Photographic Evidence for Southern Plains Armor



The use of armor by Plains Indians is one of the more obscure culture traits of the area. Although there are enough occasional references in early historical works to ascertain armor use and reconstruct some of the particulars, pictorial and artifact evidence has been virtually nonexistent. The recent discovery by Lawrence T. Jones III of a photographic carte de visite portraying an unknown Comanche, Kiowa, or Kiowa Apache (Plains Apache) man circa 1871 provides intriguing evidence for armor on the Southern Plains. This find also prompts discussion of related cultural practices and the ethnohistorical potential of photograph analysis.

A Photo and Its Maker

This circa 1871 carte de visite photograph of a Comanche or Kiowa man (Figure 1) is one image in a substantial body of work of South Plains Native American images by a previously unknown itinerant photographer. The photographer was Henry S. Shuster and his work first came to light with the discovery of a small album of his photographs in a Los Angeles antique shop in 1993. Another group of Shuster's images surfaced a few years later, and since that time a few additional Shuster photographs have been sold in Internet auctions one at a time.

Figure 1.

 Carte de visite portrait of unidentified Southern Plains Indian man wearing armor. Photograph by Henry S. Shuster at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, circa 1871. Courtesy of Lawrence T. Jones III Texas Photography Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

All of the photographs taken by Shuster are of the type known as carte de visite, French for “visiting card” or calling card. The acronym “CDV” is the term most commonly used for this type of photograph. This format involved a wet-plate process that resulted in a negative that could be used to produce positive paper prints. The prints were mounted on card stock about 2.5 by 4 inches in size. Cartes de visite were in vogue during the Civil War years, but continued to be popular until the early 1880s. The carte de visite of this Kiowa or Comanche man came from a photograph album that once belonged to a Wisconsin soldier who was stationed in Texas during the post–Civil War Reconstruction era. It was among several CDV photographs that were removed from the album and sold to different private collector-dealers in November 2007, according to Jeffrey N. Kraus.

Henry S. Shuster was born in New Jersey in 1830. He graduated in 1860 from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, with a master of arts degree. After graduation, he taught for two years in New Jersey at the Pennington Seminary (Lang 1885:873). By May 1866 Shuster had taken up the profession of photography and was practicing his trade in Middletown, Delaware (Kelbaugh 1990:63).

Sometime during the late 1860s, Shuster decided to travel west. It is probable that he worked as an itinerant photographer for the next four years, as it would have been a logical way for him to travel and pay his expenses at the same time. He made his way to Kansas and worked for a while in the small town of Burlingame, about 25 miles southwest of Topeka. He produced cartes de visite with a printed imprint of “H. S. Shuster, Burlingame, Kansas.” A carte de visite with that imprint was sold on the eBay Internet auction site on July 9, 2004. The style of card mount and imprint are circa 1868–1870. However, the photograph was of the Kiowa war chief Satanta and it was taken at Fort Sill, north of present Lawton, Oklahoma, circa 1870–1871. This suggests that Shuster saved all of his card stock from his days in Kansas, and carried it with him when he traveled farther south. After a brief stay in Wichita in 1870 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1870), Shuster crossed into the Indian Territory.

Exactly when Shuster arrived at Fort Sill and the length of time he spent there is still unknown. It was sometime during 1870 or 1871. He can be located there during this period purely by virtue of the subjects and imprints of his photos, and by the following year he had made his way to Oregon. In some cases, Shuster was still using the Burlingame, Kansas, imprinted card mounts for photographs he was actually taking at Fort Sill. He simply used the “Burlingame” card stock until it ran out. He then had new card mounts printed. Although Shuster probably worked at Fort Sill only a few months, it was long enough for him to justify having his name and the Fort Sill location printed on the back of some of his photographic card mounts. The imprint reads, “H. S. Shuster, Fort Sill, Indian T'y” (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

 Reverse of carte de visite portrait of a Comanche woman showing photographic imprint of Henry S. Shuster. Courtesy of Lawrence T. Jones III Texas Photography Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Shuster's photographs are significant because they are contemporary with the better known 1870s work of William Stinson Soule (1836–1908) and William P. Bliss (b. circa 1840) at Fort Sill. While at Fort Sill, Shuster worked from his traveling wagon and took simple and straightforward photographs. He posed his subjects either full-length or seated in a plain wooden chair before a crude cloth backdrop. He photographed the not-so-famous and also notable personalities such as the Penateka Comanche chief Tosawi, post interpreter Horace P. Jones, and Kiowa war leaders Big Bow and Satanta.

Although most of Shuster's extant Fort Sill photographs do not have an imprint, they all have in common the exact same cloth backdrop (Figure 3). It is seen in every Fort Sill carte de visite studio type pose and is the key to identifying Shuster's Fort Sill images that have no imprint. While lacking any distinctive markings such as painted scenery or visible creases, the shade and texture of this backdrop, and the way that it is mounted, appear uniform and also different from the backgrounds of other documented photos from the same time and place. After arriving at Fort Sill and finding a suitable location to set up his portable gallery, Shuster parked his wagon near a grove of trees, probably cottonwoods. He suspended his tall, narrow backdrop, formed most likely from a sheet of light-colored canvas, between some trees in a most basic manner. He attached a pole horizontally along the bottom of the fabric to weight it down and pull it taut. The pole is suspended some inches above the ground surface, and in several views an open area can be seen past the right edge of the backdrop with a tree visible right beside it.

Figure 3.

 Obverse of Figure 2—carte de visite portrait of a Comanche woman, circa 1871. This image shows the backdrop used by Henry S. Shuster, which is the basis for attributing to him other, unsigned, cartes de visite. Courtesy of Lawrence T. Jones III Texas Photography Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

As crude as the plain backdrop was, it worked for Shuster as he began to document numerous individuals at Fort Sill. Using the sometimes complicated wet-plate photography equipment of the era, Shuster had to develop his glass plates on the spot in a portable darkroom. He was also able to make prints from the developed plates on-site so that he could show them to his subjects and customers as soon as possible. Depending on how he printed a particular view, sometimes other people can be seen to the right of the right edge of the backdrop, as if they were waiting to have their likenesses taken next.

It is likely that Shuster's Indian subjects were not always or even primarily his customers. There is no clear evidence whether Shuster sold his photos to his subjects or other Indians, or whether he paid his Indian subjects in order to acquire their images for sale to non-Indians. For while the photos themselves place Shuster in time and space, other historical sources that would shed light on his business practices are lacking. There was yet no civilian settlement of any size near Fort Sill in 1870, and hence no newspaper that might yield stories or advertisements revealing how he did business. There is, however, information on the career of Shuster's contemporary Will Soule which may give some ideas about Shuster's operations. The historical sources are little better in Soule's case, except that Soule had a longer sojourn at Fort Sill than did Shuster, and there are more traces of his professional and personal life following his time at Fort Sill, including conversations with his daughter, as gathered by Fort Sill historian Colonel Wilbur S. Nye (Nye 1968) and also Russell E. Belous and Robert A. Weinstein (Belous and Weinstein 1969).

