A View of the Butte Des Morts Treaty Ground (detail), 1827, 'Painted on the Spot by J.O. Lewis'
A View of the Butte Des Morts Treaty Ground (detail)
"Painted on the Spot by J.O. Lewis"

James Otto Lewis

James Otto Lewis, born in Detroit, Michigan on February 3, 1799, was trained as an engraver and portrait artist. The United States Indian Department commissioned Lewis to attend government-sponsored Indian councils and treaty ceremonies between 1825 and 1828.

Lewis executed portraits and interviewed Indian chiefs who attended these meetings. During these years Lewis ventured to such locales as Prairie du Chien, Fon du Lac, Brette des Morts, and Fort Wayne. In his travels Lewis met such contemporary artists as Thomas L. McKenney and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

Publication of the Portfolio called for ten installments, each to contain eight hand-colored lithographs, at a price of two dollars per installment. An eleventh component, containing a descriptive text, was to be distributed free to subscribers. Lehman and Duval of Philadelphia were engaged to perform the lithography and hand-coloring work for the images.

Lewis, and many of his contemporaries, suffered from problems with printers, subscribers, and creditors. This explains the fact that the majority of surviving copies, including The Bancroft Library's version, contains only seventy-two plates (nine installments). Copies with all eighty plates (ten installments) are quite rare.

In fact, the tenth installment includes three plates that are not the work of Lewis, another indication of his problems with the publisher. The eleventh installment was most likely never published.

The Portfolio never proved a financial success and the appearance of works by George Catlin and Thomas McKenney and James Hall further diluted the audience for Lewis' work. The original Lewis drawings became part of the Smithsonian Institution collection. The entire body of work was destroyed in an infamous 1865 fire.

Lewis died in 1858. The author never received the acclaim he felt was his due, and the U.S. Congress had rejected his plea for additional compensation for his "arduous task." In retrospect, Lewis lived a remarkable life at an extraordinary time.

The Portfolio, as the first colorplate publication of Native Americans has influenced not only his contemporaries but also generations of artists, authors, and scholars.

A celebrated Miami chief

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft described Lewis' work, "He has painted the Indian lineaments on the spot, and is entitled to patronage — not as supplying all that is desirable, or practicable, perhaps, but as a first and original effort. We should cherish all such work."

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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