts were continued by Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren, who oversaw the forced removal of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma in 1838-1839 —more commonly known as the Trail of Tears.12 Native Americans were also aware of the existence of this myth and its impact on their lives. In 1829, an article in the Cherokee Phoenix noted:

It is frequently said that the Indians are given up to destruction, that it is the will of heaven, that they should become extinct and give way to the white man. Those who assert this doctrine seem to act towards these unfortunate people in a consistent manner, either in neglecting them entirely or endeavoring to hasten the period of their extinction.13

This 1886 political cartoon shows the Cherokee Nation being pulled apart by political factions before being buried in the nearby “National Cemetery.”

Library of Congress

As the century continued, American settlers further encroached on the ever-shrinking territories of Indigenous groups. This was intensified by the mid-century discovery of gold and silver in the West, as well as new federal legislation such as the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, which forcibly moved Indigenous groups onto government-sanctioned reservations.14 Later, the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Dawes Act of 1887, signed by presidents Abraham Lincoln and Grover Cleveland, broke up Indigenous lands further and privatized them for sale to white settlers.15 In response, several bloody conflicts occurred between Native American and American military forces in the West over land, resources, and sovereignty.

Native Americans in Nineteenth-Century Art

As politicians used the Myth of the Vanishing Indian to legitimize settler colonialism in the West, so did artwork from the period. By depicting Native Americans as a disappearing race, Americans came to believe that the extinction of Indigenous groups was unavoidable and nearly complete.16 Furthermore, as removal policies successfully forced Indigenous groups onto reservations and out of the public eye, white artists also came to believe that images of Native Americans should be made for posterity’s sake. One publication wrote:

It should be held in dutiful remembrance that [the Indian] is fast passing away from the face of the earth. Soon the last red man will have faded for ever from his native land and those who come after us will trust to our scanty records for his knowledge of habits and appearance...17

As historian Brian Dippie writes: “There is something almost callous about the enthusiasm with which artists and writers went about their self-appointed task of preserving not the Indian, but a record of the Indian.”18 Nineteenth-century Americans then consumed these images in art exhibits, advertisements, and newspapers, as well as at World’s Fairs, cycloramas, and Wild West shows.19 The White House Collection holds several historical works influenced by the Myth of the Vanishing Indian.

Charles Bird King portraits, ca. 1822

The earliest depictions of Native Americans in the White House Collection are these five portraits by Washington, D.C.-based portraitist Charles Bird King. From November 1821 to February 1822, several Native American representatives visited President James Monroe at the White House.20

The federal government commissioned Charles Bird King to paint portraits of delegation members from life, resulting in over two hundred paintings of Indigenous men and women from different tribes.21 Secretary of War James Barbour recollected that he and Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thomas McKenney set out to preserve “the likenesses of some of the most distinguished among this extraordinary race of people” because “this race was about to become extinct” and the paintings would be “of interest in after times.”22 This language plainly references the Myth of the Vanishing Indian.

The paintings in the White House Collection feature Monchousia (White Plume) of the Kansa of Kaw, Petalesharro (Generous Chief) and Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief) of the Pawnee, and Hayne Hudjihini (Eagle of Delight) and Sumonyeacathee (Prairie Wolf) of the Otoe-Missouria. The four men wear peace medals with President Monroe’s profile, gifted to the male delegates.

Later, several collectors, artists, and federal employees attempted to convince Congress to purchase King’s paintings for the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. In 1853, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea wrote:

"As the aboriginal inhabitants of our country are fast disappearing from the face of the Earth, there seems to be an increasing regret that the Government has not taken more timely and efficient measures for preserving memorials to this race. A National Portrait Gallery of distinguished Indians…would certainly be an object of general interest."23

Although this did not happen at the time, many of King’s portraits remained at the Smithsonian on loan until a devastating fire destroyed many of the pieces in 1865.

Emigrant Scene, 1837

Attributed to William H. Powell

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

One of these works is Emigrant Scene, attributed to artist William H. Powell. In this oil painting, an Indigenous man stands with a group of white settlers. He points West, appearing to give directions to the group and permitting them to encroach further into his land. Powell’s painting suggests a peaceful exchange of instructions as the Indigenous man makes their journey westward possible.

