Chief Buffalo Picture Search: The Armstrong Engraving

October 3, 2013

This post is one of several that seek to determine how many images exist of Great Buffalo, the famous La Pointe Ojibwe chief who died in 1855. To learn why this is necessary, please read this post introducing the Great Chief Buffalo Picture Search.

In 1892, thirty-seven years after the death of the La Pointe Chief Buffalo, a curious book appeared on the market. It was printed by A.W, Bowron of Ashland, Wisconsin, just south of Madeline Island at the end of Chequamegon Bay. It was titled Early Life Among the Indians: Reminiscences From the Life of Benj. G. Armstrong. More than any other book, this work has informed the public about the life of Buffalo, and it contains the only complete account of his famous 1852 journey to Washington D.C.

Benjamin Armstrong was born in Alabama. As a young man, he travelled throughout the South and up the Mississippi River eventually making it to Wisconsin. He learned Ojibwe, settled on Madeline Island, and married one of Buffalo’s nieces. Over time, he became Buffalo’s personal interpreter and accompanied him to Washington. His work translating the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe, which established reservations in Wisconsin on largely favorable terms to the Ojibwe, led Buffalo to refer to him as an adopted son. The chief even inserted a provision for a section of land for Armstrong within the ceded territory. The land Armstrong chose was at the site where downtown Duluth would rise.

Over the next several decades, Armstrong battled poverty, temporary blindness, and alcohol. He was duped into trading away his claim on Duluth and lost his bid to regain it in the U.S. Supreme Court. Had he hung on to the land, it would have made him very wealthy, but instead, he remained poor in the Chequamegon region. As he neared the end of his life, he decided to team with Thomas P. Wentworth of Ashland to record his memoirs. The work was completed in 1891 and went to press the following year.

Early Life Among the Indians is a complex work. Much of it contains rich details that could only have come from the true experiences of an insider. Other parts appear to be wholly fabricated. Armstrong’s tone is more that of a northwoods storyteller than it is of a academic historian. Faced with this dilemma, modern scholars of Ojibwe history have either fully embraced Armstrong or have completely rejected him. For the purposes of this study, we cannot do either.


Some of the images in Armstrong’s memior seem to have been created especially for the work and were not derived from earlier photographs (Marr and Richards Co.).

In the first two chapters, Armstrong describes the trip to Washington. He mentions himself, Buffalo, and the young orator Oshogay, making the trip along with four other Ojibwe men. From other sources, we know that a young mixed-blood from La Pointe, Vincent Roy Jr., was also part of the delegation. Within these two chapters, there are two images. Each may contain a representation of Buffalo.

All of the images in the book are from engravings produced by the Marr and Richards Engraving Company of Milwaukee. Born and trained in Germany, master engraver John Marr had started the company with the American-born George Richards in 1888. Their highly-precise maps, and illustrations appeared throughout the upper Midwest during this time period. For Early Life Among the Indians, it appears that Marr and Richards produced two types of engravings. One type was derived from original photographs, and the others were original designs to illustrate incidents from Armstrong’s stories. Of the latter type, a plate between pages 32 and 33 shows an image of five Indians huddled around a fire during a fierce thunderstorm. A bearded figure in a raincoat, presumably Armstrong, stands in the background.

This image, called Encountered on the Tpip [sic] to Washington., illustrates a part of Armstrong’s story where the delegation had to pull their canoe out of the water during a storm on the south shore of Lake Superior on the first leg of the journey. Of the five Ojibwe men shown, the one with the most feathers, nearest the viewer with his back and profile visible is the most prominent. However, all five are simple renderings that play into Indian stereotypes of the day and do not appear to be based on any real images. So, while the illustrators may have intended one to show Buffalo, this image was produced long after his death and does nothing to suggest what he would have looked like.


Washington Delegation, June 22, 1852:  Chief Buffalo led this famous Ojibwe delegation to Washington, so it is assumed he is one of the men in this engraving, but which one? The original photograph has not been located (Marr and Richards Co.).

The image labelled Washington Delegation, June 22,1852, between pages 16 and 17, is much more intriguing. It shows three seated men in front of three standing men. The man standing on the right appears to be Armstrong, but the rest of them are not identified. There has been a lot of speculation whether or not this image shows Chief Buffalo. The man seated in the middle with the large white sash across his chest was featured on on poster of Buffalo released by the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1980s. He does appear to be the oldest and most prominent of the group. However, the man holding a pipe sitting to his left (bottom right in the picture)was used as the model for the large outdoor mural of Buffalo on the corner of Highways 2 and 13 in Ashland.

