Tucked away in the Doylestown, Pennsylvania Post Office on Atkinson Drive is a three panel, New Deal Era oil painting created by New Jersey author and painter, Charles Child. Child was one of many artists contracted by the Federal government to create public works of art depicting American history and life as part of the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. The artist painted two murals for the Section, but Doylestown, Pennsylvania was his first. In keeping with the Section’s mandate that artists select mural subjects that were appropriate to the town where their painting would be installed, Child chose to focus on the founders of Doylestown and Bucks County, Pennsylvania as the theme for his painting.
The mural is divided into three sections by painted wooden posts, giving the impression that the viewer is watching the events unfold through an old window. Furthermore, this aesthetic device divides the scenes into the central panel which depicts the mural’s primary subject and the side panels that depict key figures in the establishment of Doylestown. The background for the mural is a continuous landscape depicting the natural environment of eastern Pennsylvania and linking the three vignettes.
In the central panel, the artist depicted William Markham, cousin of William Penn, the first governor of Pennsylvania, purchasing land from the Lenape (Delaware) Indians. Markham had been sent ahead of his cousin to prepare the colony for Penn’s arrival, which included establishing a relationship with the region’s Indigenous inhabitants. Enlisting the help of Captain Lasse Cock, Markham purchased a large track of land from the Delaware on July 15th, 1682; this important event in Bucks County history was a logical choice for the artist, and a scene that would have undoubtedly resonated with the people of Doylestown (Weslager, 161).
In the painting Child has depicted Markham, accompanied by two officials, shaking hands with a Delaware leader, himself accompanied by two other tribesmen with a third remaining in the background. The Englishmen are colorfully dressed in a style typical of the time period. Markham wears a long, blue cape and all three men carry swords that can be easily seen by the viewer. In contrast to their British counterparts, the Delaware men are wrapped in blankets which hide most of their bodies. Their long hair is parted; each part is bound by a thin leather strips and each wears feathers in his hair. Their cheeks, shoulders, and upper arms are adorned with body paint, and they wear jewelry including necklaces. The representatives of this figural group stand on a red blanket on which axes, fishing hooks, pots and a roll of red cloth sit, presumably the items for which the land was traded.
On the left side of the composition, the artist depicted Clement Doyle, who purchased the land on which Doylestown would be built in the early 1730s, and in the right panel stands his nephew William, who built a tavern at the crossroads of the two highways around which Doylestown developed. Clement Doyle is dressed as a frontiersman including a coonskin cap; his pants and shirt are made of hide with leather fringes. He wears a sheathed knife on his belt as he clutches his rifle; such a representation calls to mind paintings of frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett. Behind him stand four men who are strangely dressed in heavy armor more typical of the late 16th century than the frontier period associated with Clement Doyle, but perhaps their purpose is an indication of future battles that would be fought over land with the Indians.
William’s appearance is slightly more subdued than his uncle’s; both men wear knee and ankle garters, but William’s frontiersman clothing is not embellished with fringes. Like Clement, William carries a knife as well as a powder horn on his belt; he holds the barrel of his rifle its stock resting on his left foot. Interestingly, both men wear moccasins and the artist has painted their feet extending beyond the picture plane as if they could step out of the canvas.
Behind William, there are two American Indians in the background; they are partially hidden behind a tree and some underbrush. The obscuring of Native Americans in American Art developed during the nineteenth century, as a symbol of their “disappearance” from the land perpetuated by the myth of the vanishing Indian. It is also interesting to note that all six of the Delaware featured in the painting are unarmed in contrast to their British counterparts. Their swords certainly could be read as an indication of the Colonists detrimental effect on the Indigenous tribes of Pennsylvania, which included military conflicts and skirmishes with settlers.
Before the arrival of European settlers in the early 1620s, the Delaware people resided along the eastern seaboard of America “from New York Bay to Delaware Bay, between the Hudson and Delaware river valleys” (Grumet, 13). Though they traveled as far north as Canada and as far west as modern day Ohio to trade and hunt, the Delaware were not nomadic. They had permanent settlements and villages throughout their territory, with larger settlements having smaller out-posts in their preferred Ohio or Canadian hunting grounds.
The arrival of Dutch merchants and settlers in the 1620s introduced the Delaware to a wide range of new material goods, for which they traded furs and shell beads, but it also was the start of their troubles. The Dutch were soon joined by French, German, English and Swiss settlers all vying for control of the New World’s vast natural resources, the most important of which was land occupied by the Delaware and other native peoples. Initial purchases of Delaware land allowed them to continue hunting and fishing on that land, but as European settlers demanded more land for themselves, colonial authorities quickly turned on the Delaware, killing trespassers and raiding settlements to force migration away from the colonies.
By the 1750s, the Delaware had been pushed completely out of their native East coast territories and into the Ohio River Valley where they united under the name Delaware. After the Revolutionary War, the Delaware were once again on the move, making their way to new settlements in Indiana, Kansas and Missouri. At the end of the Civil War, the Delaware living in Kansas were once again forced to give up their lands. Purchasing land from the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory, the majority of Delaware resettled in to what would become Oklahoma. Today, the Delaware Indians, which includes six recognized tribal groups, live as far north as Ontario, Canada while the Delaware Tribe of Indians is headquartered in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
In 1985 the mural was moved from its original location to a newly constructed post office, and when that post office was renovated in 1999, the painting was taken off of exhibit and underwent conservation. The mural was reinstalled in 2001 and placed under glass to better protect it (Sergey). Today, Child’s painting serves not only as a reminder of the settlement of Bucks County and the establishment of Doylestown, but it also brings to mind the Delaware Indians who lived in the area for centuries before these events and of the long migration and hardships the Delaware faced in the centuries following the land purchase of July 15, 1682.
By Kimberly J. Heiser
For more information see: delawaretribe.org/home-page/about-the-tribe/
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Grumet, Robert S. The Lenapes. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989. Print
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Sergey, Pam. “Charles Child’s New Deal Mural in the Doylestown Post Office” michenervolunteervoices.wordpress.com n.p. January 13th, 2015. Web. October 5th, 2015 michenervolunteervoices.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/charles-childs-new-deal-mural-in-the-doylestown-post-office/
United States Congress. Senate. Memorial of the Delaware Indians. 58th Congress, 1st Session, Document No. 16. n.p. November 1903. Print
Weslager, C. A. The Delaware Indians: A History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972. Print