KanColl: The Kansas Historical Quarterlies

The Catlin Portrait of General Leavenworth

by Col. Donald J. Delaney, USA

Winter, 1971 (Vol. 37, No. 4), pages 345 to 350; transcribed by Sheri Lantzy;
digitized with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Medals presented to Chief Eagle Feather by Brig. Gen. Henry Leavenworth
Upper and lower: 1801 peace medal with image of Pres. Thomas Jefferson, presented to Chief Eagle Feather by Brig. Gen. Henry Leavenworth; now in the Fort Leavenworth museum.
Medals presented to Chief Eagle Feather by Col. Jesse Leavenworth
Upper and lower: 1865 peace medal with image of Pres. Andrew Johnson, presented to Chief Eagle Feather by Col. Jesse Leavenworth; now in the Fort Leavenworth museum. (All U. S. army photographs.)

     AFTER nearly 140 years in the Leavenworth family, the George Catlin miniature portrait of Brig. Gen. Henry Leavenworth is now the prize exhibit of the Fort Leavenworth museum. The painting was recently given to the museum by the late Mrs. Dorothy Kershaw Keena of Tacoma, Wash., a great-great-great-granddaughter of General Leavenworth. The museum is an appropriate final home for the portrait, for General Leavenworth founded the army post in 1827 and is buried in its National cemetery.

     The portrait, 2 7/8 inches wide by 3 1/2 inches long, is painted with meticulous detail in soft watercolor on ivory, and is highlighted with gilt in the epaulettes and buttons on the uniform blouse. E. Grosvenor Payne of Philadelphia, a leading authority on American miniatures, authenticated the painting as a Catlin. He commented that there was no doubt of the author of the portrait even though Catlin's style changed over the years. He noted that the artist's signature, which appears just above the blouse cuff, is similar to Catlin's signature on a miniature of an unnamed "Officer" in another collection.

     The signature on the Leavenworth portrait is easily overlooked. In fact, it came to light only by chance just before the painting was sent to Payne. Mildred Cox, curator of the Fort Leavenworth museum, had shown the portrait to members of the museum's board of governors and others, expressing the hope that eventually the work would be determined to be the true Catlin portrait of


General Leavenworth. One officer-viewer remarked that, to him, there would seem to he little doubt of its authenticity since the painting was signed! His keen eye had determined that by catching the light at a narrow and oblique angle, the minutely penciled signature, "Catlin," appeared.

     Catlin painted the portrait in 1834 at Fort Gibson in Indian territory, near present Tulsa, only a few weeks before Leavenworth's death on an expedition to the Comanche and Pawnec Pict in Cross Timbers country (Oklahoma). By this time Catlin was already a well-known painter of Indians and Indian life, and had many friends among the army officers on the Western frontier.

     His great ambition was to record Indian life before contact with white civilization destroyed native social structures and habits. To do so, Catlin gave up a promising earlier career. He was a recognized portrait painter in the Eastern United States with membership in the Pennsylvania Academy. He was, also, an "Academician of the National Academy of Fine Arts." One of his subjects was Gov. DeWitt Clinton of New York who became his patron. Catlin knew that be was probably the first artist to visit many of the Western Indian tribes. He knew, also, that he might be the last artist to come as a welcome friend to these, as yet, primitive people.

     In 1832 he took passage from St. Louis on the Yellowstone, the first steamboat to ascend the upper Missouri. He painted as he went, concentrating on Indian subjects and scenes along the river. At Fort Union, a trading post of the American Fur Company at the mouth of the Yellowstone river, he left the Yellowstone and with two French trappers began a leisurely return by canoe. They were welcomed at the Mandan village where Lewis and Clark had wintered 30 years before, but they avoided the hostile Arikarees downstream, who already had had enough contact with the whites to know them as their enemy.

     Catlin was given a mixed reception. He was alternately lionized by the chiefs, who wanted their likenesses portrayed on canvas, and condemned by the medicine men who saw in him a threat to their power. The medicine men charged Catlin was stealing the spirit from his subjects and, by painting them with open eyes, denying them a last sleep.

     Despite these sometimes serious problems, Catlin returned to St. Louis with an enormous collection of portraits of Indian chiefs in full regalia and many sketches and paintings depicting Indian life and culture. His commentaries on his expeditions were pub-


lished in Eastern newspapers and journals, and his paintings were widely acclaimed.

