Wrong picture — Mistake in 1929 may reveal a lost cultural treasure
Welcome to the unlikely story of how a mistake in the August 1929 issue of this magazine may have helped uncover a priceless piece of Native American artwork.
Let’s begin by going back 100 years to St. Joseph. At the time, Harry L. George was one of the town’s prominent citizens. George was a successful textile broker who became well known for his vast collection of Native American artifacts. A meticulous business man, George kept thorough ledgers of his transactions as his collection grew.
George died in 1923.
Six years later, this magazine announced that a Native American pictograph from George’s collection was now on display at the capitol in Jefferson City.
The August 1929 article said the artwork was created by Chief Standing Bear. It reportedly showed a grisly illustration of the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, when Native American warriors from different tribes united to defeat Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his 7th Cavalry.
The pictograph was described as being on a piece of muslin, six feet by six feet, where: “the old chief laboriously drew charging braves decked in all the glory of war paint and enemy scalps; heroic cavalrymen, facing impossible odds; terrified horses, wounded, dying; victorious Sioux, scalping fallen foes,” wrote article author Nell Green Houser, assistant in ethnology for the Missouri Resources Museum.
The article included two photos of the pictograph. But the photos don’t match the pictograph described in the story. Instead of showing a gruesome military battle, this pictograph appeared to show Native Americans riding horses in far-less-bloody conflict and other scenes of Native American life.
Any close reader would have noticed the error. That includes Dr. Bob Corder.
Switching to present-day St. Joseph, Dr. Corder is a retired obstetrician helping research the George collection. He is using George’s original ledgers to pair the more than 4,000 artifacts with records showing where they came from. He has documented about 700 artifacts thus far.
As part of this work, last September Dr. Corder found the clipping of the 1929 Missouri Magazine article — early issues of Missouri Business magazine were called Missouri Magazine — about the pictograph hanging in the state capitol.
The mistake in the article quickly stood out to Dr. Corder — he saw that the pictograph in the magazine didn’t match the story. But even more mysterious was the fact that the pictograph in the magazine didn’t match any pictographs Dr. Corder had ever seen in the George collection.
Realizing he might have uncovered a clue that could lead to missing artwork, Dr. Corder sought help. He reached out to retired U.S. Army Col. Rodney Thomas who lives in Seattle. Col. Thomas has written a book about Little Big Horn pictographs and gives lectures on the topic.
Col. Thomas looked at the photographs included in the magazine and determined that he had never seen this particular piece of Native American artwork. It was an exciting discovery.
“Anytime that a painting shows up that I haven’t seen is like Christmas to me,” Col. Thomas said.
While the photos in the magazine are small and blurry, Col. Thomas believes the pictograph might show several encounters between tribes, at different times, all comprised into a single illustration. It appears to depict the Crow tribe, also called Apsáalooke, as an enemy.
Contrary to what’s written in the article, this artwork does not appear to be by Chief Standing Bear. Rather, Col. Thomas thinks it could have been created by a member of any number of tribes: Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Blackfoot, Shoshone or Cree.
Further research by Dr. Corder has uncovered evidence that the artist could be Sioux Chief Hollow Horn Bear. He has found an affidavit in the George collection describing a pictograph called “Indian History” painted by Chief Hollow Horn Bear. Other records also reference the pictograph.
“From other letters in Mr. George’s archives it appears that he may have purchased this pictograph, but I have found no conclusive proof,” Dr. Corder said.
Col. Thomas said that if, indeed, Chief Hollow Horn Bear created this artwork, then it would be very rare and have priceless cultural value.
While the men are excited about the possible discovery of a lost artistic and cultural treasure, there are still several mysteries to unravel — principally, where is the original pictograph?
Dr. Corder thinks it might simply be stored somewhere alongside the rest of the George collection. But he hasn’t found it yet.
If it doesn’t turn up there, the search could turn any number of directions.
Despite the big task ahead, both researchers believe that this magazine made a fortunate mistake in printing the wrong pictograph in 1929. It revealed that there is an important piece of art out there waiting to be rediscovered.
“There is a good chance that it is stored in a shelving unit, just waiting for the right moment to see the light of day again,” Col. Thomas said. “Bob and I hope to speed that up.”
If anyone has any information about the missing pictograph, please contact Dr. Corder at firstname.lastname@example.org.