Western New York Heritage

Tourism, Trade and Tuscarora Beadwork at Niagara Falls

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Victorian women peruse the beadwork items being sold by Tuscarora women on Luna Island, ca. 1880. 

Private collection

Long before the Jesuits “discovered” Niagara Falls, the area was a favored place for trade among the Indians of the Northeast. Located at the crossroads of major trails and waterways that ran along the Atlantic seaboard, Neutral Indians had long established trading sites before the area became Seneca territory around 1650. Trade relationships with Europeans began with the fur trades and Jesuits who introduced glass beads as a trading commodity. The Jesuits who traveled the Great Lakes regions in the 17th century sent home reports filled with details of Indian trade activities and descriptions of the cultures they encountered.

Souvenir Tuscarora whimsey from Niagara Falls.

Private collection

Despite the trade and reports, the region remained a remote outpost to most Europeans until stagecoach travel on the Grand Tour of America brought the first international travelers to the Falls as a tourist destination after the Revolutionary War. Travelers’ journals in the early 19th century mention the local Indians, often linking them with the rapture of the “wilderness” experience. Women settlers in Ontario, such as Lady Simcoe, the wife of Canada’s Lieutenant Governor, Catherine Parr Traill and her sister Susanna Moody, often kept journals that told about their interactions with local Indians and the women’s interest in European textiles and sewing techniques. Hundreds of accounts of visits to Niagara Falls were published in Europe and America, and the image of Niagara Falls, often with the figures of Indians in the background, became familiar around the world.

During the 19th century, a confluence of factors fueled international travel to Niagara Falls and created new markets for Indian trade goods. The industrialization of the mid-19th century generated a new middle class economy with disposable income, more leisure time and an urge to display newly acquired wealth. Tourism became a middle class activity as well as an international pastime. On the Niagara Frontier route, Indians and their trade goods were considered part of the charm of the destination, especially at the Falls. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the expansion and improvement of roads in New York State, international tourism flourished in the Niagara region, bringing 20,000 tourists to the Falls by 1838 and 47,000 by 1847.  Visitors to the region wrote about Indian vendors and their wares on both sides of the river, describing the finely made items such as belts, moccasins and caps, sometimes adorned with exquisite beadwork. Carrying home an Indian-made treasure was an important aspect of travel to exotic places and also a way of establishing class status. Guidebooks and circulars pointed tourists to the best locations to purchase “authentic” Indian-made items directly the vendors who traveled from nearby reservations on both sides of the river. Those reservations included the Six Nations (Ohsweken) in Ontario and the Seneca Reservations at Cattaraugus, south of Buffalo and Tonawanda near Pembroke, NY.

“Distant view of Niagara Falls,” by Thomas Cole, 1830.  Cole was one of many artists in the late 18th and early 19th century whose depictions of the Falls included Native figures.

Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Of all the Haudenosaunee communities, the Tuscarora Reservation, near Lewiston, was the closest to Niagara Falls, just 7 miles away, and also the best situated and prepared to take advantage of the Indian markets there. The Tuscarora’s proximity to the Falls generated an unexpected benefit after the War of 1812 when they supported the Americans, as they had during the Revolutionary War. During the former conflict, Tuscarora warriors served under General Peter Porter, whose family owned the land around the summit of the Falls. They aided in his rescue from the British in Canada and as a reward for their services, Porter gave Tuscarora women “rights in perpetuity” to sell their goods on his land at prime locations around the Falls and Goat Island. By 1850, an early guide book noted that Tuscarora women were at the Falls “nearly every day during the visiting season, and are very ingenious in making beadwork, which they offer for sale.” When the Porter family sold the land to New York State in the late 19th century, the continuation of these rights were one of the conditions of sale, and the Tuscarora vendors became well known at Prospect Point and Goat Island.

Tuscarora women sell beadwork near Niagara Falls, ca. 1885.  Peter B. Porter granted the Tuscarora the right to sell their wares on his property “in perpetuity,” and the continuation of this right was a condition of sale when the Porter family sold the property to New York State.

Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library

Skä ru:re? – The Shirt-wearing People

In addition to their location, the Tuscarora or Skä ru:re? were well suited by temperament and reputation to make the most of the tourist markets at the Falls.  The Tuscarora’s word for themselves, which translates as “shirt-wearing people,” also describes the dogbane or Indian hemp plant (apocynum cannabinum) used widely in Native America for weaving and knotting pliable fabrics such as netting, mats and clothing.  The Tuscarora, who had been the largest cohesive band of Indians in the Southeast other than the Cherokee, were already known for their trade with non-natives and their work in textiles before migrating to New York from the Roanoke area of North Carolina in 1714. Before his death in 1711, colonist and trader John Lawson described the Tuscarora as inveterate traders with a distinct fondness for wampum beads. Lawson kept extensive journals of his travels and dealings with the local Indians describing their language and culture. He also described the Tuscarora warriors he saw dressed in woven skirts, adorned with feathers and embroidery, as well as their trade practices, providing colonists with woven mats made from hemp.

This beaded bird whimsey, by Grant Jonathan, is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.  Though created in 2012, this whimsy showcases the “bird with the berry” design motif that has featured prominently in Tuscarora beadwork and folklore since the 18th century.

Courtesy NMAI

Tuscarora histories tell about the old time when they migrated to the southeast from the northern place where they shared a common language and culture with the Ongwehonwe peoples who formed the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) League. The 1711- 1715 Tuscarora Wars in North Carolina decimated their population, forcing the first orchestrated removal of American Indians on the East Coast. The largest of band of Tuscarora settled first in Oneida territories, where hemp fiber weaving was also observed in the late 18th century by Smithsonian ethnologist John Holmes.  After the American Revolution, the Tuscarora were uprooted again by the devastating scorched earth of the 1779 Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, and joined with the 2000 surviving Haudenosaunee seeking refuge at Fort Niagara, then under British rule. They found a suitable place to live on the Niagara Escarpment where they were granted a small reservation in 1797. The Tuscarora Nation purchased an additional seven square miles of adjacent land and formalized their nationhood by treaty with the United States in 1810.

Art historian and Cornell professor, Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) has suggested that the Tuscarora migrations forced a “process of cultural reconstruction” in response to each new environment they encountered. The long, slow process of sewing beads on cloth aided in the adjustment by offering a means of establishing identity in a new place. Dr. Rickard suggests that the “Tuscarora bird” or “the bird who carries language” is an example of the way that identity and change is manifested in the beadwork, as represented by the bird with the berry (signifying language) in its mouth. She also suggests that the story of the bird is a traditional story among the Tuscarora, with an underlying meaning of the importance of remembering “who you are.” The bird with upraised wings often appears in Tuscarora beadwork as a surface design, and also as a three dimensional “effigy.”

Tuscarora Beadwork at Niagara Falls

In Niagara County, the Tuscarora continued their trade relationships with the surrounding community while also adapting their customary needle crafts to new markets.  As an example of local trade relationships, Canadian art historian Dr. Ruth Phillips identified an “exquisitely beaded Tuscarora-style bag” in a Michigan museum that was traded to a farmer’s wife for “a pan of johnny-cake” in 1870. Tuscarora artisans responded to the souvenir trade at Niagara Falls with a variety of beaded objects that reflected Victorian tastes but also represented the Native world view. Small, beaded sewing items and decorative household items, called “whimseys,” were produced in mass quantities and brought to market by the trunk-load. Thousands of these small items—such as pincushions, needle cases, wall pockets, watch covers, card cases and picture frames—were carried back to middle class homes, where they were proudly displayed. Sales of these items were so successful that by mid-century, the production of art quality beadwork was an economic strategy critical to many families on nearby reservations. Whole families, including children, worked in various parts of the production. Children learned sewing skills early by sewing words and letters. According to Indian census documents, there were hundreds of households producing beadwork on reservations near tourist destinations in Saratoga Springs and Niagara Falls.

