Visitors to Philadelphia’s Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 saw evidence of growth and prosperity in the Western states and territories—but word of wild Indians and Custer’s demise blurred that pretty picture.

Martha Ann Maxwell stood beside a fabricated Rocky Mountain populated by so many species of animals that one writer said it looked like Noah’s ark had just discharged its freight. “Do you go out into the wilds for your game?” a bystander asked the Coloradan huntress and taxidermist. “No, they come right into town to be shot,” she replied with only a hint of a smile. The writer admitted to “vague notions that in the Territories one might bag one’s bear or stag out of window.” Other gentlemen with “vague notions” also wondered how all these critters could have been shot and stuffed by a woman, even one from the untamed West.

The exchanges took place inside the Kansas Building at Philadelphia’s Centennial International Exhibition, which garnered more than 8 million paid admissions between May 10 and November 10, 1876. But such exchanges were commonplace across the 284-acre grounds in Fairmount Park, at a time when Americans were full of misconceptions and prejudices about the West. For example, the impressions of an Indiana man who visited the Arkansas Building: “I had an idea that the people of that State were hardly civilized, and that I was to meet a set of border ruffians. But the reception room was filled with a party of the most highly cultured people I had seen during the day.” Still skeptical, the Hoosier lingered until he was satisfied they were “the real indigenous inhabitants.”

Maxwell, an innovator of realistic wildlife dioramas, was one of many Western exhibitors seeking to introduce a “New West” to skeptics. Her work represented Colorado, as did silver- and gold-rich ore samples and a 15,700-pound block of coal that was 9 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet thick. Colorado, which became the 38th state (the “Centennial State”) on August 1, 1876, occupied a wing of the Kansas Building. California and Nevada also shared a hall, while Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri each had its own pavilion. These seven Western states hoped to attract capital and lure immigrants, foreign and domestic, with displays of agricultural abundance and mineral wealth.

The Western exhibitors had their work cut out for them. Half the population of the 100-year-old nation still lived no farther west than Cincinnati, and many of those considered Ohio, Illinois and Indiana “the West.” The territory beyond the Mississippi River remained largely a mystery, even though the transcontinental railroad had turned 7 years old on May 10, opening day at the exhibition. Perceptions of the West were influenced by immensely popular dime novels that featured such stereotypical characters as whooping redskins, back-shooting desperadoes and gun-blazing heroes. Western exhibitors sought to present a West less wild than portrayed in those colorful dime novels, yet still interesting and potentially rewarding.

Shortly after the Fourth of July, less than two months into their grand plan, disturbing news reached the East: Hostile Indians in Montana Territory had wiped out the immediate command of Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer at the remote Little Bighorn River (see sidebar, P. 38). Easterners wondered, How tame and safe could it be out there in the territories if the savages are still massacring U.S. cavalrymen?

Still the show went on in Philadelphia, the Western exhibitors clearly demonstrating the progress being made on the frontier. What happened to Custer at the Little Bighorn was an aberration; after all, most Indians were living peacefully on reservations and some had even taken up farming. It was only a matter of time, the exhibitors insisted, before the West was finally won and the onetime frontier would be as civilized as Philadelphia.

In October 1872, the U.S. Centennial Commission called for state and territorial participation in the Philadelphia exhibition. Some officials viewed the event as an investment opportunity. Iowa Governor Cyrus C. Carpenter expected that money spent on “securing a proper representation of Iowa in this Exhibition will be returned to the State increased at least fourfold.” In January 1874, the state’s centennial commissioners asked rhetorically whether its exhibit space should be vacant or “crowded with articles showing the immense agricultural and mineral wealth of the young giant of the West?” In 1875 Arkansas Governor Augustus Hill Garland said money would be “well invested” in representing the state in Philadelphia; the legislature appropriated $15,000, to induce an “influx of immigration” and capital.

In August of that year, the Kansas Board of Centennial Managers demonstrated similar verve, announcing: “The pressing want of Kansas to-day is men and money. A vigorous immigration movement at the ‘Centennial’ will secure both.” The board proposed a pamphlet with maps and other information “published in more languages than our own,” to encourage immigration to Kansas.