Soule was apparently a proficient photographer when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he reported that occupation upon enlisting in the Massachusetts Infantry. He was severely wounded in the Battle of Antietam and afterward reenlisted in the Invalid Corps for clerk duty. Immediately following the war, Soule maintained a studio in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he made cartes de visite for soldiers and veterans. In 1867 he decided to travel west, ostensibly to improve his health. He ventured first to Fort Dodge, Kansas, where he clerked in the post store, then to Camp Supply, Indian Territory, and then to the site of Fort Sill as that post was being erected in 1869. At Fort Sill, Soule obtained a position as official post photographer. Soon a trader's store, one of the first permanent buildings, was built on post and Soule set up a gallery within the store, from which he ran a photography business and made his living until 1875. He shot photos in the store studio and also occasionally made field views using a buckboard no doubt much like Shuster's wagon. Since the post trader held an exclusive license, and the Indian trade was specifically licensed as well (Nye 1969:100–101), the store where Soule worked held the dominant position in area business enterprises. This advantage, and possibly Soule's stronger connection to the military establishment because of his status as a recovering disabled veteran, may explain why Henry Shuster worked only out of doors and only briefly at Fort Sill.1

Nevertheless, Soule's and Shuster's approaches to customers and subjects were probably similar. It is clear that their business model was a continuation of the Civil War–era practice of producing CDVs as keepsakes for soldiers and civilians. At Fort Sill both men likely intended their works primarily as souvenirs for the soldiers stationed there and whatever civilians were passing through or took an interest in the frontier. Soule had the advantage over Shuster in that he could put up his photos for sale in the trader's store, and also depend on the walk-in traffic of the shop for potential subjects; Shuster probably made and marketed his shots from his wagon only. Soule also shipped some negatives to his brother in Boston, who sold prints in that area to schools and students. In addition to selling single images, Soule assembled collections of his pictures in albums, which he sold or gave to local non-Indians, and several of which are still extant. Shuster's photos have also been found thus far usually assembled in albums, though not ones indisputably of his own making.

Significantly, Soule's photographic imprint from the period read: “W. S. Soule, Fort Sill, Indian Territory, Photographs of Indian Celebrities, Encampments, etc.” (Belous and Weinstein 1969:16). Indian subjects figured centrally in his business strategy even though his documenters have assumed, though without preponderant evidence from the surviving corpus of plates and prints, that his Indian photography must have been only a sideline to studio work for white customers (Nye 1968:x) or coverage of everyday and historic events at the fort (Belous and Weinstein 1969:18–19). The body of existing photos by Henry Shuster suggests that he too made a conscious decision to focus on Indian portraiture for commercial purposes during this time period, a tack all the more sensible in his case because of his marginal and tentative relationship to the post communities where he worked.

Soule would “persuade” his Indian subjects to pose, according to Nye (1968:x). Both Soule and Shuster may have paid their subjects with cash, but more likely with prints of their own images, if they were paid at all. The Indians' incentives for posing are not recorded. They certainly appreciated the commemorative power of images made permanent via their own methods of pictography and it is therefore likely that they welcomed the creation of lasting images rendered with a strange new technology. In order to attract subjects, Soule probably also used the concept of “celebrity” as promulgated in his imprint and throughout his career (as late as 1891 he advertised to “fill orders for photographs of Indian celebrities”; Belous and Weinstein 1969:18). Shuster may also have availed himself of this tactic. The notion of celebrity no doubt resonated well with formative class distinctions in Kiowa and Comanche society, for by this time differences in horse wealth and trade prowess had given rise to “rich” and “poor” statuses in these tribes. Thus, many of Soule's and Shuster's identifiable Indian subjects were men who were prominent according to independent lines of historical evidence such as treaties and military reports, and their family members. A photographic portrait could validate and perhaps even elevate one's status within the tribal and intercultural communities. The corollary is that Soule's and Shuster's non-Indian subjects—military officers, soldiers, scouts, interpreters—were also celebrities in that they were the main players in an unfolding historical saga about which the Fort Sill photographers were at least partly cognizant.

Also, much has been made of the improbable trust between Indian subjects and white photographer evinced by the very existence of Soule's photos (Belous and Weinstein 1969:16; Nye 1968:vii). Shuster enjoyed a similar trust. The implication is that this confidence was primarily interpersonal, but it was also a manifestation of bipolar sociocultural interaction. A studio, particularly one inside a store or operated from a vehicle typically used to haul goods, was a safe place for Indians seeking to satisfy their cultural curiosity, present themselves, or pursue rapprochement during otherwise hostile times; “trade,” which might include the exchange inherent in the act of sitting for a photograph, was traditionally the peaceful alternative to raiding.

For all these apparent motivations, there is no evidence that the Indian subjects of Soule and Shuster were hiring photographer's work and striking poses mainly to create artifacts for their own personal consumption. Whether they carried prints with them or gave them to relatives and friends is nowhere established. The most that can be said to confirm personal Indian interest in such images is to note that descendants of the subjects and their contemporaries not infrequently have originals or copies of vintage photos displayed in their homes today, and a few modern tribe members have amassed significant collections.

Of the early group of Fort Sill photographers, Shuster was the only one who also worked across the Red River in Texas. He located at Fort Griffin, established north of present Albany, Texas, in 1867, where he set up his photography business in the midst of the buffalo hunters, the U.S. Army, and the main camp of the Tonkawa Indians. Although an eponymous town grew up alongside Fort Griffin, there was again no newspaper anywhere in the region to record his activities. Yet Shuster can be placed at Fort Griffin at least between December 1870 and the end of May 1871 because one of his photographs is that of Acting Assistant Surgeon Josephus Henry Gunning, a private physician who served as a contract surgeon with the U.S. Army at Fort Griffin only during that period (Gunning 1870).

Shuster's work at Fort Griffin is important because he documented several identified members of the Tonkawa people, a small tribe friendly to the whites and traditional enemies of the Comanches and Kiowas. To date, Shuster's cartes de visite of the Tonkawas are the earliest photographic images extant of these indigenous Texas people. His photographs include two important elderly chiefs, Campo and Castile, and future 20th-century chief Grant Richards, shown as a teenager in the 1870–1871 images.

Since Shuster worked at both Fort Griffin, Texas, and Fort Sill, Indian Territory, the question arises as to where he worked first. His route is unknown. If he traveled continuously in a southwestern direction, as at first seems likely, he would have been at Fort Sill first. If that were the case, he would have been there before the confirmed period at Fort Griffin, that is, during the months preceding December 1870. At the time, however, Fort Griffin was the more established post, so he well could have been drawn there first, which would put him at Fort Sill in the latter part of 1871. It is also possible, though not probable, that he moved back and forth between the two posts. From one or the other frontier fort, he then made his way to Oregon, perhaps boarding a vessel at Galveston that would carry him “around the horn.” However he got there, Shuster arrived in Oregon in 1872 (Lang 1885:873).

In Oregon Shuster continued to travel from town to town, and he established a 20-plus-year career working in Portland, Astoria, Hillsboro, and Salem. In 1880 he won “First Premium” for best cabinet cards and cartes de visite at the Oregon State Fair (Robinson 1993:597). While in Portland, he wrote an article concerning the extraction of gold from gold coins that appeared in the January 22, 1897, issue of the Washington County Hatchet (Robinson 1993:594). Shuster worked briefly in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1889, but returned to Oregon and resumed his career at Hillsboro. By 1910, Shuster was a patient in the Salem Hospital at Salem, Oregon; the hospital was his residence according to the census for that year (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1910). He was still shown as a photographer who owned a “gallery.” He also was shown as single, as he was in every previous census, so apparently he never married. Shuster's death and the location where he died remain a mystery. He does not appear in the Oregon 1903–1998 Death Index under any name variant. He also does not appear in any other U.S. census records from the period.

