Thomas McKenney

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THOMAS L. MCKENNEY, American (1785-1859)

Thomas McKenney was Superintendent of Indian Trade (1816 - 1822), and head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (1824 - 1830). Throughout his adult life, he advocated for the preservation of Native American history and culture, which he came to appreciate from the close contact with tribal populations. Born into a Quaker family in 1785 in Hopewell, Maryland, McKenney was a huge supporter of peace and equality as well as Native American access to equal education.

McKenney took office in 1816, he was fascinated by the cultural heritage of the tribal delegates that came to Washington DC to advocate for their people. He began to plan an archive which would house Indian memorabilia. In the winter of 1821-22 a large delegation of Indians comprising Pawnee, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, Miami, Sioux, and Chippewa came to Washington to see President Monroe. As each tribal delegation met with McKenney, engaging in ceremonial dinners, signing of treaties and awarding of peace medals, McKenney started a practice of having the individual members of each delegation sit for a formal oil portrait to be painted. Charles Bird King, the Washington portrait artist painted many, but other artists included James Otto Lewis, George Cooke and others.

Over time as hostilities increased, a more hard line approach was adopted by then President Andrew Jackson. McKenney's expenditures on oil paintings were seen as wasteful. At odds with Jackson McKenney was dismissed from his post. His next endeavor involved borrowing back each individual painting and having a lithographic rendition made. His "Indian Portrait Gallery" was sold by subscription, which broke the cost down to manageable parts for the subscribers and allowed the complex and long running project to be financed over time. The work titled History of the Indian Tribes of North America, was published in Philadelphia between 1837 and 1844, and included 120 folio size hand colored lithographs.with text by James Hall. A smaller octavo sized edition was published in 1848. In 1858, the original oil paintings were moved into the Castle at the Smithsonian, the institution's original building and acting repository. A fire accidently started by workmen caused the roof to collapse over the floor where the portraits were stored. Only five paintings were rescued from the blaze.

Thomas L. McKenney died in New York City in February, 1859.