Besides the title and the engraver’s mark, there is no other information to identify the origin of this image. It almost certainly came from a photograph. Two similar engravings, found elsewhere in the book can be traced to specific photos. One Armstrong identifies as being the 1862 Ojibwe delegation to President Lincoln. In the engraving, seven chiefs stand behind three who sit. Again, the men are not identified, but Armstrong lists the names of the chiefs who accompanied him on pages 66 and 67. The Fond du Lac chief, Naaganab (Sits in Front) is identifiable from other photographs. As his name would suggest, he is seated in front in the center.

Benjamin Armstrong describes accompanying another delegation to Washington in 1862.  In that Civil War year, the western Great Lakes grew tense during the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota.  The Ojibwe were nearly drawn into conflict with the United States for similar reasons.  The engraving in Armstrong’s book (top) was clearly modified from the original photo by Matthew Brady (Minnesota Historical Society). 

The photograph this engraving was made from was taken by the famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, and it can be found in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. From the postures and facial expressions of the men, it is clear the engraving was made from this photo. However, the two images are not exact duplicates. The man standing third from the left in the photo appears to have been moved to the far right in the engraving, and to the right of him, we see another man who is not in the photo. Because the photograph from MHS cuts off immediately to the right of the man who is third from the right in the engraving, it is impossible to know whether or not anyone stood there when the photo was taken.

The other engraving based on a photograph appears between pages 134 and 135. Armstrong identifies it as Annuity papement [sic] at La Pointe, 1852. The photograph it comes from, by Charles Zimmerman, is well known to scholars of this time period, and it appears in many secondary works. One copy is held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. It shows four government officials from La Pointe seated at a table surrounded by Ojibwe men and women waiting to receive their treaty payments. Sources vary on the date. The Historical Society identifies it as 1870 and describes it as “Indians receiving payment. Seated on the right is John W. Bell. Others are, left to right, Asaph Whittlesey, Agent Henry C. Gilbert, and William S. Warren (son of Truman Warren).”

Another engraving from Armstrong’s book, clearly derived (with slight modifications) from this well-known photo of an annuity payment at La Pointe (Wisconsin Historical Society).

While the engraving of the 1852 Delegation is clearly also from a photograph, the original has not been located. If it exists, and contains any more identifying information, it represents possibly the best opportunity to see what Buffalo looked like.  We need to find the photo!

The Verdict


Inconclusive: One of these men could be Buffalo from La Pointe, but more information is needed.

Armstrong, Benj G., and Thomas P. Wentworth. Early Life among the Indians:  Reminiscences from the Life of Benj. G. Armstrong : Treaties of 1835, 1837, 1842 and 1854 : Habits and Customs of the Red Men of the Forest : Incidents, Biographical Sketches, Battles, &c. Ashland, WI: Press of A.W. Bowron, 1892. Print.
Ashland Chamber of Commerce. “Ashland Mural Walk.” Ashland Wisconsin. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2012. <;.
Brady, Matthew. Ojibwe Men (Possibly at 1857 or 1862 Treaty Signing at Washington D.C.). c.1862. Photograph. Minnesota Historical Society, Washington. MHS Visual Resource Database. Minnesota Historical Society, 2012. Web. 28 June2012. <;.
Loew, Patty. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2001. Print.
Merrill, Peter C. German Immigrant Artists in America: A Biographical Dictionary.  Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1997. Print.
Morse, Richard F. “The Chippewas of Lake Superior.” Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Ed. Lyman C. Draper. Vol. 3. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1857. 338-69. Print.
Satz, Ronald N. Chippewa Treaty Rights: The Reserved Rights of Wisconsin’s
Chippewa Indians in Historical Perspective. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Academy of
Sciences, Arts and Letters, 1991. Print.
Schenck, Theresa M. William W. Warren: The Life, Letters, and times of an Ojibwe Leader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007. Print.
Warren, William W., and Theresa M. Schenck. History of the Ojibway People. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2009. Print.
Zimmerman, Charles A. Annuity Payment at La Pointe. c.1852-1870. Photograph. Wisconsin Historical Society, La Pointe, WI. Wisconsin Historical Images. Wisconsin Historical Society, 1996-2012. Web. 28 June 2012. <http://>.

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