Although Shuster's visit to frontier Texas and the Indian Territory was brief, his photographs are historically important. Probably without fully understanding it, he took his photographs at a time that was a historic turning point for the native Southern Plains people. In 1870–1871, the Comanches, Kiowas, and Kiowa (or Plains) Apaches, three allied and culturally similar tribes, were struggling with the terms of the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty, which required them to settle on a reservation around Fort Sill. While some bands settled in accordance with the treaty, others remained aloof and combative, continuing to camp and raid in Texas, and members of the settled bands often slipped off to join the resistors. This period of resistance was a prelude to the Red River War of 1874, in which the recalcitrant bands were forced onto the reservation once and for all by the U.S. Army. Except for the work of Soule, the photographic record of Southern Plains Indians under these circumstances is scarce (Fleming and Luskey 1986:46). By being at the right place at the right time, Shuster captured forever a small glimpse of these people in the last of prereservation times.

The Context of Costume

The armor, evident in the photo as material forming a series of horizontal scalloped edges worn on the man's chest, is best treated following a head-to-toe analysis of the subject's dress and demeanor, as a kind of contextualization.

The subject wears what appears to be a black felt or silk civilian stovepipe dress hat. The taste for these hats among Southern Plains Indians is apparent in historical records. One memorable image in Texas history is the Comanche warrior encountered in a “beegum” hat during the Battle of Plum Creek, August 12, 1840, following the Indian sacking of Linnville (Jenkins 1958:64; Sowell 1986:19). George Catlin's before-and-after diptych portrait of The Light, an Assiniboine delegate to Washington, DC, in 1832, shows the Indian leader returning home in a beaver-felt top hat with a long plume in front, like that of our subject (Ewers 1968:75–90; Fleming and Luskey 1986:20, 25; Viola 1995:90–91). But photos of Indians from Indian Territory wearing these tall dress hats, either in Washington or at home, appear nonexistent except for the present example.2

Common instead in other photo portraits from the same time and place is the black felt surplus U.S. Army dress uniform hat from the late antebellum and early Civil War period, known variously as the Jeff Davis, Hardee, or Kossuth hat (e.g., Belous and Weinstein 1969:100; cf. Katcher 1985:27, 38; Nye 1968:331; Steffen 1978:35–43, 45). Jefferson Davis was the U.S. Secretary of War when the hats were adopted, hence the first nickname; Hardee was a U.S. cavalryman and Kossuth a Hungarian revolutionary. These hats were distributed by the federal government to Indians as gifts and annuity goods. They were less popular with soldiers than the alternate forage caps, which may have contributed to their availability for the Indian trade. Whereas soldiers wore one or the other side of the brim pinned up against the crown (the chosen side indicating membership in the cavalry or infantry/artillery), Indians typically wore the brim down all around, so that the hat resembled a stovepipe but with a shorter crown. Jeff Davis hats came with cordage and embroidered or metal insignia that are only sometimes retained on Indian examples, as well as a dark ostrich plume that remains in many Indian photos. Our subject has decorated his hat much like a Jeff Davis hat, perhaps with components from such a hat—a long ostrich plume affixed squarely to the front of the crown with some kind of button.

Given the present subject's overall self-presentation, it is somewhat ironic that during the period a line drawing of the brimmed hat with pronounced crown was the standard device for representing non-Indian combatants in Southern Plains Indian pictography, apparently an extension of the practice of indicating tribal affiliation by detailing hair style (e.g., Gelo 1995:xxiii, 8–9; Kirkland and Newcomb 1967:51, 160–161).

Photos of Kiowa and Comanche men from this period normally exhibit one of two general hairstyles. One style features a center part and a pair of long, thick braids extending over the chest. In the second style, the hair is also parted in the center but cut evenly all around at shoulder length or somewhat more or less. Either style might be enhanced with one or more very narrow, tight braids emanating from the scalp top. Our subject wears a third hairstyle that is also seen infrequently in other photos: a large braid on one side, the other side cropped (though in this case tied). On his left side, he wears a braid extending almost to the knee that is tightly tied in what Comanches call papiinline image, or “hair wrapper,” a word that refers synonymously to the peltry strip hair ornament and the animals that usually furnish it, the otter and mink. Beaver fur was also sometimes used. The large size and pale coloration in this case relative to other period photos suggest beaver. Cloth strips substitute for the traditional fur in a number of portraits from the era, and in two Soule portraits, one of the Kiowa Koi-khan-hole and another of a man identified as the son of Kiowa Apache headman Pacer, one braid is wrapped in each material (Belous and Weinstein 1969:32, 37; Nye 1968:323, 379).

On his right side, the subject's hair extends only to the collarbone and is evenly cut and tied. Colonel Wilbur Nye, who was closely acquainted with Kiowa elders around Fort Sill in the 1930s, states twice in his commentary on other portraits that it was an old Kiowa custom to wear the hair braided on the left side and cut on the right side (Belous and Weinstein 1969:29, 33; Nye 1968:186, 325). These comments suggest that the style was a marker of Kiowa tribal identity.3 But this conclusion is almost immediately complicated. Indeed, the style shows up in several Kiowa portraits (e.g., those of Big Bow in Belous and Weinstein 1969:25; Mooney 1898:151; Nye 1969: 74ff), but it also is found in the portrait of Kiowa Apache leader Pacer (Belous and Weinstein 1969:36; Mooney 1907:702; Nye 1968:375, 1969:74ff), and also in the picture of Yamparika Comanche headman Cheevers made by Alexander Gardner (Nye 1969:234ff).

Despite Nye's observation about Kiowa custom, it is established that Comanche men sometimes cut their hair off on one side of the head, in mourning the death of a close relative or friend in combat. Wallace and Hoebel (1952:152) state that it was usually the left side that was chosen for this expression of grief. We do not know if this practice was so consistent as to be a dependable or critical distinction when determining tribal affiliation, but it appears not, and in any case the authors are not presently aware of any portraits from this time and place showing hair cropped only on the left side. In symbolizing the mourning state, hair shorn on one side activated a principle that symmetrical shapes represent spiritual balance or well-being, and asymmetry indicates a lack of same. The hair is a manifestation of the life force. The principle of symmetry is pervasive in Southern Plains Indian expressive culture—for example, in the diagnoses of medicine men and women, who seek to correct bodily asymmetries when curing. The principle may be more prominent among the Comanches than the Kiowas. For instance, Comanche and Kiowa baby carriers collected by museums during the reservation period are very similar in construction, except that while Comanche cradles always display bilateral symmetry in the design and coloration of paint and beadwork, Kiowa cradles often display bilateral asymmetry, allowing different designs and background colors from one side to the other (Schneider 1983). Ultimately it is still not clear from the hairstyle whether the subject is Kiowa or Comanche, or whether or not he is in mourning. In 1871, however, there was a strong likelihood that any Comanche or Kiowa man would have recently lost a close friend or relative in combat, if not to disease or starvation.

Around his neck the subject wears a choker of metal, probably brass, beads, and a neckerchief threaded through a large concha which may be made from German silver. The brass beads appear in other photos from this period and into the early 20th century, although more usually as components in bandoliers and breastplates. The neckerchief and large concha combination is fairly common in Fort Sill Indian portraits.

