Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Capt. Francis Eppes Making Friends with the Appomattox Indians

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Capt. Francis Eppes Making Friends with the Appomattox Indians, 1939, by Edmund Archer
Hopewell, Virginia Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

The mural Captain Francis Eppes Making Friends with the Appomattox Indians in the Hopewell, Virginia Post Office was created by Edmund M. Archer. A Virginia native, Edmund Archer was born in Richmond on September 28, 1904. At the age of eight, he began studying art under Adele Clark at the Virginia League of Fine Arts. His interest in art continued into his higher education at the University of Virginia (UVA), where he pursued a degree in art history. However, desiring to return to his fine arts studies, Archer left UVA in 1922 to return to Richmond in order to paint under the direction of his former art teacher. From 1923 to 1926, he expanded his exposure to various art forms at the New York Art Students League, where he studied life forms and portraiture. Archer also studied painting abroad in Paris and Italy during the years 1925 and 1926. In 1926, he returned to his hometown of Richmond to open a small arts studio to develop and refine his own style of painting. Fascinated with the African American life form, Archer soon became known for his portraits of African American figures. His first major recognition as an artist came in 1930, when he was awarded the Third William A. Clark Prize of $1000.00 and the Corcoran Bronze Medal in the Corcoran Biennial for his painting Show Girl. That same year, he was appointed assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In addition to his curatorship at the Whitney, Archer later served as an instructor at the Corcoran School of Art.(1) Archer’s 1939 mural, funded by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, was selected through an open anonymous competition.(2) Edmund Archer died on July 13, 1986.

In the mural design that Archer submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department in 1939, he portrayed  Captain Francis Eppes shaking hands with the chief of the Appomattox Indians in a friendly, cooperative manner. The mural depicts the arrival of Eppes on his ship the Hopewell, seen in the left background, for which his farm and the surrounding city were later named.  Founded in 1635, Appomattox Manor is considered the oldest English Colonial Land Grant in the United States to continue in the same family. The work continued a long tradition of romanticizing first encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples. Growing up in Virginia, Archer most likely had some familiarity with the tale of Eppes arrival that he sought to illustrate in the painting. However, the story conveyed in the mural hid the tense intercultural relations between the early English settlers of Virginia and the indigenous Americans, thus replacing the historical testimonies of immense bloodshed with the naïve façade of a gentleman’s agreement.

Captain Francis Eppes arrived in Virginia as early as 1620. Historical records indicate his participation on the Virginia Privy Council as a representative of Charles City County in 1625.(3) Shortly after his father’s death in 1627, Eppes most likely left the colonies the following year to collect his inheritance in England.(4) He returned to the colonies around 1631 with his family and thirty indentured servants. In accordance with the “headright system”— an arrangement with the government of England in which the state granted immigrant heads of household land based on the number of persons they brought to the New World —the Council of State granted Eppes 1700 acres of land in Charles County in 1635.(5) This year marks both Eppes’ assured prominence in Charles County henceforth because of the recognition England gave to his ownership of that land, and a turning point for the Appomattox Indians who continued to defend their claims.  

The Appomattox were an Algonquin-speaking tribe and part of the original five tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy. According to John Smith, an early explorer and documenter of the Chesapeake region, the Appomattox had 60 warriors in 1607. By 1616, that number doubled to 120. However, their numbers significantly dwindled in the coming decades, and the tribe was considered extinct by 1722.(6) Their early encounters with colonists had been peaceful until 1613 when Sir Thomas Dale pushed the tribe away from the mouth of the Appomattox River in order to create the town of City Point.

Archer’s mural illustrates an agreement with the local Appomattox to share the land at City Point, the land in Charles County that Eppes had received from England and that later became the city of Hopewell. Yet in actuality, the natives had no involvement in the official proceedings that granted land to colonists. The illustration offers a blissful illusion of mutual satisfaction when, in fact, the English Colonists and Native tribes in the Chesapeake region had been waging a series of wars known as the Anglo-Powhatan Wars for two decades prior to the land grant of 1635.

The Anglo-Powhatan Wars originated from early contentions with the English colonists who settled in Jamestown. The first conflict occurred in 1609 and lasted until 1614 with the marriage between John Rolfe and Pocahontas, leaving the colonists and Powhatan Confederacy on an uneasy footing. These early attacks sowed the seeds for the later Virginia frontier conflicts that began with the Indian Massacre of 1622, an organized Indian raid on English colonists that killed a third of the colony’s population; continued during the resulting prolonged periods of war in 1622–1632, 1644–1646, and 1675–1677, and ended with the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677, in which the natives swore fidelity to the English Empire.(7) Agreements between the Indians and the colonists were saturated with distrust and cultural misunderstanding amid the strains of this era. Archer was ignorant of this tense period of conflict that he idealized as a time of cordial agreement between the colonists and Powhatan Indians.

Eppes’ relations with the indigenous populations were no better than those of the typical colonist. The relationship between Francis Eppes and the Appomattox could not be described as friendly in the aftermath of the warring period between 1622 and 1632. Eppes’ return to North America in 1631 was not his first encounter with the native populations of the Chesapeake. In 1627, he had led an assault against the Weyanokes and the Appomattox.(8) Thus, the image of Eppes “making friends” with the Appomattox seems highly unlikely in the wake of warfare and the appropriation of lands by the English and colonial governments without Native consent.

By Emily M. McGowan (Intern)

Ed.Note: It appears that the artist chose the “Dying Gaul” as his model for both the pose and political situation [or Mel Gibson?], and possibly Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” wherein indigenous people are “contacted” while in their idle innocence and then “empowered” by the superior civilization. Fascinating is the close-cropped and civilized haircut of the Appomattox representative and the feathers in his hair that at first glance appear to be horns. -S.Starr

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Dying Gaul (or Dying Gallic Trumpeter),
Capitoline Museums ca.220 BC
Roman marble copy after a bronze original from Pergamon, Turkey
Photograph courtesy Mary Ann Sullivan.
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Creation of Adam Michelangelo Buonarroti ca.1512
Public Domain


1) Thomas C. Colt, Jr., Virginia Artist Series no. 4: Edmund Minor Archer (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1938) 2, from Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Archive; and “Virginia Honor Roll of 1938,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 1, 1939, 1, from Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Archive.

2) Murals, Monuments, and Statues of Hopewell, VA (Hopewell: City of Hopewell, VA, 2008)

3) Harry Butowsky, “Appomattox Manor-City Point: A History,” National Park Service (1978): 10.

4) Ibid., 11.

5) Land Grant to Captain Francis Eppes, 1634, from the Works Progress Administration of Virginia Historical Inventory (1936).

6) James Mooney, “The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present,” American Anthropologist 9, no. 1 (1907): 134; and Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico: Part 1 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Press, 1912), 70.

7) J. Frederick Fausz, “An “Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides”: England’s First Indian War, 1609–1614,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98 no. 1 (1990): 4,

8) From Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, 1622–1632, 1670–1676 (Richmond: 1924) 151, as cited in William S. Powell, “Aftermath of the Massacre: The First Indian War, 1622–1632,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 66 no. 1 (1958) 71.

Indians at the Post Office