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February 06, 2014

"Re-Discovering" Thomas Henry Tibbles

Portrait of T. H. Tibbles. Thomas Henry Tibbles papers (NMAI.AC.066), National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

When records from NMAI’s predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation, were first processed and described, it was as one very large collection. Previous blog posts here and here describe what a massive undertaking it was to make these records accessible to researchers. One of my jobs over this past year has been to identify small stand-alone collections that don’t belong in the MAI institutional records and deserve their own collection record and finding aid. Identifying and highlighting these collections will make them easier both to find online and to research in person. 

The Thomas Henry Tibbles papers are a perfect example of this type of collection. Thomas Tibbles was a crucial player in bringing the habeas corpus case of Standing Bear and the Ponca people before the U.S. District Court in 1879. Tibbles, who worked at the time as a journalist for the Omaha Daily Herald, publicized the unlawful removal of the Ponca from their lands to Indian Territory and the subsequent arrest of Standing Bear and 30 other Ponca when they returned to Nebraska.

The Tibbles papers include correspondence Tibbles sent out to rally support for the Ponca, as well as hand-written drafts of lectures and talks, newspaper clippings, and photographs. Also included is a small amount of writing by Susette La Flesche (Omaha), daughter of Chief Joseph La Flesche.

Excerpt from a letter by Susette La Flesche to T. H. Tibbles. April 29, 1879. Thomas Henry Tibbles papers (NMAI.AC.066), National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

Susette, also known as Bright Eyes, worked closely alongside Tibbles to publicize the conditions of the Ponca’s removal and treatment. She served as Chief Standing Bear’s interpreter during his habeas corpus trial and eventually accompanied him on a speaking tour, organized by Tibbles. She distinguished herself as an orator speaking on Native American rights. Tibbles and La Flesche married in 1881 and her wedding dress can be seen in Infinity of Nations at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. 

Tibbles continued to write and edit for various publications in Nebraska until his death in 1928. In 1939, Tibbles’s grandson, Chester Barris, began contacting editors about his grandfather’s autobiography, Buckskin and Blanket Days: Memoirs of a Friend of the Indians. Although Barris did not live to see the book in print, his wife managed to get it published in 1957 by the University of Nebraska Press. Following the publication, Vivien Barris corresponded with Frederick Dockstader, director of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, and deposited the papers of her late husband’s grandfather into the care of the museum. 


Illustration of Standing Bear, from His History, undated. Thomas Henry Tibbles papers (NMAI.AC.066), National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

More than 50 years later, this collection is getting some much deserved care. The photographs are being moved into climate-controlled storage for preservation purposes, and some of the more fragile documents were treated by paper conservators last spring. A new collection record is now up on the Smithsonian Collections Search Site, and a detailed finding aid is in the works. For more information on this collection contact the NMAI Archive Center

Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

This post also appears on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.


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