For outerwear the subject dons a light-colored, probably gray wool or dirty white cotton, military shell jacket of a style worn by U.S. dragoons between 1833 and the 1850s (cf. Katcher 1985:25, 36). Although these jackets were cut tightly, this one is still several sizes too small for its owner. Evident are the cuffs and piping characteristic of this jacket type, but this sample is devoid of its chevrons, brass buttons, and stand-up collar. It could have been obtained as a gift, in trade, or perhaps it was stripped from a fallen enemy. Military surplus made up a moderate but valued part of the manufactured clothing available to Southern Plains Indians during this time, judging from photo portraits. Among other examples of army coats are the Kiowa leader Satanta's jacket fashioned from an army captain's uniform, with epaulets (Belous and Weinstein 1969:29; Nye 1968:187) and the coat of Cheyenne leader Little Robe (Nye 1968:195). Another Kiowa leader, Stumbling Bear, is portrayed wearing a fine double-breasted major general's coat replete with trimmings; in this case the garment was not, strictly speaking, surplus, but a loan or present from General Winfield Scott Hancock, who had conducted a council with the Kiowas at Fort Dodge, Kansas, in April 1867 (Belous and Weinstein 1969:54; Nye 1968:219, 1969:44, 74ff).

Normally in a portrait of this vintage the subject would be wearing a light-colored calico button-down shirt of non-Indian make. This kind of shirt may be present here, as there seems to be a shirtsleeve protruding from under the left jacket sleeve, plus shirttails may be barely visible at the waist. A shirt would certainly make the wearing of armor, which is the main item evident under the jacket, more comfortable, and would thus have been somewhat analogous to the gambeson or “arming shirt” of medieval Europe. It is also possible that some of this visible fabric is backing for attachment of armor segments. The armor will be treated in detail below.

Around his waist the subject has tied a Mexican or Navajo blanket in characteristic fashion. Within a year or two of this photo's making, the concerted extermination of the South Plains buffalo population by white hunters would begin. The cloth blanket, long valued as a convenience, was now becoming indispensable as a substitute for the buffalo robe worn over a man's shoulders. It also gave its wearer something to cover himself with when squatting to defecate, affording a measure of privacy that was demanded when whites were in the vicinity. White sheets were also worn in this manner, as depicted in a Frederic Remington illustration (Dodge 1891:859) and an Alice Snearly photo (Noyes 1999:52).

Blankets from Old and New Mexico were held in such high regard that they have a specific name in Comanche, kusikwi?ii? (Wistrand Robinson and Armagost 1990:32). The term refers to grayish-blue coloration, which suggests perhaps that it was first applied to military blankets and then the meaning transferred. The Comanche nomenclature that developed for cloth blankets reflects a whole typology by color, including also “white blankets,”“red blankets,”“green blankets,”“gray” blankets, and “red-half” blankets, meaning the half-red, half-dark blue traditional “half and half,” originally of woolen stroud trade cloth (Berghaus 1851:52; Casagrande 1954–55:222; Gelo 1995:xviii, 19–20, 55, 64; Wistrand Robinson and Armagost 1990:16). Apparently this classification was consistent with that used by non-Indian suppliers, since records of trade list “Mexican,”“white,”“red,”“indigo,” and “green” blanket varieties (compiled in Kavanagh 1986:333, 334, 340, 341, 342, 346, 349). Given the Comanche proclivity for lexical invention a word like inline image for “striped blanket” might be predicted, but such a term does not appear in the vocabularies collected. The present example is nicely striped, and perhaps colorful, though its colors would have been muted in comparison to the nearly fluorescent tones available via synthetic dyes in later Mexican textiles. Vividly striped Mexican serapes (which old-time Comanches called wokorai, “painted bunting,” after the bright, multihued bird; Casagrande 1954–55:220) remain a favorite gift and regalia item at Kiowa and Comanche powwows today.

Presumably the blanket obscures a belt, which held up a breechclout, also not visible, and the leggings, which show on the subject's lower legs. The leggings appear to be made from some kind of dark cloth instead of the older buckskin. They could be made from dark blue stroud, a common material for cloth leggings. The fabric here looks more relaxed than the coarse, crisp stroud worn in many formal Kiowa and Comanche portraits, however, and could be broadcloth or flannel. Below the leggings one sees the man's moccasins, which are of the general Kiowa and Comanche type (see Koch 1977:147). The seam where the soft buckskin upper meets the hard rawhide sole can be discerned around the toe area of both shoes, and there is a row of rolled hide fringing extending along the center of the instep that sweeps to the outside, which is in better focus on the right shoe. This style of moccasin would also have a collar around the ankle, and more fringes dragging from the heel, features that are covered by the leggings.

A summary view of the subject's dress would lead to the conclusion that he was posing in a more impromptu manner than is evident in many Southern Plains portraits of this period and afterward. His outfit is that of a man conversant with the encroaching white culture but not yet settled within it. In this regard it is useful to note what is absent from this particular portrait. There is a lack of careful grooming and polish that was the Native standard captured in many later portraits. (The Comanche term tuibihtsi? for “young man” conveys the culturally defined notion of a cocksure, primping swain; see Noyes 1999:66). Also, very little craft work is evident in this subject's clothing. There is no fringed skin work apart from the moccasins. The moccasins appear to lack the usual beadwork: narrow lanes of beading down the instep or around the sole seam, plus a medallion of beads at the tongue. There is no Indian-made German silver jewelry, no delicate eagle down plume decorations—indeed, no eagle feather work at all. It is commonly thought that handwork diminished during the years that the tribes were most beleaguered. Our subject wears no peace medal, so often worn by the tribal leaders in other portraits as an indication of their stature and willingness to engage in diplomacy. Even the man's posture signals a kind of reluctance or impatience. He is a man very much still on the move or on the run.

Given this characterization of the portrait, it is especially notable that no weapons appear in the pose. A quick scan of contemporaneous portraits shows several in which the subject is holding a bow and arrow, gun, or pipe tomahawk.4 Ironically, the presence of weapons in the studio (a term we will use here no matter how makeshift the arrangement) actually indicates a level of trust rather than animosity. In some cases the weapons were provided by the photographer so that his or her product met with iconographic expectations (both Indian and white). Perhaps the epitome of this practice is the portrait of Geronimo made at Fort Sill in which the former Apache headman, whose name became a byword for frontier violence, brandishes a Dance Brothers revolver, a Confederate Colt copy, supplied by the studio (Noyes 1999:81). It would be easy to read too much into the absence of weaponry in the picture under consideration; perhaps, simply, none was handy. But the armor worn instead has the effect of making the subject not threatening, in either a real or pretend way, but still proud and defiant. It is in keeping with his overall self-presentation and the tenor of the historical moment.

The Armor and Its Antecedents

Visible in the photo across the man's chest is some type of armor consisting of at least 29 horizontal, overlapping rows of material either in the form of long strips scalloped along the bottom or numerous small rounded segments (Figure 4). The surface texture is hard to determine, but it appears smooth. It cannot be known from the photo whether this armor extends around the wearer's back. It may attach with thongs at the neck and around the waist and cover only the chest. It may or may not have an integral backing. Similarly, the degree of flexibility cannot be determined, but it appears that the structure of the armor would allow its wearer to bend back and forward to some better degree than would be allowed with solid armor, and that this flexibility was the purpose of the design.

Figure 4.

 Detail of Figure 1, carte de visite portrait of unidentified Southern Plains Indian man, showing armor. Photograph by Henry S. Shuster at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, circa 1871. Courtesy of Lawrence T. Jones III Texas Photography Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

What the armor is made of, and who made it, are related questions that cannot be answered with complete certainty. Some clues are available in the photo, however, while others can be drawn from historical context. A first set of possibilities, that the armor is Indian-made from shell, bone, or horn, can be discounted partly on the appearance of the armor but more readily because there is no independent evidence of such an artifact made from these materials on the Southern Plains. Rawhide or metal, either of Indian or Spanish manufacture, is the more plausible alternative. The reflective quality of the armor material appears to fall between that of the cloth jacket and the shiny, most likely metal, neckerchief concha. Either tarnished metal or rawhide might show up this way. (Rawhide has a faint waxy luster that is often enhanced with protective sizing made from cactus juice or shavings of hide or buffalo horn ([Morrow 1975:31–32]).

