The Laboratory-War Zone: Natural Knowledge and Frontier Violence in the American West

The “Skull of [a] Medicine Man” sits among 728 photographs in William Henry Jackson’s Descriptive Catalogue of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories produced between 1869 and 1873. This seemingly unremarkable catalog listing obscures a disturbing reality – the skull belonged to a deceased Tonkawa person. Jackson’s photographs of indigenous remains were not anomalies. His catalogue includes images of Apsáalooke burials, a “Sioux Burial”, and “No. 831. Indian Burial.”[1] Below the heading of photographs made from observing Sauk and Meskwaki towns in Kansas, entry number 692 simply lists “Dead Indian.”

These images illuminate the entanglements of science, collecting, and colonial violence in the late 19th century. As geologists scoped mineral riches, photographers like Jackson pictured a “disappearing” people, furthering belief that Native Americans would inevitably “vanish.” However, Jackson’s photographs, while lamenting vanishing cultures, also played an active role in undermining indigenous sovereignty in that period.

From 1871 to 1878, Jackson traveled the Mountain West as part of the Hayden Survey––one of the four “Great Surveys”––and was a photographer of the Photography Corps of the Geological and Geographical Survey. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, a surgeon and geologist, led the survey through Wyoming and Colorado.

Men of the Hayden Survey eating at camp. Taken from back “photo by W.H. Jackson showing (among others), W.R. Taggart, Assistant geologist with the Hayden Survey of 1872. Snake River Division. Identifications are in longhand by Jackson.” Taken from front border “Survey of the territories, 1872, West – Carrington, Jayox, Taggart, Jackson, Holwes, Beveridge.” Box 84, Fritiof Fryxell papers, Collection No. 1638, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While Jackson took pictures, Hayden scouted the landscape for coal and lignite fields, iron mines, and lead, galena, and zinc ore beds. Mining and geology proceeded together in the west, as the surveys overlapped with the Montana Gold Rush and the Black Hills Gold Rush in South Dakota and Wyoming. Hayden foresaw fossil capital’s rise in Colorado, a territory possessing “an abundance of cheap fuel in its mines of coal”, and in Wyoming, where “coal is the most important” natural resource.[2] Today, Jackson’s photographs are collected at academic repositories including the American Heritage Center and public history sites like Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska. The National Parks Service recognizes Jackson’s work as part of a larger postbellum American effort of “venturing westward in search of a national identity.”[3]

Photographing Death in the American West

Why did Jackson assemble photographs of human remains alongside landscape pictures of rock formations, mountain peaks, and canyons? Jackson’s photography includes other subjects that visualize the material infrastructure of settler colonialism and Manifest Destiny: boarding schools, Bureau of Indian Affairs agencies, “Various Indian Agents”, missionary churches, railway stations, and fortifications constructed by the United States Military and garrisoned with infantry to prosecute warfighting against American Indian nations and manage the American reservation system. Indeed, it is valuable to recall that the BIA acted under the War Department until its reorganization in 1947, and today operates under the auspices of the Department of the Interior.

Photography allowed American scientists and collectors to shift their museum-based gaze to the field. This aided efforts to undermine Native American sovereignty and identity through the collection and display of human remains and burial artifacts.[4] Artists, particularly painters, supported the efforts of military-scientific expeditions since the antebellum era. Men like Joseph Drayton and Henry Cheever Pratt produced artworks of “Indian Costume” and vistas of natural sublime landscapes emptied of human settlement that aestheticized conquest.[5] Thomas Moran, a painter associated with the Hudson River School, also joined the Hayden Survey. Jackson’s photography contributed to the deep belief held by settlers that Indians would soon “vanish” and pass into extinction.[6] Despite this imperial gaze, Native sitters did use photography for their own purposes as well by posing as diplomatic delegations for photographers like Jackson as a means of explicitly enacting their own sovereignty.[7]

Ferdinand. V. Hayden and an unidentified American Indian. Back is marked: “Photograph from the Smithsonian Institution, Hayden Survey No. 11, not by H. W. Jackson, Camp Scene.” Photo File: Hayden Party, Folder 1, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Like their colleagues in other federal agencies––such as the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers and the Signal Service Bureau––the US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (USGGST) extended the visual reach of the US Government in the Mountain West in the late nineteenth century.[8] While conducting research at the AHC, I focused on the Hayden Survey, a scientific expedition for the USGGST, that ranged across the Colorado and Wyoming Territories on seasonal excursions from 1868 to 1877. Documents from the Howell, Fryxell, and Foster collections illuminate the daily workings of the survey in rich detail.