     With three years of the wilderness behind him, Catlin arrived at Fort Gibson recommended by the most influential men of the West, including Gov. William Clark of the territory of Upper Louisiana. He was readily accepted into the expedition; in fact, he was made an aide to General Leavenworth.

     Leavenworth at the time was one of thee most distinguished officers in the army. At the outbreak of the War of 1812 he was living in Delhi, N. Y., and serving with the rank of major as quartermaster in Root's brigade of the state militia. He abandoned his law practice and joined the newly constituted 25th infantry regiment with a captain's commission. He became something of a hero, rising to the brevet rank of colonel in 1814 for his conduct while in temporary command of Gen. Winfield Scott's brigade at the Battle at Lundy's Lane (Niagara Falls). Except for a short break in military service, during which he was elected to the state legislature of New York, he spent most of his career on the Western frontier, including an expedition on the upper Mississippi in 1819 with units of the Sixth infantry to construct the original Fort Snelling. From 1821 through 1823 he commanded Fort Atkinson, near Council Bluffs, the first U. S. army establishment on the upper Missouri river. As commander of the Third infantry regiment, he constructed Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis in 1826 and founded the army's first infantry school there. In March, 1827, Leavenworth was ordered to take his Third infantry regiment up the Missouri river to establish a permanent military post. The new establishment had a dual mission-to monitor the fur trade on the upper Missouri and by its presence or by military escort, if necessary, to protect from marauding Indians the wagon and mule trains on the Santa Fe trail. He was instructed to establish the fort on the east bank of the Missouri within 20 miles of the mouth of the Little Platte river, but on arriving in the area, Leavenworth rejected the east bank as being too low and marshy. On May 7, 1827, he selected the present site of Fort Leavenworth as his cantonment.

     It is a fitting and unusual tribute, to the man and to his career that from the time of its establishment the new cantonment bore General Leavenworth's name. Fort Leavenworth is the oldest permanent U. S. army post west of the Mississippi river.

     Leavenworth's mission was in part a result of the government's policy of moving the Indians from their lands in the East to the


open prairies acquired in the Louisiana purchase, west of the Mississippi river.

     Farther to the southwest as the Creeks, Cherokee, and Choctaw moved into the region between the Arkansas and Red rivers, they were met with hostility on the part of resident tribes-the Osage, Comanche, Wichita, and Kiowa. This hostility often showed itself raids and murders in which white settlers were the victims.

     The army had already established a series of forts in the Southwest-Fort Smith on the Arkansas river in 1819, Fort Jesup between the Red and Sabine rivers in 1822, and Forts Towson and Gibson in 1824. All of these forts were garrisoned by infantry. The continuing difficulty with the Plains Indians and the inability of foot soldiers to deal effectively with mounted warriors led in 1833 to the formation of the regiment of dragoons commanded by Col. Henry Dodge, an old friend of Catlin. The regiment was stationed at Fort Gibson.

     In January, 1834, Leavenworth was placed in command of the newly created left wing of the Western department. Under his direction the dragoons were ordered to move south and west into the unknown country of the Comanches and the Pawnee Picts, and to overawe the Indians with a show of strength. Leavenworth planned to accompany the expedition as far as the False Washita, a distance of about 200 miles. It was this expedition that Catlin joined.

     On June 21, 1834, with the temperature at 108 degrees in the shade, the dragoons set out across the prairie. From an encampment at the mouth of the False Washita on July 4, Catlin wrote that instead of the 800 men authorized, the regiment had left Fort Gibson with only 400, and, by the time of his writing, this small force had been reduced by sickness to no more than 200 effectives. He described the situation in these terms:

... nearly one-half of the command, and included amongst them, several officers, with General Leavenworth, have been thrown upon their backs, with the prevailing epidemic, a slow and distressing bilious fever. The horses of the regiment are also sick, about an equal proportion, and seemingly suffering with the same disease. They are daily dying and men are falling sick, and General Leavenworth has ordered Col. Dodge to select all the men, and all the horses that are able to proceed, and be off tomorrow at nine o'clock upon the march to the Comanchees. ... [1]

     Leavenworth's illness was undoubtedly aggravated by a fall which he had taken a few days earlier. His horse had stepped


into a hole during a buffalo chase and had thrown him. Catlin was the first to reach the general who was struggling to his feet.

... when I asked him if he was hurt . . . he replied "no, but I might have been," when he instantly fainted, and I laid him on the grass.
     From that hour to the present, I think I have seen a decided change in the General's face; he has looked pale and feeble, and been continually troubled with a violent cough. I have rode by the side of him from day to day, and he several times told me that he was fearful that he was badly hurt. [2]

     On a subsequent ride, General Leavenworth remarked it was "a very lucky thing" that Catlin had painted his portrait before the start of the expedition.