The arrangement of the scallops provides a reason for thinking the armor is rawhide and Indian-made. In other versions of armor made up of small, flat, overlapping scalloped pieces, from various world cultures, each row of scallops is offset from the next so that the scallops stagger, one covering the seam between the two below it, for added protection. In the Shuster photo armor the scallops overlap directly, forming the effect of vertical rows. This departure from the norm appears to be a Native American design or a Native fabrication imperfectly imitating a European design, which in turn is more likely to appear in an indigenous material.

Alternately, there is little reason to think the armor could be Indian-made trade sheet metalwork. Although the scallop motif is found on some early Plains Indian German silver ornaments, specifically the “cloud” pectorals derived from Spanish horse bridles Feder 1982:145; Koch 1977:78), it is highly unlikely that the armor is Indian metal because no other such artifact has ever been found or reported, and Plains metalwork is not known to have produced objects of this size or complexity. The remaining alternatives, that the armor could be Spanish-made of metal or rawhide, are possible but seem less likely than the Indian rawhide option given what is known about Spanish armor in the New World. At this point, discussion is best served by a thorough review of the incidence of armor in North America.

Types of Native North American body armor have been catalogued by Hough (1895), Chamberlain (1907), and lately by Paterek (1994) and David E. Jones (2004). The array includes such types as ivory slats among the Eskimos, twined wooden or whalebone slats or wooden rods in the Northwest Coast region, and various kinds of hardened hide coats found widely throughout the continent. For the Plains specifically, Secoy (1953) notes the Plains Apaches as early adherents of hide armor in the south, along with the Shoshones, Blackfeet, and Crees to the north. The Shoshone case, drawn from Lewis and Clark, is significant to the present discussion because the Comanches split from the Shoshones as late as about AD 1650. Ewers (1955:203–204) gathered historical references to hide armor among the Blackfeet, Gros Ventres, Crees, Caddos, Wichitas, Plains Apaches, Comanches, and Yanktons. Paterek (1994) documents forms of hide body armor for undifferentiated “Texas tribes” as well as the Assiniboines, Blackfeet, Crows, Iowas, and Kiowas, this last including armor of tough rawhide for both men and horses.

A key citation with respect to the Shuster photo, previously noted by Secoy and others, is found in Fletcher and LaFlesche's The Omaha Tribe and relates an origin legend of the Ponca tribe as a protohistoric offshoot of the Omahas, and their early encounters with the Padoucas (Comanches or Plains Apaches):

To protect their horses from arrows they [the Padoucas] made a covering for the horses' breasts and sides, to prevent an arrow taking effect at ordinary range. This covering (armor) was made of thick rawhide cut in round pieces and made to overlap like the scales of a fish. Over the surface was sand held on by glue. This covering made the Ponca arrows glance off and do no damage. The Padoucas protected their own bodies by long shields of rawhide. Some of them had breastplates made like those on their horses.

[Fletcher and LaFlesche 1911:79]

The presence of sand is not discernible in the Shuster photo, but otherwise this report most likely describes the type of armor worn by Shuster's subject.

In addition to the solid evidence for aboriginal armor types, Spanish influence must also be considered. What kinds of body armor did the Spanish introduce to the Plains? Oddly, this question gets little attention in any of the discussions of Indian armor. But Spain's prominence in the manufacture of armor and bladed arms, based on the peninsula's riches in metals and stretching back to the Roman era, virtually guaranteed some employment of this technology even at the farthest reaches of New Spain. Calvert's tour of the Royal Armory in Madrid reveals the panoply (a word itself meaning “suit of armor” in its original usage) that might have been available, at least in the earliest South Plains entradas (Calvert 1907), while Secoy (1953:14–15), following Curtis (1927), describes the Spanish armor deployed in the Apachean Southwest, with the implication of some penetration into the Southern Plains (see also Aiton 1939). Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his mounted officers wore full-steel plate armor; his other horse soldiers and infantrymen variously wore three-quarter plate armor, assorted pieces including leather jerkins with steel corselets and thigh plates, hide armor suits called cueras de anta, or tightly quilted cotton jackets of Aztec/Maya design that hindered projectiles and blows from clubs. Coronado ventured through present New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas in 1541. The expedition of Juan de Oñate in 1601, which followed part of Coronado's path and communed with Apaches on the upper Canadian River, was similarly armored (Curtis 1927:110–112; Foster 2008:181).

References specify steel as the material for conquistador plate armor. Steel armor was most certainly imported from Spain. Any plate armor fabricated in New Spain was likely iron. It can be assumed that cotton armor was locally made, and hide goods sourced from far or near. Coronado's muster roll notes armaduras de castilla (Castilian armor) and distinguishes between armas de castilla (Castilian weapons) and armas de la t[ie]rra (weapons of the country, i.e., Mexico), suggesting a parallel distinction in armor (e.g., Aiton 1939:560). Chain mail formed from metal links would have been iron regardless of origin, with various metals used in riveting the rings.

Curtis too hastily cast doubt on the presence of true chain mail during the entradas, remarking that though it was reported in contemporary accounts, chain mail was by this time obsolete and the term had come to be used casually for the combination of cuirass (vest of metal plate armor) plus cuisses or tassets (types of thigh plating) that replaced it (Curtis 1927:108–110).

Wedel, however, reports two excavations of chain mail fragments in central Kansas around the putative location of Quivira, the Wichita village that was the terminus of the Coronado expedition (Bolton 1949:293; Wedel 1942:7–8, 1959:319–320). One of these finds was dated through association with pottery shards to the late 16th or early 17th century. Wedel argued in essence that at the very least chain mail was used as supplemental armor during this period in the New World. Also, Grinnell (1956:74–75) notes anecdotes of similar relics found in the Texas panhandle. At any rate, as the 17th century progressed, Spanish armoring in New Mexico devolved to the metal plate cuirass alone, and then metal gave way to hide substitutes.5 Metal armor was expensive, hot, heavy, prone to rust, and difficult to repair on long marches in the wilderness.

Spanish armor was therefore never confined to metal examples. During the 1700s mounted soldados de cuero (“hide jacket soldiers”) wearing tunics of multiple layers of buckskin as protection from Indian arrows were stationed at the Presidio San Antonio de Bejar (San Antonio, Texas) and elsewhere throughout the Southwest. Well into the “American Period [of New Mexico, post 1848] teamsters hauling hay along the military road from the Valle Grande to Santa Fe wrapped cowhides about their bodies as a defense from the arrows of raiders” (Curtis 1927:128). While fitted ox hide was a revived antiquated Spanish form, the influence of Native hide armor designs, like that of Mesoamerican cotton padding, on the Spanish adaptations cannot be discounted, and conversely some inspiration from Spanish metal armor is seen in the later forms of Indian hide protection, particularly the way they fit the body (Curtis 1927:120; Secoy 1953:15–18).

On the other hand, there is no evidence that the Spanish made hide armor with scalloped strips or small segments like that in the Shuster photo, or that Indians possessed hide armor of Spanish fabrication.