The potential boost was welcome. A recent financial panic had swept away land values in Kansas and halted immigration, “leaving us our lands and our debts,” the board wrote. On top of the panic came “the devastation of the locust.” Governor Thomas A. Osborn said the “great disaster resulting from the grasshopper visitation” was a “calamity purely exceptional in its character” and would have no lasting effect unless “unwarranted prejudices [took] root in the minds of the general public.” Officials saw the exhibition as an opportunity to neutralize such prejudices. The cattle shipping business was big in Wichita at the time, but soon the market would switch to Dodge City, and Wichita, like other former cattle towns, would change to an agricultural economy. Kansas officials realized that homegrown farmers, not Texas drovers, were the key to long-term growth.

But the board of centennial managers feared that its state’s products, “however superior in quality, might be swallowed up in the larger display of wealthier nations.” It requested permission to construct a separate building. Similar requests followed from 23 other states.

Opening ceremonies of what was officially termed the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine kicked off at 10:15 a.m. on May 10, 1876. An estimated crowd of 110,500 looked on as Bishop Matthew Simpson offered a prayer twice as long as the opening address by President Ulysses S. Grant. A newspaper reported crowds large enough to threaten “dangers of death by compression.” The 249 buildings included 15 structures set aside for nine foreign countries. At 1,880 feet long and 464 feet wide, the Main Exhibition Building covered 20.2 acres and was the largest building in the world at the time.

Another architectural behemoth was Machinery Hall, at 1,402 feet long and 360 feet wide. “Imagine all the machinery the world contains in motion at the same time, and add about five million more machines to that,” wrote one humorist. Front and center was an enormous Corliss steam engine that powered virtually all of the exhibits at the centennial. Here Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray exhibited their electric telephones. Bell wrote to his fiancée: “I really wish you could be here, May, to see the Exhibition.… It is so prodigious and so wonderful that it absolutely staggers one to realize what the word ‘Centennial Exhibition’ means. Just think of having the products of all nations condensed into a few acres of buildings.” Outside the hall, visitors could climb up the Bartholdi Electric Light, a gigantic arm and torch for a “statue to be erected in New York Harbor.”

Art and photography filled three buildings. The Navy sent the sailing ship USS Supply to Italy to bring European works to the exhibition. The official in charge of art at the exhibition calculated that hung side by side, the works would represent a swathe 9 feet high and 21⁄2 miles long. One hundred twenty-six of George Catlin’s “Illustrations of Indian Life” covered the entire side of a room. A writer noted, “The corridors of approach are too cramped for good view of the pictures which line them—even if these were not thronged the better part of every day with a surging crowd.”

Painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran exhibited their Western landscapes to great acclaim. Bierstadt’s work received an award “for eminence in landscape painting.” Of his painting Western Kansas, one critic said it was fortunate “that the world of strangers collected here on the Atlantic Seaboard should be able to travel on the magical broomstick of one of his colossal brushes into the heart of the Great West.” In one of the exhibition’s many guidebooks, James D. McCabe called Moran’s Hot Springs of the Yellowstone and Mountain of the Holy Cross “two of the most superb pieces of mountain scenery in existence.”

The U.S. Government Building held exhibits from federal entities, including the Geological Surveys of the Territories, headed by Dr. F.V. Hayden and Major John Wesley Powell. Powell’s work built on his decade-long exploration of Western mountains and rivers. Photos, maps, charts and models detailed the two men’s accomplishments. One diorama, according to J.S. Ingram’s guidebook, represented “a portion of an ancient cave ruin in the Rio de Chelly, Arizona,” showing the settlement in “its probable original state, and tiny men and women were to be seen at their daily work.” Other models depicted the cliffs of southern Utah, the Grand Canyon and the newly created Yellowstone National Park.

A large window at one end of the hall comprised “beautiful photographs, on glass, of our wild, far Western scenery.” The Atlantic Monthly wrote of these panels, “We become conscious of a semi-mythical character which belongs to them, and a sort of preternatural influence which breathes from them.” The same article played up a “very curious and sinister” display by the Census Office that compared regional rates of suicide and homicide, noting “a rather larger proportion of the latter” out West. While reviewing the charts, the writer overheard a young visitor say, “My! Look at Texas!” Another answered, “Yes, they believe in killing in Texas.”

