View of the Great Treaty Held at Prarie Du Chien (detail), September 1825, 'Painted on the Spot by J.O. Lewis'
View of the Great Treaty
Held at Prarie Du Chien (detail)
September 1825
"Painted on the Spot by J.O. Lewis"

Brief History

Anthony Bliss
Curator, Rare Books Collection
The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

James Otto Lewis’ Aboriginal Port Folio [sic], a series of hand-colored lithographic portraits of American Indian chiefs was published in 10 monthly parts (each with 8 plates), in 1835-1836.

In the role of official artist, Lewis had accompanied Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Lewis Cass, Governor of the Michigan Territory, to many treaty councils in the upper Midwest in the 1820s and early 1830s.

He sketched the Indian chiefs from life then finished the portraits when he returned to Detroit.

Learning that McKenney planned to publish a "Portrait Gallery of American Indians" including some of his own work, a resentful Lewis resolved to beat him to the punch.

He arranged with the lithographic publishers Lehman and Duval of Philadelphia to begin issuing his portraits in monthly installments. An illustrated prospectus for McKenney’s book was just circulating when the first part of Lewis’ Aboriginal Port Folio was published in May, 1835.

At a pace of one part per month, and at a cost of $2.00 per part, Lewis’ work was completed in February, 1836. Fewer copies of part 10 (containing plates 73-80) were issued, apparently because of a dispute between Lewis and the publisher. An eleventh part with biographies of the Indian Chiefs was planned but never published.

The plates in the Port Folio were issued unbound and unnumbered, so it is impossible today to say which group of eight plates belongs to which part. Early owners of the set had the plates bound up in various ways so their order in any particular volume was random. For many years, bibliographers thought that the set was complete with 72 plates and that part 10 had never been distributed to bring the plate count up to 80.

Philadelphia, July 20, 1835
Transcript of advertisement

Lewis was first in the field with his Indian portraits. McKenney’s collection with text by James Hall and retitled The History of the Indian Tribes of North America was not available until 1836. Despite, or possibly because of his attention to authentic details, Lewis’ work appeared clumsy and amateurish compared to the finely finished and somewhat romanticized images in McKenney and Hall’s History.

The Aboriginal Port Folio had only one printing; McKenney and Hall went through five folio editions and six octavo editions between 1836 and 1870.

Bancroftiana, Volume 117, Fall 2000.

Transcript of Advertisement

In presenting the first Number of the following work to the public, the Publisher will, perhaps, be excused for candidly acknowledging the consciousness of his own inability to render that full justice in its execution, which the subject from its own importance requires; but as the present is the first attempt of the kind in this country, he sincerely trusts, that the judicious and critical will regard it with a favorable and indulgent eye.

The great and constantly recurring disadvantages to which an artist is necessarily subject, while travelling through a wilderness, far removed from the abodes of civilization, and in "pencilling by the way," with the rude materials he may be enabled to pick up in the course of his progress, will, he hopes, secure for him the approbation, not only of the critic, but of the connoisseur:--And when it is recollected, that the time for holding Indian treaties is generally very limited; that the deep-felt anxiety of the artist to possess a large collection must be no small impediment in the way of his bestowing any considerable share of his time and attention on any one production, together with the rapidity with which he is obliged to labor; he confidently believes as they are issued in their original state, that, whatever imperfections may be discoverable, will be kindly ascribed to the proper and inevitable cause.

He would beg leave, moreover, to state, that he had the honor to be employed by the Indian Department expressly for the purpose. As regards the merits of their general character, and the fidelity of the costume, he can with confidence assure the public, that the resemblances of both are faithfully and accurately given.

Copies from the principal originals were painted by Mr. King of Washington, and are now deposited in the War Office. With this brief introduction, the Subscriber respectfully offers the work to the kind patronage of his fellow citizens and the public.

J.O. Lewis.
Philadelphia, July 20, 1835.

The American Indian Portfolio: An Eyewitness History, 1823-28 / James Otto Lewis; Introduction by Philip R. St. Clair. Kent, Ohio: Volair Limited, 1980.
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