The direct adoption of Spanish metal armor by Indians, however happenstance, is famously evidenced in the accounts of Comanche warriors with the names Camisa de Hierro (or Fierro)/Cota de Malla (or Maya)/Iron Shirt/Iron Jacket. One such individual is first encountered in Spanish peace envoy Pedro Vial's diary of his journey in late summer 1785 from San Antonio to a great Comanche encampment in northwestern Texas: “One [leader] is known as the Capitan de la Camisa de Hierro [Iron Shirt], for wearing a coat of mail that he took from an Apache capitán” (John and Benavides 1994:37). The following winter an individual named Ecueracapa, “leather cape,” appeared as the headman leading the Eastern Comanche peace delegation to Governor Juan Batista de Anza at Taos, New Mexico (Thomas 1932:294ff). One contemporary account says that an alias of Ecueracapa was Cota de Malla (Coat of Mail; Thomas 1932:295), not improbable on the face of it because other tribal leaders of the era are occasionally reported as having had multiple names. Historian Elizabeth A. H. John has read the records to mean that all three names, Camisa de Hierro, Ecueracapa, and Cota de Malla, were the same person, while Thomas Kavanagh disputes this conclusion (John 1975:668–669, 716; John and Benavides 1994; Kavanagh 1996:500–501). In either case, it is interesting to the present study that there were one or more individuals with personal names referring to the wearing of armor, and that the names taken together associate metal and hide covering.

Another Iron Shirt appears later—May 12, 1858, to be exact—in the battle between Comanches and Texas Rangers near the Antelope Hills along the Canadian River in present Roger Mills County, Oklahoma.

This was the immemorial home of the Comanches; here they sought refuge from their marauding expeditions into Texas and Mexico … Pohebits Quasho [cf. puhihwi, “shiny leaf,” i.e., “money,”“gold,”“metal,”“iron”+kwasu?u, shirt], Iron Jacket, so called from the fact that he wore a coat of scale mail, a curious piece of armor, which doubtless had been stripped from the body of some unfortunate Spanish knight slain, perhaps, a century before—some chevalier who followed Coronado, De Leon, La Salle—was the war chief. He was a big medicine man, or prophet, and claimed to be invulnerable to balls and arrows aimed at his person, as by a necromantic puff of his breath the missives were diverted from their course, or charmed, and made to fall harmless at his feet.

[Wilbarger 1985:320]

According to this account, Iron Shirt appeared immune to the Rangers' fire during the opening moments of the conflict, but soon enough was felled by a gunshot from a Tonkawa auxiliary. Also in this report it is stated that Ranger Captain John Salmon “Rip” Ford obtained the dead Comanche's mail, weapons, and headdress, and deposited them in the Texas State Archives in Austin (Wilbarger 1985:326). There is nothing like this, however, currently in the Archives holdings according to archivist John Anderson.

W. J. Hughes offered a similar picture of the battle, drawing upon Ford's own memoirs, an interview with Ford by Frederic Remington, and two letters of Sergeant Robert Cotter, another participant in the fight:

Into the two hundred yards of open ground between Ross' Indians and the Comanche lodges, a single, armored figure rode to bar the way. Po-bish-e-quash-o (Iron Jacket) he was, head chief of the band, possessor of a powerful medicine which enable [sic] him to blow aside the arrows of his foes. An ancient coat of scaled mail, possibly looted by some long-dead ancestor from an unfortunate conquistador, covered him from throat to thigh. Riding assuredly before his hereditary enemies, he described small circles, then advanced briefly, swelling his cheeks and expelling his breath vigorously toward the reservation auxiliaries. He moved deliberately, confident in his invulnerability. Abruptly his medicine failed. Most of his enemies carried firearms rather than bows and arrows.

[Hughes 1957:19–20]

According to Sergeant Cotter, after the battle the Rangers removed Iron Jacket's armor and cut it up for souvenirs. Cotter sent a piece with his letter describing the fight to Texas governor Hardin R. Runnels, but while the letter resides today in the Texas State Archives, the artifact has not been located (Hughes 1957:20; cf. Rogers and LaRocca 1999:229).

A. J. Sowell relates other interesting details of Iron Shirt at the Antelope Hills battle that he purportedly learned as a youngster from the stories of Rangers who were involved:

On examining the body he was found to be encased from the throat nearly to the knees in a Spanish coat of mail, resembling the scales of a fish, but more pointed and lying close to his body. In rubbing downward with the hand it was smooth, but in passing the hand upward, the scales would turn up. It was carried to Austin and placed in the capitol, where I saw and examined it.

[Sowell 1964:66]

Stephen B. Oates's edition of Ford's memoir of the engagement is a little more prosaic but still describes a “mail-clad and gorgeously-caparisoned Comanche chieftain” whose spiritual power was manifested by his blown breath. This source says Iron Shirt was “followed by warriors who trusted their safety in his armor,” an odd confidence unless the armor was seen as part of the supernatural protection (Ford 1963:233). Here, as in the Wilbarger and Hughes accounts, the Indian's armor and mystic powers are mentioned in conjunction, an important point to which we will return. Oates makes no mention of the disposition of the armor. There are still other accounts of this Iron Shirt with differing details and varying degrees of derivation (e.g., Grinnell 1956:74). Fehrenbach's popular Lone Star includes one colorful adaptation: “At the head of the Comanches rode Iron Jacket, whose name came from a cuirass of burnished Spanish armor, lost on these Plains centuries before. Iron jacket glittered in overlapping plates of steel” (Fehrenbach 2000:502).

Not too much dependence should be placed on Anglo-Texan legends, even those committed to print. Still, the specific references to “scale mail” and its curious nature may be significant to the present discussion. The term is used (erroneously, since it is not technically mail) for armor consisting of many small flat segments fastened in overlapping horizontal rows on a backing of cloth or leather. Fish scale armor is the preferred term, as in the Roman lorica squamata. Scale armor and the related lamellar armor made by lacing or wiring the pieces to each other with no backing (and typically with the scallops pointing upward) were worn by many ancient and medieval cultures throughout Eurasia, including the imperial Romans and Samurai, and are popular today with historical reenactors. Evidence for the use of fish scale armor by the Spanish in southwestern North America is presently confined to a single, albeit very interesting, archaeological case from northwestern New Mexico (Rogers and LaRocca 1999).6 Apart from the fact that the segments are typically pointed and staggered, the appearance of the fish scale armor metal segment rows is very much like the scalloping of the armor in the portrait under analysis. If the portrait armor is, as we believe, not actually of Spanish origin, then this resemblance suggests stimulus diffusion from the Spanish to the Southern Plains tribes.