During the Victorian era, fashion consciousness spread throughout social classes, and the international travel and Indian markets at Niagara Falls abounded with a variety of beaded fashion goods. With more time and disposable income available to Victorian women at mid-century, “shopping” for fashion goods became a social activity.  As a result, souvenir shops at Niagara Falls carried on brisk sales of Indian-made items.  One of the best known souvenir shops of the times was the Old Curiosity Shop and Indian Store, first opened in 1849 by the Hulett brothers who stocked it with items from “most of the Indian tribes in North America” including “beadwork of every description.” By 1855, a number of Indian stores carried a variety of Indian made fashion goods with “feather fans and curis (sic) work and bead things.” Souvenir beadwork became so popular by mid-century that one European needlework  guide stated that, “The beadwork of the North American Indians is among the most beautiful (and) Indian women sell large quantities to visitors at the Falls of Niagara…”

This late 19th century stereoscope depicts Dean’s Metamora Indian Depot, one of a series of souvenir shops that featured Indian-made items near the Falls.

Private collection

The beadwork sales were especially important to the women whose economic roles in agriculture had been disrupted by new technologies and Western values, and when it became necessary, Tuscarora women rose to defend their market position at Niagara Falls. In 1900, a group of women, possibly Clan Mothers, made a complaint to the New York State Park Commission about the influx of Canadian vendors setting up sales on Goat Island and Prospect Park. This complaint was resolved successfully and Tuscarora women’s exclusive rights were re-established. In 1936, when park police attempted to bar Tuscarora women from selling their wares at Prospect Park, the women issued another complaint to Albany officials who reaffirmed Porter’s bequest, and restored exclusive rights. After that, a lottery system provided permits to Tuscarora vendors exclusively. The Tuscarora’s identification with their beadwork was also established in a 1935 exercise organized by the reservation school principal, Stanley W. Johnson. This student assignment resulted in the publication of the booklet “History of the Tuscarora Indians and Tuscarora School Beadworkers Constitution.” This booklet, which outlined the history, customs and governance of the Tuscarora Nation, was sold as a souvenir at the Falls along with the beadwork and can be found in the archives of the New York State Library.

Throughout history, the Tuscarora pursued every available opportunity to promote their beadwork to the public. In addition to the protected sales at Niagara Falls, their beadwork was distributed across the country by traveling vendors who sold goods at special markets, such as the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Closer to home, Tuscarora beadwork was also sold at “bark huts” operated by particular families on the reservation. These bark huts remained fixtures into the 20th century. Some families, such as Lucinda and Tom Reed’s, became well known in the local community for the fine Native arts they collected from around the country. Local fairs, picnics and charity bazaars offered additional opportunities for sales, and all of these marketing activities have been continuous in modern times.

Tuscarora beadwork enjoyed a wider distribution through the work of traveling vendors, who sold their wares around the country, including the Philadelphia and Chicago worlds fairs and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.  The whimsey in the center of this collection dates from the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia.

Courtesy Gerry Biron

Tuscarora-Style Raised Beadwork

Early Haudenosaunee beadwork evolved from the quillwork patterns and moose hair embroidery that adorned clothing, cradleboards and ceremonial items. Before contact with Europeans, natural materials such as shells, bone and wood were made into decorative beads. Quahog shells were used exclusively for the beads on venerated wampum strings and belts, a practice that continues in modern times. The glass beads that were introduced to North America by fur traders were valued for their color and luster, and because their use eliminated the long process of making beads from shell and bone. The earliest beadwork designs sewn on leather and textiles were created with strung beads either sewn in geometric forms that were common among the northeastern and Iroquoian tribes, or as a fringe that dangled. Often these designs were seen on women’s skirts and blanket shawls.

This whimsey in the collections of the Niagara County Historical Society illustrates the common Tuscarora practice of employing leaf-shaped stitching designs, sewn in a herringbone pattern with a central rib. Here the design is used to create both leaves and bird wings. 

Courtesy Niagara County Historical Society

European sewing and embroidery techniques were introduced by Christian missionaries who intended to “civilize” Indians as a way of insuring their survival. During the 17th century, French nuns in Canada taught embroidery techniques to Native women who produced the fine moose hair embroidered objects that were highly valued in the fur trade. Among the Haudenosaunee in New York, textile arts were taught to women primarily at Protestant missionary schools. In the mid-19th century, Laura Wright, wife of missionary Rev. Asher Wright, taught “useful arts” to women on the Seneca Cattaraugus reservation, and introduced mass production techniques using sewing machines and materials donated by the U.S. Army. They produced shirts and other items for the Army, and perhaps took home remnants of wool and cotton along with the cash they earned.

