Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Covered Wagon Attacked by Indians

Refer to caption
Covered Wagon Attacked by Indians by William C. Palmer
Washington D.C., William Jefferson Clinton Building
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Frightened, injured settlers are clustered tightly together next to their wagons with only three men armed with rifles to protect them against the chaotic danger surrounding them. The Indians are well armed, and the fictional scene suggests that violence against the settlers is imminent. The background and images of the mural set a foreboding scene to capture the artist’s impression of the dangers that the mail service encountered during the journey West. Covered 0..3.3.Wagon Attacked by Indians, is one of 24 murals adding an artistic flare and a lot of controversy to the wall of the seventh floor of the William Jefferson Clinton Building in Washington, D.C.

The William Jefferson Clinton Building, previously known as the Ariel Rios Federal Building or the New Post Office, was constructed as the “headquarters for the United States Post Office Department,” replacing various post offices in the area. (GSA). As part of the Federal Triangle complex in D.C., the “Classical Revival architectural style” (GSA) needed interior art to create fluidity of both style and culture within the building, an integral component is the depiction of United States’ postal heritage reflected in the murals.

As the romantic ideas of the Old West gained interest on an international scale, William C. Palmer’s mural propagated the real and fictional dangers of stagecoaches traveling west. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration to provide economic relief caused by the effects of the Great Depression (Wolf). Under this administration, the Federal Art Project (FAP) was developed to create opportunities for American artists and expose citizens to the fine arts through competition. Covered Wagon Attacked by Indians and other murals were commissioned as part of a competitive federal program to (Palmer).

The FAP encouraged artists to create murals through cultural and artistic expression, to represent “authentic Americana” (GSA) in a changing nation (Ariel Rios). Impoverished artists wanting to be involved with the FAP had to qualify and apply for Home Relief and prove their abilities through submitted samples of their art. Palmer was one of 1100 artists chosen; he received $24 a week and materials to create works under the sponsorship of the Treasury Section of Fine Arts (Wolf). Covered Wagon Attacked by Indians and Mail Coach Attacked by Bandits were commissioned in 1935, as the result of a competition to create art for the New Post Office Department Building in Washington, D.C. Both murals were completed by 1937 (Palmer).

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Palmer attended public schools there before moving to New York where he attended college at the Art Students League (Oral History). The budding artist went on to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he studied mural and fresco painting (GSA). Palmer contributes a lot of his success to Boardman Robinson, Allen Tucker, and Henry Schnackenberg, who he studied under during his first year at the Art Students League (Oral History). The combination of his natural talents and educational opportunities served as a platform for him to gain government commissions in “Arlington, Massachusetts, Monticello, Iowa, Queens General Hospital in New York” (GSA), and the Post Office in Washington, D.C.

Palmer’s New Post Office mural was meant to depict the struggles of stagecoaches in the 1800s. The painting is considered a treasured piece of postal history, yet is one of six in the building at the center of debates. Briefly shrouded, along with several other “offensive” murals in 2000, the Covered Wagon Attacked by Indians mural is again visible after being deemed a historic property under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Section 106 of the Act does not clarify these murals as historic properties, but they remain on display for now as artists’ perceptions of the past (Tennessee Tribune). Palmer’s mural is accused of being both racially and ethnically demeaning because of its barbaric and inaccurate imagery of Native Americans attacking a pair of covered wagons and settlers (Lawyers Seek).

“The idea of the American Indian” traditionally fell upon the portrayal of either “noble or ignoble savages” (Dippie), both the visual arts and in literary devices, accounting historical stereotypical attitudes toward Native Americans. The scene’s inaccuracy lies in the knowledge that many Native Americans assisted travelers with supplies, food, and directional guidance. The local tribes of this area who were inclined to launch raids would usually do so in locations of permanent settlement where land and resources were more profitable objects over which to war. (GSA)

Palmer chose to use his artistic expression of Covered Wagon Attacked by Indians to portray ignoble savages, attacking a small party of traveling settlers. A Chief raising a tomahawk against a cowering group of white settlers portrays an unsettling and controversial image, as most Chiefs of Native American tribes are documented as remaining in camp with their tribes while their braves carried out their orders (Lawyers Seek). The Chief’s presence at the attack and the use of covered wagons do not create a realistic scene of mail delivery.

The covered wagons portrayed appear to be smaller versions of the Conestoga wagon called prairie schooners. These schooners were small, light, and instead of carrying mail and personnel, they carried settlers likely making the journey West in search of land, gold, adventure and religious freedom. (GSA, White). The schooners would likely not carry the same profitable load as the Conestoga wagon, such as whiskey, iron, and tobacco (White). The scene is more accurate to the envisioned dangers of the sensationalized stereotypes of the Wild West than actual postal delivery dangers.

The mural remains in place under the argument that it symbolizes the delivery of mail as a symbol of democracy and growth (Shen). Mail delivery united individuals from one region to the next, creating a connection no matter where an individual was located. During the mid-nineteenth century, the expansion of the America’s territories grew at an exponential rate (GSA). The lack of access to trains and steamboats to the West created the need for the Postmaster General to contract stagecoaches for the delivery of mail between St. Louis, MO and San Francisco, CA. Private stagecoach companies agreed to the request in 1857, and changes were made to the mail delivery system (GSA). Palmer utilized the change to create real and perceived dangers during the journey west. Oddly he chose to portray covered wagons used by settlers instead of stagecoaches that may have added realism to the scene and the postal delivery experience.

The mural shares a perception of an event that lacks plausibility, but it lends artistic expression of what delivering mail was like to those who hold a pop culture view of the Old West. Palmer’s mural is viewed as “culturally offensive,” but its historical significance lies in the racial stereotypical attitudes that shaped Native American policy during the nineteenth century (Nature Transformed).

By Megan Gray


“Ariel Rios Federal Building (New Post Office), Washington, DC.” U.S. General Services Administration. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

Dippie, Brian W. “American Indians: The Image of the Indian.” National Humanities Center. Teacher Serve. May 2008. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

“GSA - William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building (EPA) - William Palmer.” U.S. General Services Administration. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

“Lawyers Seek to Remove Demeaning Indian Murals from the Ariel Rios Federal Rios Building.” The Tennessee Tribune. Jan 19, 2006. ProQuest. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

“Oral History Interview with William C. Palmer, 1965 June 12.” Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institute. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.

Shen, Fern. “History and the EPA’s Big Picture; ‘30s Mural Draws Stares and Critics.” TheWashington Post: A.1. Nov 20 2000. ProQuest. Web. 1 Oct. 2015. White, Roger B. “Covered Wagons and the American Frontier.” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institute, 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

Wolf, Justin. "The Art - Your Guide to Modern Art." Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Art Story: Modern Art Insight, 2016. Web.

Indians at the Post Office