The time difference makes it unquestionable that the Iron Shirt of the Canadian River fight was someone other than the one met by Vial or Anza. It is possible that “Iron Shirt” had become a wohhonahnia among the Comanches, an honorific war name that was passed down to a worthy successor, perhaps in some cases with the actual article of protection. This eventuality is suggested by Hughes and also by Grinnell, who noted an even wider incidence of metal armor wearers on the Southern Plains (Grinnell 1956:74–83). According to Grinnell, a “suit of Spanish armor” later described as a long chain mail shirt was owned among the Cheyennes, already ancient when possessed by Medicine Water in 1838. It appears to have been passed on to a nephew (classificatory son), Alights on a Cloud, perhaps by 1844, who reveled in its protection until killed by an arrow through the eye in a battle with Pawnees in 1852. The Pawnees cut up the armor and carried off the pieces. Alights on a Cloud was called Iron Shirt by the Pawnees. (Elsewhere, however, Grinnell says that Medicine Water, Alights on a Cloud, and Iron Shirt were brothers [Grinnell 1956:321]). There was also a Cheyenne band leader named Iron Shirt caught up in Colonel Ranald Mackenzie's surprise attack at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle on September 28, 1874, as mentioned in several accounts of that fight (e.g., Nye 1969:221, 224). Presumably this was the same Iron Shirt, one born in 1835, who become an informant in ethnologic studies by anthropologist Truman Michelson (Michelson 1913; Moore 1987:39–40, 115). Grinnell also identifies an Apache chief Iron Shirt who was a messenger for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and signer of the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty (Grinnell 1956:306–307; cf. Kappler 1972:984: the treaty is signed “on the part of the Apaches” by “Iron Shirt [Ba-zhe-ech]”). Finally, according to Grinnell the venerable captive Andres Martinez said that the Kiowas had two mail shirts among them, and that one wearer was killed fighting Kit Carson at the first battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas panhandle on November 26, 1864. George Bent, the half-Cheyenne, half-white eyewitness to frontier history and another informant of Grinnell, wrote: “Iron Shirt, a famous Kiowa chief was killed in front of his lodge. He took his name from the fact that he was possessor of a coat-of-mail, a relic of the old days of the Spanish conquistadores, who penetrated into this region many years ago” (Hyde 1968:245–246). According to other accounts based on an uncited 1900 writing of George Bent, however, this Iron Shirt was a Plains Apache (Estergreen 1962:259–260; McClure 1948:55; Sabin 1914:457, 464). Given the frequency of the name, it may be that the unidentified subject of the Shuster photo was called Iron Shirt, particularly if his armor was metal or hide with an acknowledged pedigree from metal. Reconciliation of the various identities must be left unfinished here, but in the meantime the point is made that there was appreciable influence of Spanish armor on Southern Plains warrior culture.

Possible Armor–Hair Pipe Breastplate Connection

Of the well-known material items of the later horse era, the armor depicted in the Shuster photo most closely resembles the hair pipe breastplate; possible relationships between the armor and breastplate deserve reexamination.

The long, tapered, tubular beads called hair pipes, manufactured for the Indian trade first from silver or brass, then on a larger scale from conch shell and then cow bone (and today, plastic), were put to Native use in making hair ornaments, chokers, and bandoleers (Ewers 1957). On the Plains hair pipes were also used to make breastplates consisting of a latticework of two to five vertical rows of the long beads strung on leather thongs, sometimes intermittently with small round beads (Figure 5). These breastplates extended from the neck to mid-chest or waist, covering the middle or entire chest (smaller ones typical of the Southern Plains, larger ones characteristic in the North). They were tied on around the back at the neck and, if long enough, the waist, and worn over shirting, if present, but under a bandoleer or robe when present.

Figure 5.

 Photo stereograph portrait of unidentified Southern Arapaho man showing hair pipe breastplate. Photograph by William P. Bliss, Indian Territory, circa 1870. Courtesy of Lawrence T. Jones III Texas Photography Collection, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

In providing the definitive discussion of hair pipes, Ewers (1957) establishes that these beads were theoretically available for trade throughout the Plains and that they appear widely in hair ornaments and necklaces, but hair pipe breastplates were probably invented specifically by the Comanches around 1850, then diffused to their southern neighbors the Kiowas and following that to the central and northern tribes. Ewers is silent on the question of formal precedents for the breastplate, but its origination among the Comanches and Kiowas along with the general similarity of design suggest a possible connection to armor. Ewers's lack of speculation on this question is puzzling given that he published about armor only two years earlier.

Jones's discussion of the possible connection between armor and hair pipe breastplates (Jones 2004:42–44) is equivocal. First he dismisses any assumption of connection as “basically ill-founded.” For this argument he supposes that rod armor is the assumed prototype, and he notes that hair pipes were a “modern” product of white trade, implying that they were therefore incompatible with Native rod armor. He then argues that hair pipe breastplates cannot be called armor because they are fragile, which is a question of definition rather than design precedent. Finally, Jones does acknowledge design resemblances between armor and hair pipe breastplates, as well as functional similarities.

The most basic argument in favor of a connection would note that the hair pipe breastplate is peculiar among Southern Plains clothing items in its form and its complexity of fabrication, except when compared with the type of armor shown in the Shuster photo. There is certainly no other item that clearly prefigures the hair pipe breastplate. If there is no connection between armor and hair pipe breastplates, one must accept the scenario of the pure invention of a complicated piece of regalia suddenly around 1850, which is not impossible but less likely than the adaptation of a prior form.

The functional similarities that Jones acknowledges are important to the interpretation of the Shuster photo. As Jones notes, both armor pieces (in all cultures) and hair pipe breastplates are prestige items that denote the wealth or social standing of their wearers. In Plains Indian cultures, wealth, social standing, and prowess as a warrior were mutual characteristics anyway, so the breastplate is, like armor, a type of warrior's regalia regardless of the fact that it is fragile. And, after all, Indian men did wear hair pipe breastplates into battle. The prevalence of hair pipe breastplates in portraits of the Shuster period suggests that they were regarded as a standard indication of warrior status in the medium. For instance, among a sample of 49 portraits of Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache men, mostly by Soule (Nye 1968:186–261, 292–332, 354–395), 17 men are wearing hair pipe breastplates. Breastplates actually well outnumber weapons such as bows, arrows, and revolvers, which were also used in some photos to indicate the disposition of a warrior. And whereas items like Geronimo's revolver were sometimes props, the breastplates depicted appear to be distinct and personal property. The hair pipe breastplates in Soule's photos are frequently short and are worn over the shirt and vest but under a robe, like the armor depicted in the Shuster photo. By including his armor in his regalia, the subject in Shuster's picture is matching the then-current custom of donning hair pipe breastplates for photographic portraits. His action is explainable not only as a primary, nativist expression of status, but also as a nod to the subsequent hair pipe convention.

The concept of “symbolic armor” (Jones 2004:xiv–xv) is therefore a useful one in understanding the Shuster photo, though if accepted uncritically it might foster a false dichotomy between “real” and “symbolic” functions. To address momentarily the “real” functions, we might ask what physical protection rawhide armor could be expected to provide. Like many forms of European metal armor as well as modern military and police armor, it might provide something less than unfailing protection from penetration, but something still desirable, especially considering its weight and flexibility (cf. Jones 2004:x–xiii). The Ponca origin legend says that Padouca rawhide armor turned arrows “at ordinary range,” while Colonel Richard I. Dodge of the U.S. Army testified that Plains rawhide shields could deflect bullets (Dodge 1882:422). On the other hand, Secoy theorized that the obsolescence of Indian body armor came with the spread of guns (Secoy 1953:53). But it is too easy when discussing the evolution of Plains weapons systems to overlook the Native perspective on how things work. Regarding symbolic function, armor represented not only the wearer's social status but his supernatural power (Comanche puha; Kiowa daw'e), a factor relatable both to status and the efficacy of physical protections. There is a large gray region between physical and symbolic protection, and these domains are conflated in Native theory of cause and effect. The rawhide shields that Dodge noted as so effective were subject to never-ending rituals of renewal, hung in the sun to absorb supernatural power. Even Spanish metal armor would have been valued in large part for its magical qualities. Why else did the traditional Pawnee account of the Cheyenne Iron Shirt's demise stress that it could have been no ordinary arrow that took the life of the metal-clad warrior, but one of the tribe's four Sacred Arrows? (Grinnell 1956:80, 83).