The Department of the Interior’s Indian Office and the Smithsonian Institution collaborated on one of the building’s major attractions, what the Smithsonian called “a very exhaustive exhibition of everything relating to the Indian tribes of the United States.” The collection included cradleboards, mats, pouches, clothing, snowshoes, musical instruments, carvings, charms, tools and ornaments—artifacts collected by “several gentlemen of much experience in ethnological researches,” including Powell.

To supplement the exhibit, the Interior Department asked Indian agents to collect items from their wards, a request in direct conflict with the agents’ task of assimilation, which discouraged any expression of native culture. One agent reported there was nothing of value in his entire tribe. Powell specifically warned collectors to steer clear of the Denver area, as Indians there were buying goods from white traders, then reselling them to centennial ethnologists and tourists.

The assimilation policy was not the only reason traditional domestic items were scarce. The Smithsonian reported that in southern California the once-numerous tribes “have long since been exterminated, and their history is only to be read from the articles buried in their graves.”

Spencer Fullerton Baird, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian and founding curator of the National Museum, hoped to bring “an exhibition of living representatives of the principal Indian tribes” to Philadelphia. Baird wanted them to bring their “native clothing, implements, utensils, apparatus and dwellings,” as opposed to the government-provided canvas tents in which many Indians lived. Baird also wanted the Indians to “carry on their various occupations,” such as weaving, dressing skins and making pottery and baskets.

A 13-point selection checklist made it unlikely participants would be representative. Excluded were tribes who lived in more settled parts of the country, as “their mixture with whites or negroes and their adoption of their manners and customs renders them less interesting as objects of ethnological display.” Furthermore, participants had to be from influential families among the tribe, speak English, be the “cleanest and finest looking” and have a clean child, a dog and a pony.

Baird asked Congress for money “to show the American people and then visitors from abroad the general character of the American Indian” and to impress the Indians “with the powers and resources of the U.S. and of civilization generally.” Government funding for the exhibition was already a contentious issue, and in the end the projected $115,000 expense put a stop to the dog-and-pony show. After the exhibition opened, Congress considered a resolution authorizing the secretary of the Interior “to permit a delegation of Indians from the tribes west of the Mississippi River to visit the Centennial Exposition,” at their own expense. Of course, no one expected the likes of Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse to voluntarily book passage to Philadelphia. The bill died quietly in committee.

In the absence of official Indian representation at the exhibition, Baird substituted “numerous life-size figures to show every variety of Indian costume and personal decoration.” The rousing mannequins—at least one bearing a raised tomahawk and a belt of human scalps—received far more attention than the trove of artifacts. One magazine noted “a very lifelike representation of Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Sioux, dressed in full war costume, paint, feathers and all.”

Items in the broader collection ranged in size from, as McCabe put it, “fiendish-looking little household goods” to two “totem posts” from the Pacific Coast. Another guidebook touted “a genuine Indian wigwam, made of smoked buffalo skins, which is about 16 feet in diameter.” These large objects were starkly different from the Victorian representational art found elsewhere in the exhibition, and recorded perceptions of the collection often said less about Indians than about the visitors. A guidebook referred to the mannequins’ names, “indicating their blood-thirsty dispositions.” One observer said the totems in particular proved “that the moral standard of the aborigines must have been of the lowest possible grade.” Writer and critic William Dean Howells was intrigued by the photographs and models of ancient Indian towns in New Mexico, but wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “If the extermination of the red savages of the plains should take place soon enough to save this peaceful and industrious people whom they have harassed for hundreds of years, one could hardly regret the loss of any number of Apaches and Comanches.”

Howells went on to say in that same article, “The red man, as he appears in effigy and photograph in this collection, is a hideous demon, whose malign traits can hardly inspire any emotion softer than abhorrence.”

Regardless, three months later, another writer in The Atlantic Monthly saw the figure of Red Cloud and noted: “With the tragic fate of General Custer and his brave troops so fresh in mind, not many of us are inclined to sentimentalize over the Indian just now; yet there is matter for melancholy and remorse too in the position of things….It is false to say that the wrong is not of our day and doing.”

