By Michael Brilli

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At nine o’ clock on May 10, 1876, the Centennial Exhibition, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of America’s independence, opened in Philadelphia. In the seven months that the Centennial was open, a little under ten million people passed through its gates. The organizers of the Centennial saw this as an excellent opportunity to impress their ideas upon the people of America. These ideas consisted of a vision of America’s progress seen through the lenses of America’s intellectual, political, and business elite. During 1876, the United States was in a very uncertain state. President Grant was at the end of his term marked by corruption and Reconstruction was soon about to meet an abrupt ending. The Centennial Exhibition was a chance for American people to see how powerful and dominant their country still was, amidst these times of uncertainty.

    While this goal to restore confidence in the American people can be seen as a theme throughout the whole Centennial, my research has been limited to the Native American exhibit in the U.S. Government Building. 1876 was a critical time for Native Americans in the U.S. June 26, was the day of Custer’s Last Stand, the last successful Indian resistance against invaders. The Indian Exhibit at the Centennial was formed in a way consistent with the viewpoint of America’s elite. The exhibit was manipulated to show Indians as a barbaric, primitive, inferior species, which was on its way towards extinction. While the rest of the Centennial gave Americans confidence by displaying progress, the Indian exhibit gave Americans confidence by displaying a lack in progress.

    The Smithsonian Institute shared the U.S. Government Building with the departments of War, Interior, Navy, Treasury, Agriculture, and the Post Office, but the Institution's plot was the largest. Spencer F. Baird, naturalist and and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, was selected by Smithsonian secretary Joseph Henry to serve on the government board composed of executive department heads. One of Baird’s plans was to form an "exhaustive and complete" display to "illustrate the past and present condition of the native tribes of the United States, or its anthropology." (Rydell 23)

    Although the exhibit was a joint project of the Smithsonian and the Department of the Interior, the Smithsonian had control of the exhibit. To collect artifacts, Baird relied on James G. Swan, John Wesley Powell, and Steven Powers, who all headed expeditions to the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast, and the upper Rocky Mountains states. Baird also received artifacts from federal Indian agents on reservations. To aid the agents in deciding what to collect, the Indian Bureau of the Interior assigned Otis T. Mason, a professor at Columbia University, to devise a systematic set of "ethnological directions." Mason incorporated a plan of ethnological instructions by Gustav Friedrich Klemm into his instructions. Klemm was anthropologist and director of the royal library at Dresden. He developed a concept of culture involving social organization, technology, and belief, in his ten-volume work, Allgemeine Cultur-Geschichte der Menschheit. In his work, Klemm organized cultures into "active" and "passive" races. In Mason’s scheme, Indians were given a passive role and were considered on their way to extinction. Mason instructed the agents, many of whom were indifferent on Indians and ethnology, to gather artifacts that would "present savage life and condition in all grades and places," not omitting objects "because they are either rude or homely." (Rydell 23)

    Ironically, while Baird felt that Indians would soon be assimilated into American society and lose their distinguishable characteristics, the exhibit attempted to portray Indians as a different class of men which civilization had no effect on. The exhibit was calculated to impress a public, which already had much interest in the subject. By highlighting Indian guerrilla warfare and other problems in the west, the organizers were actually promoting the concept of Manifest Destiny. (

   Baird had sought the use of live Indians in his exhibit. When the Department of the Interior balked on the idea, Baird pressed the issue and ensured that "only the cleanest and finest looking Indians" would be displayed, those who could speak English and who brought with them a child, dog, and a pony. Indians truly representative of the tribes were considered unpresentable, and although the plan to use live Indians was endorsed by President Grant, Congress refused to appropriate funds for moving or housing even "the cleanest and finest looking" such people. Life sized mannequins were substituted for the missing real Indians (

    A central concept of the Indian exhibit was that the worth of Native American people and culture was at a level below the white man. When viewed next to all the progress that Americans have made and the wonders in science accomplished in Machinery Hall, the Indians with their tee-pees and totem poles displayed, act as an antithesis to American progress, a central theme to the Centennial.

    The Indian exhibit contained a vast number of artifacts. Stone-age specimens from the West Indies were included. From, Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, Navajo, Hopi, and Apache tribes of the Southwest, implements of daily life, including baskets, weapons, and buckskin garments, were collected. From the Northwest Coast tribes of Tlingit, Haida, and Bella Bella, came a sixty-five foot canoe and totem poles, which rose solemnly above the other artifacts. The artifacts were in no particular organization and the exhibit was viewed by many as chaotic (

    Present at the Centennial were two contrasting views of Native Americans. One view was that portrayed by the Indian exhibit, showing the Indians to be tribal and hardly human at all. The other view is that of the Noble Savage, which can be seen in the Indian statue, which represented America at the Centennial. The differences between the two views are many. For example, at the Indian exhibit, a mannequin was displayed with a grizzly bear claw-necklace and a belt full of dangling scalps. Truly a sight engineered to instill fear and loathing in the viewer. Displaying images of savagery became more important then displaying the truth. On the other hand, the view of the Indian as a Noble Savage paints quite a different picture. As seen in the America statue, the Indian is a tall, noble, peaceful figure. It stands eloquently and images of brutality and savagery are absent. General Custer sided with the other view of Indians, describing them not as Noble Savages but as men "whose cruel and ferocious nature far exceeds that of any wild beast of the desert." (Randel 126)

    This idea of Indians as savages took on immediate importance when the world learned of the Battle of Little Bighorn. On June 26, General George Armstrong Custer underestimated the number of Indians in a Sioux encampment and led a frontal assault on the Little Bighorn River. The Sioux, under the leadership of sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse, annihilated Custer and his 225 cavalrymen. Images of Indians as savages now took on new meaning. The New York Times printed reports that Custer’s heart was "cut out and placed on a pole." Although Custer’s debacle was probably his own fault, headlines in the Times sympathized with the fallen hero and spoke of revenge against the Indians. While the Indian exhibit obviously could not have stirred up all this anti-Indian sentiment by itself, the images on display there left little doubt about the identity of heroes and villains in the American West (Rydell 26).

    Was the Indian display a success? If success is measured in people’s reactions and responses, then the organizers of the Indian exhibit were successful indeed. In the Atlantic Monthly, editor William Dean Howells stated, "The red man, as he appears in effigy and in photographs in this collection, is a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence." Howell went on to say that the solution to the Indian problem was simple and obvious: "extinction." (Rydell 26)

    In 1876, Indians were fast disappearing at the hands of the culture that was including them in its Centennial exhibit. By manipulating and exploiting Indians, the Smithsonian and Department of the Interior were encouraging westward expansion at the same time. The theme of westward expansion fits back into the central theme of progress. What option did Americans have but to wipe out these people who stood in the way of their progress? This idea of genocide may have become a lot easier to stomach, when Americans were given the idea that it was only immoral savages who were being eliminated and not real people. The goal of the Indian exhibit at the Centennial was not to put the Native American culture on display. The goal was to help foster the stereotype and pave the way for the inevitable extinction of the "enemy within."


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Copyright 1998 by Michael Brilli