Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Early Indian Life on Analostan Island

Refer to caption
Early Indian Life on Analostan Island by Auriel Bessemer
Arlington, Virginia Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of a set of seven murals created by Mr. Auriel Bessemer in the Post Office in Arlington, Virginia. Auriel Bessemer was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on February 27, 1909. The son of Hungarian immigrants, he studied at Western Reserve Academy, Columbia University, and at the Roerich Museum in New York. Mr. Bessemer taught at the National Art School in Washington, the Roerich Academy of Arts, and the Montclair School of Art. Mr. Bessemer was commissioned to paint the Arlington Post Office murals in 1939, and was paid $800 for the job. He completed the murals in 1940. The Arlington Post Office is a registered National Historic Site, and on the Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, Mr. Bessemer is described as having a “poetic and philosophical” approach to art. The nomination form credits the post office, including the murals, with playing an important role in unifying Arlington County and helping to “define the culture and heritage of the county”. The form, however, argues for the significance of Mr. Bessemer’s reliance on “Virginia, rather than Washington, history”, and his decisions to depict “local Indians”, the journey of John Smith up the Potomac, Robert E. Lee, and the area of Great Falls, for example. However, certain inaccuracies indicate that either Mr. Bessemer did little research before painting his murals, or the author of the nomination form did not fully understand the history behind several of these incidents. The form lauds Mr. Bessemer’s choice of “local Indians”, but by most accounts, the people depicted on Analostan Island would have been the Nacotchtank, who in fact lived in what is now Washington, D.C. until relocating to the Virginia side of the river, and the island, in the late 17th century. Additionally, the panel depicting Captain John Smith’s journey up the Potomac is titled “John Smith Meets the Massawomeck Indians”. However, primary accounts make clear that, though he had previously heard of the Massawomeck from the Powhatan, John Smith did not meet the Massawomeck until July 1608, when he encountered seven or eight canoes of Massawomeck while crossing to the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, in a location believed to be east of present-day Baltimore. Thus, this encounter would have taken place in present-day Maryland, rather than Virginia. Though Mr. Bessemer lived in Washington, D.C. at the time he was commissioned to paint the murals, there is no indication that he had a strong knowledge of native peoples of the area, or the specifics of their history. His representations were more likely “poetic” and “philosophical” interpretations of what he believed these historical vignettes would have looked like, and they served the purpose of creating and illustrating a sense of local history and culture, rather than depicting actual events.

This mural is located in the town of Arlington, Virginia. The area that is present-day Arlington County was first incorporated into the District of Columbia through the Residence Act of 1790. However, attitudes over the abolition of slavery contributed to the decision to retrocede the land, then known as Alexandria County, back to Virginia in 1846. Retrocession was ratified in 1847, and the county was renamed Arlington County in 1920, in order to distinguish it from the city of Alexandria, which had seceded from the county in 1870. At the time of the painting of this mural, Arlington County was seen more as an agglomeration of neighborhoods than a unified county. To this end, Auriel Bessemer chose locations for his murals that were familiar and visible to Arlington residents, including Theodore Roosevelt Island, featured in the mural Early Indian Life on Analostan Island. This island, on the western shore of the Potomac, has been known at various times as “My Lord’s Island” “Barbadoes”, “Mason’s Island”, and “Analostan Island” or “Anacostine Isle”. The island was first claimed by Europeans in 1682, when it was patented by a Captain Randolph Brandt. The island passed to his daughter, Margaret Hammersley, and was acquired by George Mason III in 1724. It was inherited by George Mason IV in 1735, and then by his son, John Mason, in 1792. In 1796, John Mason built a mansion for his family, including his 9 children, and they lived on the island until 1831. The foundational remnants and material remains of this home are still present there. The island was bought by John Carter in 1842, and then by William Bradley in 1851. Union troops were briefly stationed on the island during the Civil War. The island was purchased in 1913 by the Washington Gas Light Company, and in 1931, it was bought by the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association. In the present day, the island is maintained by the National Park Service as a natural park, with various trails and a memorial plaza featuring a statue of Roosevelt. No cars or bicycles are permitted on the island, which inaccessible by a footbridge from Arlington on the western bank of the Potomac.