Baird expected that in another 100 years “the Indians will have entirely ceased to present any distinctive characters and will be merged in the general population,” and that the Smithsonian collection would “be the only exposition of the past.” Journalists couched the Indians’ prospects more cynically. One thought an Indian agent should be portrayed simultaneously swindling Indians and the government, adding, “The working of the ‘peace policy’ should be illustrated in the descent of a detachment of cavalry upon an aboriginal camp.”

The Smithsonian’s Government Building exhibit also featured a collection of mounted animals, including bears, bison, Rocky Mountain sheep and other native Western species. Its display of minerals included lead, iron and coal from Missouri; and gold, silver and copper from Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, California and Nevada. An open safe show cased Montana Territory gold, with “nuggets like peas, sticking from the quartz rock, in the most tantalizing manner,” said one guidebook. No mention was made of Sitting Bull and other prominent Little Bighorn victors still roaming that territory.

Elsewhere on the exhibition grounds were various camps, including an encampment of about 300 Indians—an “unofficial” representation from 53 tribes. McCabe reported that these Indians were in the charge of George Anderson, “a famous Texan guide and scout,” and, similar to Baird’s criteria, “were selected for their perfection of form and physical development, or for their distinguished deeds; so that they constitute the very aristocracy of the Indian nation.” The Indians made clothing, baskets, pottery and other goods to shed light on “the original inhabitants of this country and their mode of life.” Forest & Stream Publishing Company constructed a “hunter’s camp” in a ravine on the grounds, centering on a cabin furnished with “all the paraphernalia a pushing and ingenious pioneer” would need. Several “practical hunters” in buckskin were present, Ingram wrote.

The Iowa Building resembled a two-story house and contained a reading room and offices of the state’s centennial commissioners. One writer, however, found the pleasant homey impression “damped by a melancholy spectacle in the sitting-room: two huge wreaths, each composed of 750 flowers made of human hair, the result of eight months’ constant labor.” The adjacent Missouri Building was similar and displayed mineral and wood samples from the state. (The James-Younger Gang, which was still going strong at the time, didn’t warrant mention.)

Arkansas occupied one of the larger buildings, a multi paned octagonal structure Ingram extolled as “one of the coolest and most airy structures on the grounds.” The structure similarly impressed exhibition judges, who cited it for “striking and unique features in its construction.” Exhibits included native grains, grasses and woods, cotton bales and 16-foot stalks of corn. California and Nevada’s pavilion highlighted the agricultural and mineral products of both states. Nevada also hosted a second structure, the Nevada Quartz Mill, just south of Machinery Hall. Four Nevada mines shipped ore by rail directly to the exhibition grounds; at the mill, visitors could observe each step as the ore was crushed into powder and processed into silver.

The largest state building—and best, according to contemporary Philadelphia newspapers—belonged to Kansas, an X-shaped edifice with a central hall 80 feet across and 43 feet high. The fledgling state of Colorado occupied the west wing, while the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, which had promoted homegrown products at smaller exhibitions and offered Kansas land for sale, purchased space in the east wing.

The north end centered on a 13-by-24-foot map of Kansas alongside 1,000 bottled samples of soil and grain, each labeled so a visitor could locate its origin on the map. Other exhibits boasted of boundless crops and timber. Ingram reported “turnips and beets as long as a man’s forearm” and “apples and pears weighing 2 pounds apiece.” Several cabinets held ornithological and geological specimens, and another displayed Kansas silk and cocoons. Suspended from the ceiling was a representational Liberty Bell made from grains in the stalk, grasses, broomcorn and gourds. Buffalo heads hung from the walls, and sample tumbleweeds adorned the newspaper reading room. The state’s centennial managers said the tumbleweeds “helped ornament and were of rare interest to Eastern people who had never seen such.” The building closed temporarily during the summer harvest, but it reopened on September 14 with revised displays of new produce, highlighted by a 20-foot-tall replica of the U.S. Capitol dome covered in fruit.