Visuality and Racial Theory

What interested me about the survey initially was the textual depiction of American Indians by the scientific corps, particularly in relation to the sensory or emotional dimensions of their narratives. George Allen, a botanist with the survey, for instance, felt that the Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and Bannock people he encountered in the eastern portion of Utah Territory were “wild, filthy looking creatures” who begged for scraps of food from their party.[9] Allen likewise described Indians living near Virginia City, Montana, as “hideous, dirty, painted creatures.” Allen’s descriptions, and others, match what the moral philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum terms projective disgust, a concept that refers to the “projection of disgust properties (such as bad smell, foulness, animality) onto groups of people.”[10] Allen and others used projective disgust to position the bodies and senses of American Indians as fundamentally opposed to and essentially alien from those of White descendants of settlers. This form of racism based on the senses has roots in Western European intellectual history’s emphasis on vision and the visual. Terms like “ocularity” and “ocularcentrism” refer to the privileged position that sight and observation held in fields like philosophy. In Classical Greece, Plato and others prized sight as the most epistemically valuable sense, and in The Republic Plato contends that “the soul is like the eye” as a source of knowledge. Donncha Kavanagh goes so far as to argue that Western philosophy rests on a spectatorial epistemology, whose precepts can be recalled in common phrases such as “the mind’s eye” and the Enlightenment.[11]

Allen wrote at length on the “Eye of the Indian” in his journal from 1871. Allen sensed a “deep, dark, deceitful and determined expression, which added to the intense blackness of the pupil,” which he conjectured, “is surely suggestive of treachery and blood.”[12] He reflected on the “stoic fixedness” of the “Indian’s eye”, and claimed it represented “the most watchful, cautious, plotting observation.” Allen’s thoughts are worth consideration in full:

An ophidian eye that cannot apparently be moved from its purpose, and yet, if closely watched there will now and then be detected a lurking twinkle bespeaking a consciousness of having satisfactorily formed some diabolical plot to be executed in the future. That concealed twinkle that occasionally flashes up, like the dim and distant lightning flash upon the evening cloud seems but the precursor of the swift winged arrow, the bloody tomahawk or the scalping knife. This dark and treacherous expression of the Indian’s eye is greatly intensified by the blood-red paint so plentifully bestreaked upon their foreheads and high cheek bones which constitutes the frame of its setting.

Allen’s articulation of the threatening American Indian eye resonates with other depictions of unsettling, alien Indigenous anatomy from this period. An essay in The Medical Brief from 1892, for instance, contended that “Savages have good eyes and good ears, and good noses”, and that “a modern Anglo-Saxon” could, if brought from civilization to wilderness, “leave the savage far behind in his sense of smell, and the other senses.”[13] Ophthalmologists influenced by the eugenicist Francis Galton fretted over the powerful “savage” eye in this period, and worried that British and Americans might become literally short-sighted over time due to excessive reading.[14]

Allen’s story of the deceptive American Indian eye clashed with competing scientific theories of emotions. James Haines McCullough, an ethnologist and physician, theorized in 1829 that Native people’s allegedly unchanging faces were evidence of their mental inferiority.[15] What he perceived to be the permanently impassive American Indian face, he alleged, signified that their “features assume a fixed, grave, and even stern expression, according to the peculiar temper of the mind.” McCullough likewise used his emotional theories to defend slavery and attack African American minds as “equally ignorant and barbarous.”[16] Perhaps what lay in common for Peale and McCullough was their shared strategy in transforming American Indian people into scientific evidence for their own research agendas and political ambitions.

Charles S. Baker and Eli Johnston owned a studio in Evanston, Wyoming, called Baker & Johnston Photographic Studio. The pair are best known for a series of 93 photographs, “List of Indian Pictures,” taken in the 1880s of the Shoshone, Arapahoe, and Apache Native Americans. The public had a morbid fascination with Indigenous peoples in the 19th century, and photographic views of them were in high demand. Baker & Johnston Photographs, Collection #7420, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Nineteenth-century ophthalmologists became fascinated with American Indian eyesight due to its alleged “superior visual acuity.” One writer hypothesized this was due to “concentrating their attention on objects” pertaining to their survival with greater focus than “civilized people.”[17]

