P.T. Barnum and the Indians


Here’s another little post in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

There were many live theatrical precursors to 20th century depictions of Native Americans in film and broadcasting, and we’ll be writing about many of them this week: medicine shows, wild west shows, melodramas and dime novels. One show biz branch that people seldom think of today (mostly because much of the field has ceased to be a branch of show biz) is museum exhibition. To exhibit living Native Americans as “oddities” or “attractions” and (later) as zoo-like anthropological specimens.

It’s admittedly a grey area. On one level, watching a group of Native Americans chant, sing and dance can be just like attending any other traditional folk concert. To this day, there are demonstrations like this (often called “pow wows”) every year in New York at Theater for the New City and at Floyd Bennett Field. And even from the beginning there no doubt were liberally minded, interested white people who would watch such spectacles from that perspective, as a way of learning about the people. I think it’s safe to attribute to the others motives less worthy.

As early as 1768, before there was even a “show business” per se a group of Cherokees performed a war dance on the stage of New York’ s John Street Theatre. In 1827, several Iroquois warriors demonstrated a variety of battle techniques including simulated scalping at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia.

In 1843, when his American Museum was only two years old, P.T. Barnum transported a collection of Sac, Fox and Iowa personages to New York and had them perform their dances and war-like re-enactments. “They are a lazy, shiftless set of brutes,” he wrote, “but they will draw.”

Twenty years later he brought some of the most powerful chiefs in the country up to his museum from the peace conference they were having with President Lincoln. Among them were Lone Wolf and White Bull of the Kiowas, and War Bonnet and Lean Bear of the Cheyenne. One of the bunch was a notorious individual named Yellow Buffalo, who was supposed to have killed numerous white people on the frontier. During the show, Barnum would make a great pretense of saying respectful and admiring things about him, put his around him and so forth….while his patter (which Yellow Buffalo couldn’t understand because he didn’t speak English) described all of his blood-curdling atrocities.

Barnum didn’t restrict his Native American talent raids to the Northern hemisphere. Maximo and Bartolo, the so-called Aztec Children were two microcephalic unfortunates from St. Salvator,  hired by Barnum starting in 1848-49 as representatives of an ancient, vanished race. The children had been sold to a promoter by their mother, who unwittingly believed that they were being taken to an American hospital to be cured of their condition. Instead they were exhibited to the public as “ethnological curiosities” for the next 40 years. Whether or not they were actual Native Americans is unknown; but they were presented as such.


In 1884, by which time he had graduated from museums to the circus business, Barnum presented his Grand Ethnological Congress of Nations in which he presented all the known world’s “uncivilized races” and “savage and barbarous tribes”, including a group of North American Sioux people amongst the Zulus, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines etc. I wonder what he and his audiences would make of Turtle Bay nowadays?

native american heritage

To find out more about the history of the variety arts (including dime museums, circus and side shows) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc


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