Colorado’s exhibit depicted the state largely in paintings and photographs. Despite the impressive panoramas and displays of the state’s mineral wealth, however, most visitors were drawn to Martha Maxwell’s mountain. “The principal attraction,” recalled one visitor “was a collection of wild animals arranged on rocks, from the Buffalo, down to prairie dogs &c—all or nearly all the wild animals found in those states & all shot by a little woman, a Mrs. Maxwell who attended a photograph stand selling pictures of herself and animals.” A magazine reported that “the Rocky Mountain Huntress” presented specimens of more than 300 animals she had killed, including three bears, a wolverine and a variety of deer, birds, rabbits and squirrels. Maxwell spared several prairie dogs and rattlesnakes to exhibit live.

Ingram wrote that Maxwell’s “natural scene” was “beyond all comparison one of the most effectively arranged displays of the whole Exhibition.” One newspaper echoed that her work was “surpassed in interest by nothing in the whole Exhibition.”

A magazine reporter wrote that as he left the building, he felt “these new States planted at the feet and among the crags of the ancient hills are indeed a land of hope.” Another critic wrote admiringly of Kansas’ effort, “You seek in vain for any achievement that can for a moment compete with the wild country out yonder on the edge of the world, that was but last year devoured by the grasshoppers.”

A Boston Journal correspondent had doubted “jubilant announcements” of the Western states’ bounty until he visited the hall. Afterward, he wrote that the demonstrated riches make “a man regret that he lives in the Middle or New England States to gaze on such a display….Such an exhibition will help us not a little to a far better knowledge of the Western character than we of the East have ever before possessed.”

“The legislature never appropriated money to half so good an advantage as this,” trumpeted one Topeka newspaper, adding that a sizable population increase would likely result. A land company employee was astonished at the “effect this show of Kansas products has on Eastern people.” He knew it could only be good for business. “For two months before I left Topeka,” he said, “I don’t think there was a day on which somebody didn’t come into our office and say, ‘I saw your show down at Philadelphia, and I’m thinking of coming out here to settle.’”

Exhibits beyond the Kansas Building also emphasized the agriculture-based Western economy. (In 1870 only one of every 11 U.S. factory workers was employed west of the Mississippi.) Agricultural Hall alone housed nearly nine acres of machinery and products. California’s exhibit included native woods, scenic photographs and a display case of “California silkworms at work,” which were fed on schedule to draw crowds. A 17-year-old visitor recorded in his journal a frequently mentioned highlight in guidebooks and accounts: “Saw the mamouth [sic] grape vine from California, which is a monster indeed, it looked to be about 15 in. in diameter.” A contemporary monthly agreed “the mammoth grapevine from Santa Barbara was a great center of attraction.”

The allure of noisy machinery, blocks of coal, working worms and sprawling vines may be lost on most modern-day Americans, but people swarmed to Philadelphia for the centennial. And for months after the international exhibition closed on November 10, books, newspapers and magazines published reports and descriptions for those unable to attend in person. In the final installment of a six-part series on the “international fair,” The Atlantic Monthly said the exhibition “diffused an incalculable amount of general information, geographical, historical and scientific, among millions of people….Six months of the Exhibition ought to have done the work of an ordinary life-time, by enlarging our views and uprooting our prejudices.”

Many of the prejudices, as well as misconceptions, to be overcome concerned the American West. The 1870s frontier offered more than gun smoke and flying arrows. Law and order and upright communities had gained ground, while economic growth and opportunities apparently knew no bounds. Custer’s Last Stand, on June 25, 1876, might have been as bloody and shocking as anything the popular dime novels could concoct, but by the time the Centennial International Exhibition closed in Philadelphia five months later, the U.S. Army was relentlessly pursuing the surviving hostiles, and it was becoming abundantly clear that this was now the Last Stand for the Plains Indians.


Kevin L. Cook worked as a librarian for 14 years before settling in his native Oklahoma to write historical articles. Suggested for further reading: The Year of the Century: 1876, by Dee Brown; The Glorious Enterprise: The Centennial Exhibition of 1876, by John Maass; The Centennial Exposition, Described and Illustrated, by J.S. Ingram; and The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, by James Dabney McCabe.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.