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Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

William Leverich Discusses the Treaty with the Indians, 1653

William Leverich Discusses the Treaty with the Indians, 1653
William Leverich Discusses the Treaty with the Indians, 1653 by Ernest Peixotto
Oyster Bay, New York Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

William Leverich Discusses the Treaty with the Indians, 1653 by Ernest Peixotto
Oyster Bay, New York Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Ernest Peixotto’s painting William Leverich Discusses the Treaty with the Indians (1936) is one of five New Deal Era murals painted for the Oyster Bay, NY post office. Commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, each painting depicts a scene from Oyster Bay’s history, including a representation of Minister William Leverich and leaders of the Matinecock tribe.

The Algonquin speaking Matinecocks settled the Long Island region more than 1,000 years ago. Politically, the tribe organized around a chief, or a “sachem.” The “sachem” consulted with the community regarding important decisions that effected the tribe, but he​ ​had the final say. The Matinecocks held less power than other tribes that occupied the region, and they often were forced to pay tribute to larger mainland tribes. When the European settlers arrived at Oyster Bay, they brought with them diseases for which the Indigenous population had no immunity, and their desire to acquire land displaced many tribes including the Matinecocks. (Hammond).

The first to arrive at Oyster Bay were representatives of the Dutch West Indies Company in 1632. The English Plymouth Company would follow, leading to more unsettling and detrimental effects on the Matinecocks and other tribes as these foreign companies and colonizers competed for trade with the Indians and possession of their lands. Oyster Bay, or Martin Gerritsen’s Bay to the Dutch, was desirable because it had a deep, sheltered harbor that wasn’t fully controlled by either the Dutch or the English. The Dutch had more land, but were vastly outnumbered by English settlers, who used the bay to smuggle goods and avoid paying Dutch entry and exit duties (Hammond).

Peixotto’s mural depicts treaty negotiations with the Matinecock which led to the establishment of the town of Oyster Bay. In 1653, three Englishmen: William Leverich, Samuel Mayo, and Peter Wright, purchased Oyster Bay from Matinecock “sachems” Mohannes and Assiapum. The treaty was mostly handled by Mayo, but Leverich who had learned the Algonquin language as part of his efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity, handled the negotiations (Hammond).

Leverich’s purchase was possibly motivated by both his desire for religious freedom and his zeal for converting the Indians. A Cambridge-educated Anglican minister, Leverich and his family came to America in 1633. After moving to Plymouth Colony, Leverich became a Puritan and the first minister in the town of Sandwich on Cape Cod. The minister’s relationship with the local Indigenous population sometimes put him at odds with his fellow colonists who complained that the Matinecock converts would come to his church even when the minister was not there. In order to continue with his duties as a missionary to the Indians, Leverich wrote the governor of Connecticut for funds to purchase his own land where he could establish a church for the Matinecock. The Commissioners of the Untied Colonies of New England did not grant him funds to by his own land, but they did award Leverich a stipend to teach his sermons; stating at a conference in Boston that “considering how the precious light of the gospel might be further communicated and spread amongst the Indians thought fit to encourage Mr. Leverich of Sandwich in Plymouth Colony for that good work” (Leverich).

In Peixotto’s depiction, Leverich and the representatives of the Matinecock tribe sit within an architectural frame above a window in the Oyster Bay post office. These small niches made it possible for the artist to paint small vignettes in which to place his historical scenes. The figures are pushed into the foreground with Oyster Bay depicted in the background of the painting.  Seated on the right side of the composition, Leverich raises his right arm as if explaining the treaty to the Matinecock representatives Mohannes and Assiapum. Dressed in a green shirt and pants and wearing a hat associated with the period costume of the Puritans, Leverich’s attire stands in stark contrast to the Indians who wear hide robes; their torsos are bare and their heads are adorned with feathers. The Native male on the left looks toward the Puritan minister while the second figure, most likely the Mantinecock sachem Mohannes, sits at the center of the scene. Both seem to be intently focused on Leverich’s proposal to purchase their land. Despite Peixotto’s rather benign scene of negotiations to purchase land, the colonizer’s intrusion continued to affect the Mantinecock way of life as they knew it before the coming of the Europeans and the English settlers.

Educated at the Academie Julien in Paris, Peixotto worked as an illustrator at Scribner’s Magazine and an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago (Aveilhe). Peixotto’s first mural, The Death of King Arthur was commissioned by railroad magnate Henry A. Everett for the Cleveland Public Library in 1911, He would eventually be elected president of the National Society of Mural Painters, a position he held between 1929 and 1935, and he was named director of murals for the 1939 World’s Fair (Dearinger).

Along with painting murals, Peixotto had a distinguished career in public service. He served as a captain in the United States Army Corps of Engineers as the Director of Painting, and as an artist for the American Expeditionary Force, creating a visual record of events. (Cornebise & Aiton) After the war, he remained in France here he taught at the United States Army’s art training center, and in 1921, was awarded the Legion of Honor medal for his service (Dearinger).

By Joan Conklin


Sources:

Cornebise, Alfred E. and E. J. Aiton. ​Soldier­scholars: Higher Education in the AEF, 1917­1919​DIANE Publishing, 1997. 109.

Aveilhe, Tara. “Ernest Clifford Peixotto.” http://modjourn.org/render.php?view=mjp_object&id=mjp.2005.01.056, accessed July 13, 2016

Dearinger, David Bernard. ​Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design.​ Hudson Hills, 2004. 223–23

Leverich, Thomas V. “Individual Narrative of Rev. William Leverich.” ​Long Island Genealogy, 9 October 2012. Accessed September 27, 2015. longislandgenealogy.com/REVWIL.PDF

Post Office Murals and Reliefs­ Oyster Bay, NY. ​The Living New Deal, n.d.​​n.a.​​Web.​​7 October, 2015 http://livingnewdeal.org/projects/post­office­murals­and­reliefs­oyster­bay­ny/

Hammond, John E. The Early Settlement of Oyster Bay. http://www.oysterbayhistorical.org/ accessed July 13, 2016.

Wolff, Justin and Benton, Thomas Hart.Thomas Hart Benton: A Life.​ New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. 87.​