Armor was never fail-safe or total protection. When it worked, its efficacy could be explained as supernatural power, and its use could be coordinated with other manifestations of supernatural power, like Iron Shirt's “necromantic” blowing breath, a common Comanche witchcraft technique. When armor failed, its failure could be evidence that the wearer's medicine had failed too. Grinnell (1956:74–77) notes that both the Comanche and Cheyenne Iron Shirts hid their armor, the first under buckskin and the second under red stroud cloth. This practice would have contributed to the appearance that mystic power was at work. In these cases, the armor was worn not unlike the tsonika, a g-string that Comanche men wore underneath their clothing, around their genitals, as magical protection.

In light of the symbolic armor concept, an 1830s watercolor of Comanche Indians in war dress, one of a series by Lino Sánchez y Tapia, is provocative (Berlandier 1969:157, plate 3 following page 162). The principal purpose of this painting and its companion pieces was to document Native costuming (Berlandier 1969:155–156), so the details of dress may be regarded with some confidence. Sánchez y Tapia depicts two Comanche warriors with lances and feathered shields. While no armor is shown, the man on the left wears on his bare chest black war paint very much in the pattern of a hair pipe breastplate, with lines running down the center of his chest and horizontally across it, and across his right (and presumably his left, hidden behind his shield) arms as well. Since the painting predates the invention of the hair pipe breastplate, the markings may mimic armor. It is well known that among the Comanches black paint was regarded as supernatural protection in combat and elsewhere. Judging from this illustration it may be the case that even body decoration drawn in the form of armor may have been regarded as having some protective value. Incidentally, Sánchez y Tapia's series of fashion plates includes one of Tonkawas, showing a man in a cuera or protective hide jacket (Berlandier 1969:158, plate 5 following page 162) (Figure 6).

Figure 6.

 Detail from watercolor by Lino Sánchez y Tapia after Jean Louis Berlandier, circa 1834. The painting is entitled “Comanches du Texas Occidental: vétement lorsqu'ils vont á la guerre” (“Comanches of western Texas: clothing when they go to war”). This detail shows body markings on a Comanche man that may mimic armor (after Berlandier 1969:157, plate 3 following page 162; original in the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK).


By donning his armor one day in 1870 or 1871 and stepping before the Shuster backdrop, an unknown Southern Plains Indian man made a significant contribution to the study of Plains material culture. In doing so he also took part in an elaborate symbology that conjoins the history of material culture items with the expression of social status, ethnicity, and racial identity. In order to summarize the significances that are conjured, it might simply be observed that the armor in the photo was at the time of its recording already an antique, probably an heirloom. The man poses with this artifact partly concealed, partly revealed, at once hiding his medicine like Iron Shirt and displaying his warrior status with a kind of item more authentic than the substitutes that had become common in other period photos. Although no doubt under the strain of cultural confrontation he asserts a certain measure of confidence and authority. This use of heirloom regalia items for symbolic effect is apparent in some other Indian portraits, such as the photos of Brulé Sioux Chief Two Strike with a stone-headed war club, or Old Harney with an old-time fur hat, by John Alvin Anderson at Rosebud Reservation circa 1896–1900 (Dyck 1971:58–59, 152–155).

Analysis of the Shuster photograph, and the evidence it presents of material culture and symbolic construct, exemplify the potential that historical photos hold for further understanding of past cultures. Despite the ready acknowledgment of armor use on the Southern Plains based on several historical references, apart from the Sánchez y Tapia watercolor showing a Tonkawa cuera, the authors are not aware of any other pictorial evidence of this material culture element. Nor are we aware of any actual examples of this type of item in artifact collections. The verification of a specific style of armor in the Shuster photo, and its possible relationships to other Indian accoutrements, should inform subsequent interpretations of pictorial evidence of Indian culture, including Native pictographs and ledger drawings and white illustrations as well as other photos. Further research may reveal more photographic and documentary evidence of Plains armor as well as the identity of our subject. For now we appreciate an unintentional gift bestowed by an obscure frontier photographer and an Indian man posing in the fast-fading light of Plains warrior glory.


The authors thank Robert M. Hill II, John Miller Morris, Bruce Shackelford, Christopher Wickham, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.


  1. 1William Bliss probably furnished additional competition for Shuster. Many of Bliss's photos show the exact same cloth backdrop used by Soule at Fort Sill, featuring a painted scene of nearby Medicine Bluffs. This commonality strongly suggests that Bliss worked with Soule as a partner or helper. Bliss was later working in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and printing photos taken in Indian Territory there with a New Mexico imprint. Therefore Bliss was probably the previously unnamed associate who absconded from Fort Sill with Soule's equipment and most of his image inventory in early 1875 while Soule was visiting Washington, DC, with an Indian delegation (Nye 1968:xiii; Palmquist and Kailbourn 2005:117–118).

  2. 2The authors are aware of one example from outside of Indian Territory, a CDV portrait of Ute Chief Curecanti with two women made in Denver, Colorado, by W. G. Chamberlain circa 1860–1870 (Mangan 1975:150).

  3. 3Mooney (1898:148, 402) speculated that the Kiowa tribal self-referent Gâ-i-gw contained a linguistic element indicating two halves or parts of the body or face painted in different colors, or possibly a reference to the asymmetrical haircut. Mallery (1881:466) reports that an alternate Plains sign language gesture “by and for the Comanches themselves” involved a cutting motion with both hands at the lower end of the hair, signifying “long hair, as they never cut it.” Mallery then notes that the same sign was used by the Cheyennes to indicate the Kiowas, but interpreted by them to “convey the idea of cropping the hair. The men wear one side of the hair of the head full length and done up as among the Cheyennes, the other side being kept cropped off about even with the neck and hanging loose” (Mallery 1881:470). Mooney (1898:150) confirms this interpretation of the sign for “Kiowa.”

  4. 4One veteran of the Indian Wars, Colonel Richard I. Dodge, was disdainful of the pipe tomahawk:
    The tomahawk is still in use, but reduced from its former high estate as executioner of the direful will of its owner, to a mere ornament, carried as a lady carries her fan, or, still worse, devoted to the base purpose of chopping wood. Although there are yet many elaborately ornamented tomahawks, they are regarded rather as an insignia of rank, to be carried on ceremonial occasions, but are scarcely thought of as weapons. Even as pipes, they are beginning to be voted a bore by the average Indian. [Dodge 1882:420]

  5. 5This trend was essentially a throwback, since the term cuirass in traced to the Latin corium, “hide,” as the protective vest was originally made from animal skin.

  6. 6Beginning in the late 1920s, 325 shield-shaped metal segments, generally sized 25 × 40 mm, were collected at a site near Aztec, New Mexico. The origin of these pieces can only be attributed to a Spanish expedition of the late 16th or early 17th century. It was previously thought that scale torso armor went out of use in western Europe by the mid-14th century, but the New Mexico find now suggests otherwise.

Daniel J. Gelo is Professor of Anthropology and Dean, College of Liberal and Fine Arts, University of Texas at San Antonio. As cowriter of the video documentary People of the Sun: The Tiguas of Ysleta, he won Honorable Mention in the 1993 American Anthropological Association/Society for Visual Anthropology Film Festival. His other works in visual anthropology include Comanches in the New West, 1896–1908, text by Stanley Noyes, with the assistance of Daniel J. Gelo, (University of Texas Press, 1999). Lawrence T. Jones III is a photograph collector and researcher, and principal in Historical Photo Research Associates of Austin, Texas. His research clients include major universities, museums, and presses throughout the U.S. His publications include “Cynthia Ann Parker and Pease Ross—The Forgotten Photographs,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93 (1990), and Jerry D. Thompson and Lawrence T. Jones III, Civil War and Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier: A Narrative and Photographic History (Texas State Historical Association, 2004).