Ophthalmologists held that eye diseases appeared with much greater frequency among the “white civilized man” than “the lower animals and savages.”[18] One researcher speculated that the “delight of children and savages” for the color red could be attributed to “numberless centuries of blood-covenants and blood-shed.”[19] Ethnographers further racialized American Indians as sensory others by attributing to them the ability to hear and understand speech at remarkable distances.[20] And, since the work of the German cosmographer Alexander von Humboldt, ethnologists considered American Indians to possess an acute sense of smell due to their “savage” state.[21] Ideas about the senses, phenomena, and perception crystallized in this period around racialized axes––one has only to recall Lorenz Oken’s well-known racial typology of the European “Eye-Man” placed above the “Red, American” “Nose-Man”––that divided the globe and its inhabitants by sensorial organs.[22] Through his claims to possessing the superior eye, Oken also claimed to possess the gaze itself, the tool of what Kavanagh referred to as the West’s way of understanding things by watching them, a skill embedded in the White body and extended through technology.

Seeing the photographs of the Tonkawa person’s remains and others of human remains reminds us of the role that race played in developing the scientific gaze of Louis Agassiz, founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and a remote collaborator of the USGGST. Agassiz employed another photographer, Walter Hunnewell, during the Thayer Expedition to Brazil from 1865 to 1866. Hunnewell shot dozens of Indigenous and Black people in Manaus, Amazonas, during the expedition to make “a mass of new and interesting information on the many varieties of the colored races” of the North Region.[23] Fifteen years prior, Agassiz commissioned the photographer Joseph T. Zealy to photograph enslaved people–– including Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, Jack of Guinea and his daughter Drana, and two other men detained on nearby plantations, Fassena and Jem––residing on the Edgehill Plantation of the Taylor family in Columbia, South Carolina.[24] Agassiz and his friends, the Scientific Lazzaroni––which included key Smithsonian Institution personnel such as Joseph Henry and Cornelus Conway Felton––seized the gaze as a means of differentiating races and reinscribing Oken’s human taxonomy through photography.

Photograph of Renty Taylor, an enslaved man from the Congo who taught himself to read and write. He was forced to pose nude by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz in March 1850, as part of a racist project to prove the inferiority of Africans. Photo from

Ethnographic photography visually portrayed the lethal authority of the US Government to condemn sovereign nations to removal, privation, and death, as Jackson hoped to catch the “fast passing away or conforming to the habits of civilization” of American Indians.[25] And daguerreotypes of enslaved people likewise buttressed pseudo-scientific claims that facial features indicated African American mental inferiority and racial difference.[26] Jackson’s “Indian Photographs” circulated widely to scientific centers and museums like the Smithsonian and the MCZ at Cambridge as the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories took stock of the Mountain West between 1867 and 1879.[27]

The Hayden Survey, like the other surveys of this period, happened simultaneously in a multi-territorial war zone and what one soldier termed “the greatest laboratory that nature furnishes on the surface of the globe.”[28] Some of the conflicts that overlapped with the four Surveys of the Territories includes Black Hawk’s War in the Utah Territory between 1865 and 1872, Red Cloud’s War in the Powder River Country of northeastern Wyoming from 1866 to 1868, the Yellowstone Expedition of 1872, and the Ute War of 1879. War trophies gathered by soldiers on the battlefield and in the aftermath of massacring unarmed noncombatants, particularly the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, found their way into scientific collections as well. Human remains like a Cheyenne finger necklace, framed ears, and scalps, as Cora Bender shows, ended up in the cabinets of the Smithsonian alongside gemstones, stratigraphy illustrations, and taxidermied animals.[29] Like Jackson, Hayden dehumanized American Indians as threats to the future of the United States and akin to animals. “A Sharp’s rifle is a handy thing to have”, he advised would-be settlers, “not because there is anything or anybody, to fear, but elk, antelope, and Utes are to be met with, and are excellent––when dead.”[30]

The Hayden Survey amid Chinese Exclusion

Simultaneous to the period of the postbellum Indian wars, the story of the Hayden Survey further overlaps with the history of the Chinese and East Asian diaspora in America. Given that Hayden found it important to reproduce in full in his book The Great West––and its publication two years prior to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882––it is worthwhile to read Charles G. Yale’s essay “The Chinese Question” as it pertains to Hayden’s worldview. Since at least the passage of the Foreign Miner’s Tax of 1850, Euroamerican settlers sought to exclude East Asians and Mexicans from the profits of Western mineral booms. Hundreds of thousands of emigrants from the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Guangxi arrived in the American West in the late nineteenth century.[31] Women and men seeking prosperity intended to join the rush to unearth Gum Shan,  金山, or Gold Mountain, a term initially used to signify California but later encompassed the mineral rushes of the Intermountain West.