The Tuscarora developed a unique style of raised beadwork in direct response to Victorian fashion trends and tourist markets. Although it is not certain when or where the techniques used for the embossed style of “raised” beading began, the Tuscarora claim to be the originators of the “hump” stitch and its variations such as the “chase-me-around” often used in floral shapes. The hump stitch differs from other raised beading techniques and creates a highly textured surface by stringing more beads than are needed to cover a space. This technique results in a highly textured surface that rises up extravagantly in sections harmonious with the design, optimizing the reflected light of the glass beads. The earliest and most commonly identified form of raised beadwork in the Tuscarora style is a leaf-shaped design sewn in a herringbone pattern with a central rib. This design element appears in different forms as leaves or bird wings.  Birds, berries and flowers are common themes in Haudenosaunee beadwork designs. The strawberry, which is venerated among the Haudenosaunee, is often seen in Tuscarora beadwork both as a surface design and a 3-dimensional “effigy.” Some objects and designs that include heart shapes and the six-pointed star represent the six nations of the League of the Haudenosaunee and its Grand Council Fire. These designs, which embody Haudenosaunee identity, have appeared in all forms of the arts since first contact by Europeans and continue to be present in Haudenosaunee and Tuscarora beadwork in modern times.

Although the majority of beadwork made on the Tuscarora reservation came from Tuscarora makers, artisans from other Nations also lived on the reservation and made beadwork for sale. Beverly Gordon, whose dissertation identified Niagara Falls-style beadwork, noted that, “anyone from anywhere might have made a whimsey in either style” but the majority of raised beadwork on the American side of the Niagara River came from women living on the Tuscarora reservation. The Tuscarora and Mohawk were at the forefront of the stylistic changes that became associated with souvenir beadwork from Niagara Falls. These styles became distinguishable from each other in the latter part of the century when Canadian Mohawk artisans produced the most ornate, heavily embellished items, while the Tuscarora developed a fluid, well integrated style that often employed light or crystal beads on red background.

Tuscarora-style beadwork gained international recognition in women’s periodicals and needlework guides, and also through the efforts of the notable Tonawanda Seneca, Caroline G. Parker. (See “The Remarkable Caroline G. Parker Mountpleasant, Seneca Wolf Clan,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Western New York Heritage. Copies still available.) Caroline was married to Tuscarora Chief John Mountpleasant in 1864, about 15 years after her beadwork and clothing was called “the finest example of Indian beadwork” by anthologist Lewis Henry Morgan. She was living on the Tuscarora reservation in 1882 when the Dutch anthropologist Herman Ten Kate came to America on a mission to collect American Indian trade goods for his government. Caroline, who was intent on showing that American Indian arts were praiseworthy, collected the finest examples of Tuscarora beadwork available to her at the time and arranged for Ten Kate to purchase them for his collection. Although there is no evidence that Caroline worked with beads in her later years, her penchant for Victorian style undoubtedly influenced her selections. Rather than assisting with the collection of the “primitive” work thought of as “authentic,” she steered Ten Kate’s collection toward the more fashionable art quality beadwork made by the Tuscarora.

When Dutch anthropologist, Herman Ten Kate, came to America on a mission to collect American Indian trade goods for his government in 1882, Caroline Parker Mountpleasant arranged for him to purchase pieces that best reflected the skills and styles demonstrated by the Tuscarora.

Courtesy Wereldmuseum Rotterdam.

Continuity and Change in the 20th Century

As the world marched through two wars and a depression in the 20th century, stylistic changes and consumer tastes changed, reflecting the frugality and modernism of the times. The Baroque, highly embellished beadwork styles of the Victorian era began to disappear from the Indian markets as tourism declined during the Great Depression. Tuscarora vendors were seen less often around the Falls, but continued selling their wares from the bark huts that dotted the main roads around the Tuscarora reservation. The families known for beadwork continued to produce and sell quantities of small beaded objects, but with flatter, more simplified beadwork. A few Tuscarora families continued to “go to the Park” in the 20th century and on the reservation today, family names such as Pembleton, Rickard, Williams, Printup and Chew are spoken of with respect and admiration for their continuing work in textiles and beads.

