Unsettled Territories in the American West

Daniel Webb

The establishment of federal Indian reservations was a critical, yet often neglected, turning point in the history of U.S. westward expansion during the second half of the nineteenth century.  In the thirty-seven year period between the organization of territorial governments in New Mexico (1850) and Arizona (1863) and the passage of the Dawes Severalty Act (1887), the U.S. federal government approved patents for many of the 42 Indian reservations that today comprise more than 23.5 million acres of land in the two southwestern states.

With the support of a grant from the Division of the Social Sciences, I recently completed research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. that examined the early history of the reservation system in the Territories of New Mexico and Arizona.  The central objectives of my research were: 1) to explain how and why the location, purpose, and operation of the reservations changed over time; 2) to identify distinct stages in the development, deterioration, and reform of the reservation system; and 3) to document the efforts of the Apaches and related groups to protect their cultural resources and economic interests in the region.  This grant also provided an opportunity to examine features of the federal Indian reservations in the southwestern territories that distinguished them from corollary institutions in other regions of the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

A key component of my research was the analysis of photographs of Apache and Navajo delegations that traveled from the reservations in New Mexico and Arizona to the nation’s capital in the early 1870s to meet with officials in the Department of the Interior.  Studio portraits of delegations of Aravaipa, Chiricahua, Coyotero, and Pinal Apaches exposed contradictory representations of native peoples as a “disappearing” race while at the same time demonstrating their enduring presence in the American West.  These photographs, taken in 1876 by C. M. Bell at his studio on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., presented images of the Apaches as model citizens: these men and women were freshly attired in fashionable clothing from a local haberdashery and confidently poised with their eyes fixed on the lens of the camera.  These highly choreographed images served to create more benevolent and familiar portraits of individuals such as Eskiminzin (left, seated, wearing a neck-tie with hat in hand) and Eskayelah (center, holding the boy’s hand) who, at the time, were engaged in bitter disputes with white settlers over the future of their peoples’ lands.

Bell’s photographs of Apache and Navajo delegations were neither timeless nor objective images; rather, they were born within a specific historical context and created to serve a political agenda.  Bell’s studio produced romantic representations of American Indians that people wanted to see, which is to say that his pictures were marketable and quite profitable.  Along with other iconic images generated in the second half of the nineteenth century, his photographs revealed new ways of looking at the Western American landscape and the people who lived there but they also obscured much of the violence and injustice that occurred as a result of U.S. westward expansion.