Monday, February 1, 2016

Megan's Mystery Monday - Finding Perspective

Hello fellow history lovers! I hope everyone had a great holiday season and is ready for more mysteries from the museum! Our first of the New Year is twofold.

To begin our Mystery Monday, there are some key facts to go over. As many of you know, the Historical Society has been a repository of local history for almost 100 years now. We house all sorts of things, some artifacts and some just the random collection of items over the years. Our mystery piece this week is one of the latter, a painting that came to us from the Historic Fort Wayne offices.

The History Center is home to many pieces like this, things that aren’t quite artifacts but are still held here. This painting was stored in the fine arts collection without an accession number. It was easy enough to show it to my boss and have her determine provenance, and soon enough we had a new entry made for it in the database. With one mystery solved, it was then on to filling the entry up with as much information as possible about the subject matter.

This painting, given the identification number INV 4535, portrays the Battle of Harmar’s Ford which took place in 1790. When I first stumbled upon this piece, what immediately struck me was the artist’s choice of perspective. I’m no expert in art but as a history student you’re taught to analyze many types of primary sources, including artwork. Every piece is made deliberately and thus every artistic choice is done with a goal or theme in mind. The painting makes a conscious effort to place the viewer on the side of the Native Americans, watching as they hold off the army of soldiers attempting to ford the river. This was a bit unusual to me, so I became intrigued.

I wasn’t familiar with the Battle of Harmar’s Ford, so after a little research I was able to gain a better understanding of why the artist chose the perspective he used. 

During the autumn of 1790, a series of battles took place within the Ohio River Valley between soldiers and Native Americans. Named after General Josiah Harmar, Harmar’s Campaign was fought in order to gain control of the Northwest Territory after news of increased conflict between settlers and Native Americans reached Washington in the east. To combat this, George Washington sent out a troop of soldiers to quell the Native Americans, who were led by Chief Little Turtle.

Accounts of the battles fought were bloody, the odds of victory often overwhelmingly in favor of the Natives, and the defeat equally as overwhelmingly embarrassing for the soldiers. The battles were typified by resounding defeats on the part of the soldiers, thus giving the military campaign its less flattering name, Harmar’s Defeat.  It became pretty obvious why the artist chose to depict such a scene, placing the viewer firmly behind Native American lines while the soldiers knee-deep in the river were shot down. This piece doesn’t sugar coat the colonial loss one bit.

As hard as it can be to admit it, history often times is not kind. It can be ugly, gruesome, and vilify those we’d rather consider heroes. Artwork like INV 4535 is a good example of history as a humbling power, reminding viewers that things weren’t as cut and dry as sometimes thought and that history is almost always a tumultuous conflict with contentious contenders.

If you’d like to learn more about Harmar’s Defeat and other early conflicts, check out the History Center’s 200 at 200 exhibit this February, Contention for the Confluence.

Until next time!

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