English artist George Winter arrived in the United States in 1830 from Great Britain. Like many other artists of the time, Native America and the changing environment around U.S. Indian Policy inspired him to record a variety of meetings, Native leaders, and eventually, the Potawatomi forced removal on the Trail of Death.
“By luck, the same hotel he was staying at in Logansport was where Potawatomi were meeting with officials to discuss payments and grievances,” said Blake Norton, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center curator. “It was a large trade settlement, and that’s where he established his first studio. Like many frontier artists of his day, he was an explorer — an armchair ethnographer. His writings go hand in hand with his works.” Logansport’s location in northern Indiana was near many Native communities, which allowed Winter an opportunity to meet and sketch neighboring Potawatomi and Miami.
As a miniaturist, he had a keen ability to capture immense detail in a small, limited space. Because his sketches and paintings serve as the only artistic record of any forced removal, Cultural Heritage Center staff chose to use his pieces as key features within the Forced From Land and Culture: Removal gallery. ny forced removal, Cultural Heritage Center staff chose to use his pieces as key features within the Forced From Land and Culture: Removal gallery.
“I’ve often walked through our removal gallery and thought how interesting it is that Winter’s whole specialty is being a miniaturist, and we’ve blown his work up to life size,” said Dr. Kelli Mosteller, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Heritage Center director. “It’s compelling, and he probably never thought that his work would be displayed in this way. I think it’s a nice dichotomy.”
While some miniaturists create small, rough sketches, Winter attempted to portray character and provide as much personality detail as possible with each stroke of his pen.
“He really focused on people’s facial expressions,” Dr. Mosteller said. “Instead of focusing on the way that their clothing lays or every strand of hair, it was more about how they hold themselves, their facial features.”
Winter also approached Potawatomi-U.S. relations differently than other artists from this period. Before the forced removal on the Trail of Death, Potawatomi and federal officials met at Keewawnay on July 21, 1837, for a discussion. The entrance of the CHC’s Forced From Land and Culture: Removal gallery features Winter’s painting of this meeting.
“More than a lot of the other pieces he’s done, Keewawnay is a very stylized piece. There are no mistakes,” Dr. Mosteller said. “He made intentional choices in that piece — who is standing where, who is standing in the light, how they’re juxtaposed against each other — to where it almost looks like this side versus this. Everything he did with intention.”
Winter specifically arranged attendees not just to help evoke a certain emotion; he wanted his audience to know and understand the key figures, who they were and each individuals’ platforms.
“His painting of Keewawnay was a culmination of his skills: field sketches, writing, and rapport with the Potawatomi,” Norton said. “All of that can be seen in the painting. From the stoic placement of leaders with accent lighting to the blasé tribal members shown lying down or leaning against trees.”
The painting depicts that the Potawatomi and Native leaders at this treaty discussion stepped up to represent their communities and provided strong, sound arguments as to why they should be able to stay on their ancestral homelands.
“It’s a very important piece with a lot of meaning behind it that could be lost if you just glance past it,” Dr. Mosteller said. “It’s kind of like The Last Supper. At first, it can look somewhat chaotic. You don’t realize until you look deeper there are factions in the painting.”
Although many saw the council as a successful discussion between the federal government and Potawatomi, ultimately, the government forced the leaders and their people to either remove west or move to a tiny parcel of land.
“The end result was the government got what they wanted,” Dr. Mosteller said.
Trail of Death — Art and writings
A little more than a year after the council at Keewawnay, those living in and around Chief Menominee’s village near present-day Twin Lakes, Indiana, were forced at gunpoint to begin their 660-mile journey west on the Trail of Death. Winter joined the caravan, sketching and writing about the emigration.
He wrote, “It was only by a deceptive (in a moral point of view) and cunning cruel plan, they were coerced to emigrate. … By convening a special Council of the principal Chiefs and Head men, at the Catholic Mission at the Twin Lakes, near Plymouth, under the pretence of a Council of Amity, and good will, (Genl. Tipton) secured them as prisoners. A high handed act, for such it was. For its execution, stern necessity, must be the apology. The policy was as painful, as it was successful.”
After the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, many recorded Native American removals in diaries and books. However, Winter’s excerpts, like his artwork, provide much more than just a historical record; they are inclusive to Native Americans, not just the federal officials or white settlers.
“He definitely wrote about them as people and individuals and personalities as opposed to ‘this group’ even more than Father Petit did who was still sort of able to distance himself from the individuals and talked more about ‘the removal’ and ‘the Indians’ and had that little bit of a distance,” Dr. Mosteller said.
Father Petit was a Catholic priest who had been serving the Potawatomi and joined them on the Trail of Death. Petit’s diary of the journey provides insight into some of the hardships the Potawatomi faced. His entries discussed births, deaths, church-related spiritual aspects and more, whereas Winter included the raw emotion he experienced and witnessed.
In one entry, Winter wrote, “Soon the whole nation were seen moving down the hill sides, along the banks of the Eel river, on the way to their westward home. … Could the poor and degraded aborigine give his history to the world, it could but speak in emphatic language — the continual series of oppressions of the White man, from the day he first put foot upon the aboriginal soil.”
Winter’s time living near the Potawatomi helped him to build personal, one-on-one relationships with them.
In an essay titled George Winter Mirror of Acculturation, Dr. David Edmunds wrote, “His paintings and sketches illustrate that most of the Potawatomis and Miamis whom he encountered were not a destitute people. On the contrary, his paintings indicate that they were well dressed, arrayed in clothing that both illustrated their wealth and indicated their degree of acculturation. Most of the Potawatomi and Miami men portrayed in Winter’s paintings are dressed in frock coats similar to those worn by prosperous white settlers on the Indiana frontier.”
He also was mindful when depicting Native women, deciding to reflect their wealth and acculturation through his images as well.
Edmunds continued, “Winter was very impressed with the women’s colorful, beautifully ribboned garments which ‘could not fail to arrest the eye of a common observer, much less an artist’s … who must ever be ready to drink in what ever is lovely, attractive, and beautiful.’”
During the beginning of the Trail of Death, Winter placed himself a short distance away and sketched an image that depicts those walking or riding horses along the trail and the spectators who came to watch the Potawatomi forcibly leave their homelands.
“The exodus scene is one of the key pieces. It’s a very impactful visual representation,” Dr. Mosteller said. Within the CHC’s gallery Forced From Land and Culture: Removal, visitors can find this image along the exhibit’s wall.
“To our knowledge, this is the only firsthand visual account of a removal,” Dr. Mosteller said. “You couldn’t have staged that better with the long trail and people standing and watching. Some of them probably were glad to see them go, and some of them, maybe from other communities or those who intermarried, understood that this is the end of something.”
The CHC also included an interactive digital display with Winter’s collection as well as other integral events he sketched along the Trail of Death like the Mass scene. During the removal, Father Petit led a catholic service for the Potawatomi.
“The Mass scene is really critical because it’s so conflicted,” Dr. Mosteller said. “Some may have thought it was part of the reason we were forced out, but for some, it may also have been the thing that provided comfort.”
Without Winter’s efforts, any visual representation of the Trail of Death would not exist. His work continues to influence Potawatomi communities today by providing an in-depth look at not just the removal but also Potawatomi ancestors.
“He really tried to provide an unbiased look into life at this time. You can see that in his artwork and read it in his tone and notations,” Norton said. “He takes a name on a treaty or a document, and through art rejuvenates that person, allowing Tribal members to see the faces of their ancestors. Combined with his writings, the idiosyncrasies that made them unique stand out.”
Learn more about the Trail of Death and George Winter’s artwork by visiting the CHC or online at cpn.news/removal.