     On July 4 Colonel Dodge and the able-bodied remnants of the dragoons, Catlin among them, proceeded to the Wichita villages. Leavenworth died at a camp with the sick on July 21.

     Catlin very nearly died shortly after, apparently of the same illness. He made the return journey to Fort Gibson by litter and baggage wagon with the regiment able to muster fewer than 100 men to sit their horses to escort the sick.

     In the weeks that he spent recuperating in the hospital at Fort Gibson, he wrote:

Of those who are alive, there are not well ones enough to take care of the sick. . . . I hear the mournful sounds of "Roslin Castle," with muffled drums, passing six or eight times a day under my window to the burying ground, which is but a little distance in front of my room. [3]

     Afterwards Catlin's affairs prospered, at least for a time. He accomplished his aim of making a comprehensive pictorial record of the Indians of the West. His collection of tribal costumes and other Indian-made objects was the finest ever assembled. He hoped that these would become the nucleus of a great national museum to be sponsored by the United States government. In this, he was not successful in his lifetime. He toured Europe with his collection and "gallery " of paintings of Indian subjects until his funds ran out. He died in 1872.

     The Leavenworth portrait remained with Mrs. Harriet Leavenworth, the general's third wife, until her death in 1854. It then passed to Col. Jesse H. Leavenworth, son of General Leavenworth bv his first marriage. The portrait was copied in an engraving by Samuel Sartain of Philadelphia and published in 1873 in Elias Warner Leavenworth's Genealogy of the Leavenworth Family.

     After Col. Jesse Leavenworth's death, the painting apparently


became the property of his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who married Philip Henry Kershaw. The portrait remained in the Kershaw family until its presentation to the Fort Leavenworth museum.

     Earlier efforts to locate the portrait or to contact descendants of General Leavenworth were not successful. During 1956-1957 Col. Henry A. Parker, then president of the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society, carried on an extensive but unproductive search by correspondence.

     The fact that the portrait remained in the Leavenworth family from 1834 apparently led to forgetfulness that Catlin had actually painted a formal portrait of the general. It is not mentioned in any of the many published inventories of Catlin's work although his journal noted that it, indeed, had been painted, and the Sartain engraving published in the Genealogy showed that it existed as late as 1873.

     In 1963 Frank Hiscock of Seattle, great-great grandson of Col. Jesse Leavenworth contacted the Fort Leavenworth museum and presented two silver peace medals which had recently come into his hands on the death of relatives. The medals had been presented to "Eagle Feather, Comanche Chief." The earlier medal with a portrait of Pres. Thomas Jefferson and dated 1801 had been presented by General Leavenworth. The second, bearing the likeness of Pres. Andrew Johnson, was presented by Col. Jesse Leavenworth in 1866. It is regrettable that up to this time it is not known how both of the peace medals came to be returned to Col. Jesse Leavenworth to become family heirlooms.

     Through correspondence concerning the medals, Miss Cox learned of the existence of other descendants of the general and his son. Subsequent correspondence over the next five years led to the acquisition of the Catlin portrait and its presentation in current museum exhibits.


CATLIN, GEORGE, The Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians (London, 1841), vols. 1 and 2.

HABERLY, Loyd, Pursuit of the Horizon, A Life of George Catlin (Macmillan, New York, 1948).

McCracken, Harold, George Catlin and the Old Frontier (Dial Press, New York, 1959).

Parker, Henry S., "Henry Leavenworth, Pioneer General," Military Review, Fort Leavenworth, v. 50, No. 12 (December, 1970), pp. 56-68.

Pelzer, Louis, Marches of the Dragoons in the Mississippi Valley (State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, 1917).

Schitt, Martin F. ;and Brown, Dee, Fighting Indians of the West (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1948).

COL. DONALD T. DELANEY, U. S. army, is a native of St. Louis, Mo. He has degrees from the University of Missouri and George Washington University, and is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, and the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. He has had military service in North Africa, Europe, Taiwan, and Korea. Since 1964 Colonel Delaney has been editor-in-chief of the Military Review, Fort Leavenworth, the army's professional journal. He is a former president of the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society.

1. George Catlin, The Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians ( London, 1841), v. 2, p. 49.

2. Ibid., p. 51.

3. Ibid., p. 80.

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