He is also drastically outnumbered by the settlers—notice that the land the man points to is devoid of others like him. In general, the settlers and their belongings represent the tide of civilization, inheriting the West from the original stewards of the land. Moreover, this romanticized portrayal of encounters between Native American and settler groups in the nineteenth century obscures the harsh realities of Indigenous removal in the period. Indeed, this work was painted in the same decade that President Jackson’s policies forcibly ousted tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands.

Hudson River Scene, 1861

Painted by Shepard Alonzo Mount

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

This 1861 landscape by Shepard Alonzo Mount is typical of the Hudson River School, an art movement characterized by romantic, vast landscapes—many of which included isolated Native Americans. In comparison to other works from the period, these are generally more sympathetic, representing the loss of nature and its inhabitants in the face of rapid industrialization and economic progress.

This work features two Indigenous figures in the foreground, while another figure paddles a canoe on the Hudson River. By the time that Mount painted this scene, many of the groups indigenous to the region, including the Munsee, Mohawks, and Mohicans, had been dispersed by Dutch and later American settlements.24 Art historian Thomas L. Doughton writes that “through a visual iconography–New England Indians took on the presence of an absence. Natives became ‘people without history,’ people without ‘a place,’ absent from the social landscape, their collective identity as Native, in both past and present, ‘erased.’”25 The figures in this painting aptly personify this isolation.

The Indian’s Vespers, 1847

Painted by A. B. Durand

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

In A. B. Durand’s 1847 painting, The Indian’s Vespers, a lonely Indigenous man, surrounded by wilderness, raises his arms toward the horizon. This is another work from the Hudson River School that captures how white artists inaccurately perceived and portrayed the decline of Native Americans in period landscapes. The mood is somber as the sun symbolically sets upon the lone Indigenous man and his race.

Interestingly, this work was labeled Last of the Mohicans, a reference to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, when it was acquired by the White House in 1963.26 This is no coincidence—Cooper’s popular nineteenth-century book about the demise of a Mohicans is emblematic of the Myth of the Vanishing Indian in literature, poetry, and art.

Hiawatha’s Boat, 1871

Created by the Gorham Manufacturing Company

White House Historical Association

The silver piece pictured here was purchased by First Lady Julia Dent Grant at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Grant “took much pleasure in securing a piece entirely American in history, ideal, skill, and material.”27 Indeed, this silver centerpiece was a reference to American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s popular poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” written about the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region.28

While Longfellow’s poem receives some credit for preserving several pieces of Ojibwe culture, it also embraces the Myth of the Vanishing Indian.29 Longfellow pens the fictional tale of an Ojibwe man, Hiawatha; in the end, he encounters Christian missionaries and decides to sail away from his ancestral home, perhaps forever:

Forth into the village went he / Bade farewell to all the warriors /

Bade farewell to all the young men / Spake persuading, spake in this wise: /

“I am going, O my people / On a long and distant journey; /

Many moons and many winters / Will have come, and will have vanished, /

Ere I come again to see you.”30

Together, these works in the White House Collection embody the inaccurate way that white Americans depicted Native Americans throughout the nineteenth century. In 1918, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported: “It will not be denied here that the Indian through long years of disappointment was crowded back and back until literature lamented him as a vanishing race with broken arrows and dead campfires, and art sculpted him in hopeless desolation at the end of the trail.”31 Literature and artwork are not conceptualized or produced in a vacuum, and contemporary events often shape larger conversations about American culture and politics; thus, the Myth of the Vanishing Indian both reflected and influenced federal policy towards Native Americans in the nineteenth century and beyond.

Despite centuries of conflict with the federal government, Native American communities continue to grow, making up a large and important part of the American population. In fact, recent census data shows that millions of people self-identify as American Indian and Alaska Native, disproving the nineteenth-century idea that Native Americans were a vanishing race. They are also represented at the highest levels of the federal government; in 2021, Pueblo member Deb Haaland made history as the first Native American cabinet secretary when she was appointed secretary of the interior.32