“It will be either a colossal success or a colossal failure, and time alone can decide which.”
This was the prediction of Edward Rosewater, editor and publisher of the Omaha Daily Bee, regarding his city’s Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, held from June to November 1898. The few historians who have studied the event agree that the exposition was a huge commercial success. The fair drew over 2.7 million visitors to a remote and economically depressed city during wartime, and those who purchased stock in the exposition corporation gained over a ninety percent return on their investment. The exposition also gained national attention as host to a victorious President William McKinley just weeks after the American military defeated the Spanish in the “splendid little war.”
The exposition’s greatest triumph, however, was the popularity of its leading exhibit, the Indian Congress. Conceived by Rosewater himself, the Indian Congress was intended to provide fairgoers an opportunity to observe thousands of Native Americans from across the continent engaged in all of the manners of their traditional culture. Because many believed that Indian culture would soon become extinct through government efforts to assimilate Native Americans into white society, the exhibit was widely promoted as the “last chance” to see a “dying race.” It was designed with the help of James Mooney, a prominent expert from the Bureau of American Ethnology, and was the first exhibit of its kind ever to be funded by the federal government. In addition, the exhibit received the endorsement of leading proponents of Indian schools, since they believed the Indian Congress would demonstrate to the public the importance of assimilating Native Americans into mainstream American society.
Unfortunately for Rosewater and Mooney, circumstances beyond their control resulted in the exhibit being radically different from what they had intended. Due to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898, congressional approval of the allocation for the Indian Congress was held up, and the proposed funding was drastically reduced from an anticipated $100,000 to just $40,000. The final approval for the provision did not come until a month after the exposition had already begun. Worse, the final version of the bill which passed Congress specified that it was not the Bureau of American Ethnology which would control the planned exhibit, but rather the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indian Affairs Commissioner, William A. Jones, was not committed to the original design of the Indian Congress, and his selection to oversee the project, Captain William A. Mercer, chose to employ the hundreds of Native Americans in attendance in regularly-scheduled sham battles.
The Indian Congress continued to be promoted as a “serious ethnological exhibit,” but had been corrupted into a profit-driven Wild West show. To those who had endorsed the original design of the project, the result was a debacle. But to the public, the exhibit became the most memorable and entertaining spectacle of the exposition. The popular success of the Indian exhibit at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition ultimately led to the addition of similar “Indian Congresses” featuring sham battles at future expositions. Ethnologists would attempt to compete with their own exhibits, but they would struggle to attract public interest.
Indian Congress, Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, world's fairs
Etzel, J. Brent, ""A Serious Ethnological Exhibition": The Indian Congress of the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition of 1898" (2006). Library Faculty Publications. 43.
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