During the California Gold Rush, John Ross Browne reported to the Treasury Department in 1868 that the “Chinese are looked upon with much jealousy by the white race.”[32] In 1872, Rossiter Raymond, a Commissioner of Mining Statistics, wrote that “Chinese labor is employed for certain purposes”, in particular placer mining, and other kinds of low-wage work.[33] Raymond praised Chinese workers in the West as industrious, faithful, and intelligent. Yale agreed with the sentiment that Chinese workers were “industrious” in general yet argued that “Their habits of life are totally at variance with ours.”[34] First, he claimed, they “crowd their dwellings like rats” and live in “any hovel” available. Second, Yale argued Chinese laborers were less physically strong and able than White miners. And, he concluded, Chinese workers required a “herder” to keep them organized throughout the day. Rather than outright support Chinese Exclusion, Yale hoped that “if they confined themselves” to the “unhealthy work which white men refuse” a kind of peaceable coexistence might be possible. For Yale, “unhealthy work” ranged from farm work to working in mercury mines, building irrigation ditches, reclaiming tule-lands and “other drudgery.” While Hayden himself did not directly address the so-called “Chinese question”, other authors appended to The Great West fueled the rhetoric of Yellow Peril and characterized Chinese migrants as “nuisances” and a “mass of ignorant, immoral, and degraded heathens” interloping on the future wealth of settlers.[35]

This political cartoon appeared in newspapers after a massacre by white coal miners of Chinese miners in Rock Springs on Sept. 2, 1885. White miners believe their Chinese counterparts were depressing wages, although there were white supremacy issues as well. This poster published in Evanston, Wyo. ridicules Wyoming Territorial Governor Francis E Warren for calling in federal troops to protect the Chinese, and for supposedly trying to pack a jury and thus convict white miners of murder. Photo File: Warren, Francis E., American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Conclusion and Further Questions

Moving forward with this research, I am interested in the ways in which scientists like Hayden, Allen, and Jackson mobilized the senses and emotions to cast American Indians, African Americans, and East Asians as physiologically and culturally alien to the American West. I want to dwell on two overlapping and entangled spaces crucial to Manifest Destiny: the war zone and the laboratory. Cameron Strang has argued that natural knowledge and war are best understood as inter-linked projects in American history.[36] Cycles of frontier violence, expropriation, exploitation, data collection, and knowledge production trace the connected histories of the laboratory-war zone as a space in the American West. So, I want to know what happens if historians follow the lead of Gustavus Cheyney Doane, who saw the Mountain West torn apart by the American Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century as “the greatest laboratory that nature furnishes on the surface of the globe”? To what extent can we understand science and war in this period as inextricably coupled institutions? And, finally, what if we approach sensorial descriptions, as put forth by the phenomenological historian Andrew Kettler, as “embodied perceptions of Othering” that are necessary for understanding race-making in the history of science and military history?[37]

– Post contributed by Chris M. Blakley, PhD, Visiting Assistant Professor, Core Program, Occidental College and 2023 AHC Travel Grant Recipient.


[1] William Henry Jackson, Descriptive Catalogue of the Photographs of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, for the Years 1869 to 1873, (United States: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1874), 73, 77, 81, 83. On Jackson see Rachel M.Sailor, “Collecting Indian Portraits: Governor Kirkwood, William Henry Jackson, and the Nineteenth-Century Photographic Album,” Great Plains Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2014): 257-273.[2] Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, The Great West: Its Attractions and Resources. Containing a Popular Description of the Marvellous Scenery, Physical Geography, Fossils, and Glaciers of this Wonderful Region; and the Recent Explorations in the Yellowstone Park (United States: C.R. Brodix, 1880), 122, 205.

[3] “Viewing the William Henry Jackson Collection,” National Park Service, Last modified March 2, 2022. On skull collecting and the military see Elise Juzda, “Skulls, science, and the spoils of war: craniological studies at the United States Army Medical Museum, 1868–1900.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 40, no. 3 (2009): 156-167.

[4] Robert E. Bieder, “The representations of Indian bodies in nineteenth-century American anthropology,” American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1996): 165-179; Sofie I. Senecal, and John Pickles, “Supranational to the Grave? On the Geopolitics of Corpse Repatriation in the EU,” Geopolitics 28, no. 3 (2023): 1186-1209.

