Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

History of the Cherokee Nation

Refer to caption
History of the Cherokee Nation by Randall Davey
Vinita, Oklahoma Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

When Randall Davey was given the commission to create New Deal-era murals for the Vinita, Oklahoma Post Office, the selection of Davey was not without controversy. At the time of the commission, Davey was a well-established, award-winning artist working in New Mexico, but his mural work at the Claremore, Oklahoma Post Office, that featured the town’s favorite son Will Rogers, had been a disappointment to the community. These criticisms led to strongly-voiced objections by town leaders and Oklahoma politicians regarding Davey’s commission at Vinita. Edward B. Rowan, Assistant Chief for the Section of Fine Arts supported Davey while firmly reminding the artist to work closely with the Vinita postmaster to, “insure the friendly reception of the finished work.” Certainly, Davey’s reputation as an artist qualified him to take on this mural project, but the endeavor continued to be scrutinized until installation of the murals was completed in January 1941.

Born in East Orange, New Jersey in 1887, Randall Davey became an influential artist in the early 20th century. Davey studied architecture at Cornell University from 1905-1907, but left to attend Robert Henri’s School of Painting and the Art Students League. Encouraged to visit New Mexico by Henri, Davey and his friend, the artist, John Sloan left New York City for an extended trip in 1919. Upon his arrival, Davey fell in love with the Land of Enchantment and maintained a home in New Mexico until his death in 1964. In addition to his works on canvas, Davey received a number of mural commissions including those for the Section of Fine Arts and works that adorn the walls at the Will Rogers Memorial Shrine in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Heeding Rowan’s advice, Davey met with Vinita postmaster Frank Bailey and local historian John Oskison to discuss potential subject matter for his work. It was quickly determined that given the presence of the Cherokee Indians in northeast Oklahoma, their history would be an appropriate subject matter. Ultimately, there were two murals installed at the Vinita Post Office. The canvas installed on its west wall depicts the Cherokee Nation during the colonial period and the painting installed on the north end of the building represents events related to the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma from the Southeastern United States. Throughout the design and installation process, Davey adamantly asserted that the representation of the Cherokee in these murals was being verified by Oskison, and in a letter dated September 5, 1939, Davey noted that the information researched for the paintings was “authentic and historically accurate,” further writing that, “I believe [the paintings] will be completely understood by the people of Vinita, Okla. as there is apparently considerable Indian blood among the inhabitants.” There can be little doubt that the criticism of the Claremore mural and Rowan’s reminders that the murals should be pleasing to the citizens of Vinita led to Davey’s defense of his work.

The mural depicting the Cherokee in colonial America centers on Cherokee/British alliances and the deterioration of their relationship during the mid-eighteenth century. The west wall mural addresses the escalating violence between these former allies. Beginning with the left side of the colonial era canvas, Davey presents the conflicts between Cherokee warriors and British soldiers. Attacks had been perpetrated by each side, and in this scene a British redcoat is lying on the ground either wounded or dying while two Cherokee warriors struggle with another British soldier. In the background three Cherokee with their backs turned to the viewer raise their rifles indicating additional conflict is about to ensue. The fallout of violence on both sides is addressed in the central panel of the mural as Davey continues his historical narrative.

History accounts that in 1759, Chief Oconostota led a peace delegation to Charleston, South Carolina where he hoped the two sides could make a treaty of “mutual forgiveness.” The Cherokee delegation’s efforts were rejected by South Carolina Governor William Henry Lyttleton; moreover, Lyttleton had Oconostota and his party taken hostage and demanded Cherokees accused of attacking frontiersman be turned over to the British authorities in exchange for the release of the peace delegation. In Davey’s depiction of this historical event, a confident and defiant Oconostota stands surrounded by British soldiers in front of his captor, Governor Lyttleton.

British/Cherokee relations continued to deteriorate, and, perhaps, reached a tipping point with the Cherokee siege of Fort Loudoun in 1760. The siege lasted until August 6th when British Captain Paul Demeré asked the Cherokee for their terms of surrender. On August 9th, the garrison left the fort only to be attacked by the Cherokee the following day, killing Demeré and most of his officers. Descriptions pertaining to the right panel of the colonial-period mural are lacking, but there is indication that the scene takes place after the siege of Fort Loudoun. With three visible Cherokee men leading the way through a forested landscape, they are followed by a line of women and children suggesting the scene is a representation of the Cherokee leaving South Carolina after years of turmoil and fighting their British colonizers.

The narrative of the north wall mural does not read chronologically from left to right, perhaps it is best to begin with the central panel and the arrest of Chief John Ross, a depiction that mirrors, in many ways, the image of Oconostota in the colonial era mural. Ross stood firm in his opposition to cede Cherokee lands to the U.S. government and comply with his people’s removal to Oklahoma. On November 7, 1835, as Ross prepared to depart for Washington D.C. to protest the Treaty of New Echota, he was seized by Georgia authorities and held for several days. Davey painted Ross sitting at his desk as the Georgia authorities invade his home in hopes that his absence would aid in the progression of the Cherokee removal.

For all of Chief Ross’s efforts, the state of Georgia and the U.S. government prevailed forcing almost all of the 17,000 Cherokees from their southeastern homeland. An estimated 4,000 men, women, and children died on the Trail of Tears from hunger, exposure, and disease. In perhaps the most moving of Davey’s scenes of Cherokee history, the right side of the removal period mural depicts the Cherokee on their Trail of Tears. Cherokee people, their backs toward the viewer, are flanked by armed soldiers as men, women, and children walk the trail to Oklahoma. Two children are comforted by their mother while another woman at the center of the scene is being carried, perhaps she is one of the dead who were reported to have been buried along the route.

The final scene of Davey’s Removal Era mural, presents the viewer with scenes of the life of the Cherokee in Indian Territory, Oklahoma under the leadership of Chief Thomas Buffington. Buffington is a well-selected subject for the Vinita post office. Born in the Goingsnake District of the Cherokee Nation, Buffington entered tribal politics, first serving as a secretary to his brother in the Cherokee Senate, eventually becoming a Senate member himself before being name Senate President. In 1891 he became the acting Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and later was elected mayor of Vinita. He died in his Vinita home February 11, 1938, just a few years before installation of the mural. Davey chose to show Buffington going out among the Cherokee to talk with them rather than conduct formal meetings. Placed in the upper left corner of the composition, Buffington sits in his buggy as members of the Cherokee Nation gather to hear their leader. The portrait is a remarkable likeness of Buffington, and undoubtedly there were many people in Vinita who would have recognized Buffington at the time the mural was installed.

Despite the many objections to Mr. Davey’s commission for the murals in Vinita, and the many delays to complete the work, the murals were praised by Frank Bailey in a letter dated February 1, 1941. In the correspondence to Edward Rowan, Bailey wrote that the murals are “a beautiful addition to this fine building. Every person in Vinita seems to be very happy about receiving these murals for our Post Office and Court House building,” and in an interview with the Vinita Daily Journal, Davey proclaimed, “This is one of the finest murals of this type I’ve ever done.”

By Denise Neil-Binion (Delaware/Cherokee Nation)


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Indians at the Post Office