The American Indian peoples most closely associated with Analostan Island are the Nacotchtank, primarily as the island’s name, Analostan, is derived from Anglicization of their own name. The Nacochtank people who lived on the river spoke a language from the Algonquin family. Jesuit scholars who accompanied Lord Baltimore in the 17th century Latinized Nacochtank to "Anacostan" which then changed eventually to "Anacostia". They are known in historical records as “Nacotchtank”, “Nacostan”, “Anacostan”, and other variations. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the area was rich in natural resources and supported local native people living there. The Anacostia and Potomac Rivers provided a variety of fish, including a dependable supply of migratory fish that converged seasonally at this “head of tidewater” location. Additionally, the surrounding wilderness provided plenty of forest produce and wild game such as turkey, quail, geese, ducks, deer, elk, bear, and bison. The native peoples also grew corn, squash, beans, and potatoes in small cleared areas on the fertile floodplains. They quarried stone in nearby stream valleys and used it for tools. There is evidence that the strategic location of the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, tidewater and piedmont, made the area a major crossroads and trading center for coastal and interior tribes. The village of Nacotchtank was the largest of the three American Indian villages located in the Washington area and is believed to have been a major trading center. Though the Nacotchtank are believed to have once been a part of the Powhatan Confederacy, by the time of the arrival of Captain John Smith in 1607, this alliance had ceased. In approximately 1632, it was reported that the Massawomeck had killed a number of Piscataway in order to establish the Nacotchtank as their “approved middle-men”, through whom all trade was to be conducted. The Nacotchtank were involved in much of the trade along the Potomac, and these interactions included episodes of conflict, such as the 1623 killing of Captain Henry Spelman and 18 of his companions, and the kidnapping of Henry Fleet and others. Fleet spent 5 years with the Nacotchtank, during which time he learned some of their language. There are no accurate or specific reports placing the Nacotchtank or any other group on Analostan Island during or prior to most of the 17th Century, but multiple accounts indicate that the Nacotchtank retreated there in 1668, after they were greatly depopulated by Eurasian diseases to which they had no immunity. Baron Christoph de Graffenried, a Swiss explorer and colonist who wrote a journal recording his travels in 1711, described the island and noted that Indians lived there at the time. However, by the time the town of Georgetown was laid out in 1751, there was no mention of the Nacotchtank, and they appeared to be a “lost tribe”. Their last descendents had likely merged with the Piscataway and other tribes in the area.

As noted above, the people depicted on Analostan Island in Auriel Bessemer’s mural were likely not thoroughly researched, and thus may bear no realistic resemblance to Nacotchtank residents of the island. If, in fact, the Nacotchtank had retreated to the island in 1668, after decades of active trade along the Potomac river with the English and other tribes, it is likely that their surroundings and appearance would have reflected this influence. For example, they may have worn more modern clothes than loincloths, or had more advanced cooking tools. However, these Indians are depicted nearly naked, sitting on the ground, in a setting devoid of much architecture. There is one small building in the far left of the mural panel, and no settlements or buildings are at all visible across the Potomac. There is also no traffic on the river, as there likely would have been at this time. The figures themselves are modeled almost exactly (whether intentionally or not) on a statue called “The Mingo” (or, Massawomeck) in Wheeling, West Virginia, which was sculpted by George W. Lutz and presented to the city of Wheeling in 1928 by the Kiwanis Club. Additionally, the physical features of the six men around the fire are almost completely identical, depriving them of individuality and reality. Instead, they become monolithic representations of an idealized past, based not on actual evidence of what they and their settlement may have looked like, but on the artist’s imagination.

By Meghan A. Navarro


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Indians at the Post Office