[5] On Drayton see Charles Wiles, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, (United States: C. Sherman, 1844), 425-426.

[6] Miles A. Powell, Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[7] Wendy Red Star, and Shannon Vittoria, “Apsáalooke Bacheeítuuk in Washington, DC: A Case Study in Re-Reading Nineteenth-Century Delegation Photography,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6 (2020).

[8] On the Signal Service Bureau see Raines, Rebecca Robbins. “Storms and Swarms: The Role of the US Army Signal Corps’ Weather Observers during the Rocky Mountain Locust Plague of the 1870s.” Great Plains Quarterly 43, no. 1 (2023): 65-91; and on the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers see Sean Fraga, “Native Americans, Military Science, and Ambivalence on the Pacific Railroad Surveys, 1853–1855,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 75, no. 3 (2014): 317-349.

[9] Yellowstone and the Great West: Journals, Letters, and Images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition, edited by Marlene Merrill, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 72.

[10] Barbara Malvestiti, “An interview with Martha Craven Nussbaum. Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Second Part).” Phenomenology and Mind 8 (2015): 258-264.

[11] Donncha Kavanagh, “Ocularcentrism and its others: A framework for metatheoretical analysis.” Organization Studies 25, no. 3 (2004): 445-464; Anthony Synnott, “The eye and I: a sociology of sight.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 5 (1992): 617-636.

[12] Yellowstone and the Great West, 59.

[13] The Medical Brief: A Monthly Journal of Scientific Medicine and Surgery, (United States:1892), 1006

[14] Robert Brudenell Carter, Eyesight in Civilization. (United Kingdom: Macmillan, 1884).

[15] Bieder, “The representations of Indian bodies in nineteenth-century American anthropology,”

[16] James Haines McCulloh, Researches, Philosophical and Antiquarian, Concerning the Aboriginal History of America, (United States: Fielding Lucas, Jr., 1829), 15.

[17] The Ophthalmic Record, vol. 7(Chicago: 1898), 589.

[18] Good Health: A Journal of Hygiene, (Battle Creek: Good Health Publishing Company, 1893), 182; American Journal of Ophthalmology, (United States: Ophthalmic Publishing Company, 1894), 312

[19] American Journal of Ophthalmology (United States: Ophthalmic Publishing Company, 1886), 250.

[20] The Anthropological Review, (United Kingdom: Trübner and Company, 1866), 400.

[21] The American Phrenological Journal and Repository of Science, Literature and General Intelligence, (United States: Fowlers and Wells, 1854), 106.

[22] On Oken see Erica Fretwell, Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[23] Louis Agassiz, and Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, A Journey in Brazil, (United States: Ticknor and Fields, 1868), 296.

[24] Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9, no. 2 (1995): 39-61; Molly Rogers, and David W. Blight, Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[25]Jackson, Descriptive Catalogue, 3-4; Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

[26] Molly Rogers, and David W. Blight, Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[27] Fryxell Papers, Box 42 and Box 50, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[28] Gustavus Cheyney Doane, Letter from the Secretary of War, Communicating the Report of Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane Upon the So-called Yellowstone Expedition of 1870, (United States: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1871), 38.

[29]Cora  Bender, “‘Transgressive Objects’ in America: Mimesis and Violence in the Collection of Trophies during the Nineteenth Century Indian Wars.” Civil Wars 11, no. 4 (2009): 502-513.

[30] Hayden, The Great West, 147.

[31] Liping Zhu, “No Need to Rush: The Chinese, Placer Mining, and the Western Environment,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 49, no. 3 (1999): 42–57.

[32] John Ross Browne, Report of J. Ross Browne on the Mineral Resources of the States and Territories West of the Rocky Mountains, (United States: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1868) 268.

[33] Statistics of Mines and Mining in the States and Territories West of the Rocky Mountains, (United States: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1872.), 4.

[34] Hayden, The Great West, 388.

[35] Hayden, The Great West, 396.

[36] Cameron B. Strang, “Perpetual War and Natural Knowledge in the United States, 1775–1860,” Journal of the Early Republic 38, no. 3 (2018): 387–413.

[37] Andrew Kettler, “Race, nose, truth: Dystopian odours of the Other in American antebellum consciousness.” Patterns of Prejudice 55, no. 1 (2021): 1-24.

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