The 19th century ledger art can be divided into two main groups. The earliest works have been sometimes called “War Books” by some researchers to differentiate these from the works created during the reservation period. These early “war books” were accomplished by active warriors during the Indians Wars of the 1860’s and 70’s.
One of the first mentions of Native American drawing on paper was from Lieutenant James Abert, an artist himself, who was a member of the Fremont expedition in 1845. During their stay at Bent’s Fort they interacted with a large party of Cheyenne whose Chiefs, Yellow and Old Bark, befriended him and enjoyed his drawings and in his own words, he was shown “some sketches by Old Bark’s son, in which he had represented himself killing some Pawnees with the lance. The execution was quite good and exhibited considerable feeling for design and proportion.” As a trained artist, he was fully able to appreciate the skills of this Cheyenne warrior/artist.
Another less flattering testimonial came some more than 20 years later from General Phil Sheridan after the massacre of Black Kettle’s village along the Washita River. He later wrote that the US troops had found a “ blank book with Indian illustrations of the various deviltries they had perpetrated.” Good Ol’ Phil, as a trained soldier, he was fully unable to appreciate the skills of the warrior/artist!
From that same battle we have a somewhat different description, by a newspaper correspondent, of another war book: “In the village of Black Kettle quite a voluminous account of the warlike performances of that chieftain and his warriors was taken. It was drawn in an old daybook, which evidently had been capture … from a luckless trader on the Plains. The drawings were design to represent a war party. The soldiers of the white man were in wagons, drawn by mules. The colored troops were indeed quite artistically colored, evidently with a burnt stick. The chiefs were represented in most desperate encounters. One had as many as two soldiers impaled on the end of his spear, and had hewn down several others with his battle-axe. The Chiefs were portrayed with immense rows of feathers trailing over their heads and down their backs. They were also highly illuminated in person and attire, vermilion and blue predominating. This book is a valuable Indian curiosity.” Some little more artistic appreciation from the embedded news gentleman! Unfortunately we do not know if any of these books survived.
Therefore the earliest, complete war books we have are the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers Ledgers captured from Tall Bull’s village in 1869 by the Fifth US Cavalry commanded by Major Eugene Carr. Carr himself found a small pocket notebook and Lieutenant Haskins a full-size ledger book, both filled with colored drawings by Dog Soldiers. Several other War Books have been discovered or rediscovered over the past few decades and there are now over a dozen in private and institutions collections. Several of these War books were captured after battles, others were found on burial scaffolds and a few were acquired after the Indian Wars by private individuals.
What makes a War book is its unique characteristic of being an meaningful, powerful object captured from an enemy and appropriated to fill a new, meaningful and powerful function used in common by men to record their war stories. John Gregory Bourke recorded in his monumental and invaluable diaries the comments about the war books of the Arapahoe Leader Friday: “The “war-record” books we find are not necessarily the military history of one person: pretty much nearly every boy has one which he keeps as a memento of his own prowess, but it is extremely common for intimate friends to insert in each other’s books, evidence of mutual esteem by drawing scenes from their past lives.”
In another word, each warrior in a group may have his own war book, but each one of these books is a collective experience of the group and its individual members at the same time. These war books were intended for personal and tribal use, not for the outside world. To paraphrase Castle McLaughlin, these warriors experience the events of their time through indigenous belief in warfare and indigenous social life. War and its related practices was their “raison d’etre”.
Here lay the central and most significant difference between the war books and the so called Ledger Art of the reservation period, their “raison d’etre”, war, is now gone! They have at once become "artist/warriors". The books are no longer captured objects integrated into a traditional war belief, but are now given to them for the sole purpose of drawing.
When looking at the art of the Fort Marion prisoners for example, we realize that the content is very different. As prisoners of war of the US Army, these Indian warriors wisely and prudently avoided any allusions of them killing whites! At best, to satisfy their new audience’s views and expectations of the "wild savage", they might show an intertribal fight! But no white man killing, no sir! Didn’t do it! Was not even there. Was at the bar, with Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, swapping chick stories! Ask them. You can trust them, they wouldn’t lie! Ha!
The themes and contents of the new Ledger Art is now focused toward personal, social and tribal activities such as dances, courting, hunting and even classroom attendance and military drills and training as well as sceneries. But the same keen ability that the original warrior/artists had to recall from memory details and minutia of a battle scene is still shown by the now artist/warriors. Where every specifics and technicalities of a drawn battle scene allow us today to tell what garments, weapons and horse gear was been used at that time, this same attention to details persisted during the reservation period art making. We can tell which dance or ceremony is been performed, what kind of blankets are been worn and the tribal affiliation by the particulars and fine points included in the drawings.
The Ledger Art created during the reservation period by the scouts on the Indian Territory of Oklahoma tend to revert to the warfare storytelling, but limit itself mostly to intertribal battles.
As a last comment, it has been noticed that few of the Fort Marion artists, who were very prolific while in Florida, kept drawing when they came back to Oklahoma. I guess when you become a farmer or laborer on the reservation there is not much to “draw home” about!
-The Lakota War Book, Castle McLaughlin
-Imprisoned Art, Complex Patronage, Joyce M. Szabo
-Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, Afton, Halaas, Masich
-Ledger Book from the Pamplin Collection, Bates, Khan, Lanford
-The Edwards Ledger Drawings, David Schorsch
-Warrior artists, Herman Viola
-The Dog Soldiers, Colorado Heritage 1996