The Lost Museum Archive

Iowa Indians at the American Museum, 1843

This letter from P. T. Barnum to Moses Kimball describes the 1843 exhibition at the American Museum of a group of Iowa Indians. Barnum and Kimball, proprietor of the Boston Museum, maintained a regular correspondence like this, where they shared information and advice about their exhibits. The westward-moving efforts of white settlers to gain Indian lands began in the late eighteenth century and was codified by the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830, which forced a range of native tribes to exchange their ancestral lands for reservations located west of the Mississippi. Barnum’s casual racism, and the very fact of his exhibiting representatives of an American Indian tribe, suggest the cultural transformation that accompanied Indian removal: Native Americans became less a threat and more a curiosity.

American Museum, 26 September 1843

Dear Moses,

The Indians arrived and danced [last] night. There are 5 Indians, 2 squaws, and a little [papoose] five or six years old besides the interpreter. I have never seen them till last night—you may think that strange but it is a fact. They dance very well, but do not [look] so fine as those last winter. They rowed, or rather paddled, another [race] last Saturday at Camden. I hired them out for the oc[casion] for $100 and their board &c. Fitzhugh staid with them [and] brought me the money last night. You may as well get your puffs preliminary in the papers. I [think] that I can let them leave here Saturday after[noon,] though I can tell better and positively on Thursday, [so] that you know Friday morning . . .

Thine as ever,
P. T. Barnum

P. S. You must either get a [building] near the museum for the Indians to sleep and cook their own victuals [in] or else let them sleep in the museum on their skins & have victuals sent them from Sweeny shop. I boil up ham & potatoes, corn, beef, &c. at home & send them at each meal. The interpreter is a kind of half-breed and a decent chap; he must have common private board. The lazy devils want to be lying down nearly all the time, and as it looks so bad for them to be lying about the Museum, I have them stretched out in the workshop all day, some of them occasionally strolling about the Museum. D—n Indians anyhow. They are a lazy, shiftless set of brutes—though they will draw.


Source: Courtesy, Boston Athenaeum Library