Changing tastes and economic times following the Great Depression also brought a change in Tuscarora beadwork, resulting in flatter, simpler designs, such as this 1951 souvenir from Niagara Falls.

Private collection

The opening of the Indian Village at the New York State Fair in 1926 launched a new, increasingly important outlet for the arts and culture of the Haudenosaunee. Artisans from all of the Six Nations offered their work for sale at bark hut booths, while social dancers dressed in traditional clothing displayed the beadwork to fair-goers. In the 1960’s, the Tuscarora hut became known for the dancing “jitterbugs” that were eagerly purchased for fairgoers’ children. Wirework objects popular in Victorian times were reinvented by the Tuscarora for the modern markets. The Tuscarora “jitterbugs” were also sold locally at the bark huts, local fairs and tourist shops around Buffalo and Niagara Falls. These cheerful, brightly colored bead-people were often made by children learning beadwork techniques from elders, continuing the traditions into the 20th century.

The resurgence movement by American Indians in the 1970’s stirred public interest in Native arts and invigorated Indian Art markets around the United States, inspiring Native artists in every genre. The Tuscarora children who were making the jitterbugs of the 1950’s and 1960’s were a part of this resurgence and embarked on a revitalization of their traditional raised beadwork. The notable Tuscarora beadwork artist Rosemary Rickard Hill describes how she re-learned the raised-style beadwork techniques from a few elders and her remembrance of sewing with them in childhood. She describes how each of her “teachers” had a particular way of shaping a leaf, coloring a flower or using particular technique for raising the beads. Rosemary’s workshops have spread these techniques as well as her artistic vision widely in her community and among the Haudenosaunee in New York, Wisconsin and Canada. Tuscarora beadwork artists such as Dolly Printup Wynden, Grant Jonathan, Doreen Rickard, Bryan Printup and Mary Annette Clause (Cayuga) create museum quality, award-winning raised beadwork. Their work can be found in collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the New York State Museum and numerous collections around the United States, Canada and England. Some artisans continue to take their work to the important Indian art markets across the country and have been awarded prizes and honors at Santa Fe, New York City, Indiana and Washington, DC. In addition to their awards, Tuscarora beadwork artists most often come home with empty trunks and full pockets, in the classic Tuscarora style.

The beadwork created by modern Tuscarora artisans continues to find markets and win artistic awards in the 21st century. This heart-shaped ring bearer pillow was created by Brian Printup.

Courtesy Brian Printup

The integration of beadwork with Tuscarora identity is apparent in their permanent exhibit at the Visitors Center at Niagara Power Project, near Niagara Falls. Among the interactive exhibits describing the history and work of the power plant, visitors may view an annotated display of historic and modern Tuscarora beadwork. The continuity of beadwork and the link to national identity was also explored in the 1999 exhibition, “Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life,” a traveling exhibition organized by the McCord Museum of Montreal and the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University in collaboration with the Kanien'kehaka, Onkwawen:na, Raotitiohkwa and Kahnawake reservations in Canada, the Tuscarora Nation and the Royal Ontario Museum. This multimedia installation included videography of Tuscarora and Mohawk beadwork artists who described the cultural expressions in their work.

From February through June 2016, the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University will host “Made of Thunder, Made of Glass II: Continuing Traditions in Northeastern Indian Beadwork,” an exhibit curated by Gerry Biron, author of Cherished Curiosities: The Souvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art. The exhibit, which pairs portraits of notable beadwork artists with examples of their work, opened first in Deerfield, MA, and featured works from various Native artists and private collections. When it travels to the Castellani, the focus will shift to historic and contemporary Tuscarora beadwork, offering an opportunity for Western New Yorkers to see this continuity of cultural expression, and perhaps better understand the inspiration of the beadwork artists summed up by their common saying, “We sew to remember.”

This c. 1900 table top decoration, representing the Tree of Life, was made by Sophronia Thompson of the Tuscarora reservation.  It was one of the pieces making up the “Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life” exhibit in 1999.

Courtesy Niagara County Historical Society

The full content is available in the Winter 2016 Issue.