Curtis Colleagues: Alexander Upshaw
Updated: Jun 23
Alexander Upshaw was a survivor in every sense of the word. He grew up on the Crow Reservation in Montana, left his home as a teenager to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, returned home and became a spokesperson for his people, worked in the field with Edward Curtis for three years, and ultimately shook hands with President Roosevelt. His story is full of contrasts and conflicts, and while he had many successes, his life was tragically short.
Upshaw was born in 1874 to Crazy Pend D’Oreille and his wife, Good Hair. Contrary to what non-Natives might think, his father’s first name indicated to his People that he was a ferocious fighter. According to a later tribal census, Upshaw’s “Indian name” was Isoskay-bachate-chis. He was assigned the Upshaw name by the officials at the Carlisle School, and he kept it throughout his life. His official Carlisle student record lists his arrival date as December 16, 1888. He was fourteen years old, and the school was nearly two thousand miles away from his home and parents. In terms of what he experienced there, however, it was as though he'd been sent to another universe.
Carlisle was the largest of the so-called "Indian boarding schools" that were either run or financed by the U.S. government. The schools were created as part of a plan of the forced indoctrination of Native Peoples into Euro-American society. According to a 2022 report from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, from 1819 to 1967, the Federal Indian boarding school system ultimately was made up of 408 Federal schools across 37 states or territories. The goal of these schools was to "assimilate" young Native boys and girls into "the American way of life" through a strict, military-like regimen designed to continually strip away any signs of their Native beliefs and cultures. The head of the Carlisle School, Richard Pratt, wrote that his goal was to "kill the Indian, save the man."
Students were punished, sometimes violently, for speaking the languages of their cultures, attempting to wear Native clothing, or engaging in any tribal practices that their parents and elders had taught them. Many were denied adequate food or health care. In the worst of these schools, students were physically and/or sexually abused. Thousands of students died as a result of these tragic events, and many were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the schools.
Despite the severe and often abusive conditions at Carlisle, Upshaw seemed to have had a far better experience at the school than many others (of the 96 mostly teenage Crow children who were taken to the school, at least three died there, and seventeen were discharged "due to illness"). He gained proficiency in English quickly and became one of their star pupils. In contrast to many other students, he never reported any harsh treatment, and he fully accepted the idea that the only way for Native Peoples to survive was to adapt to white society's conventions.
Because of his stature as the son of an important Native leader and his eloquence as a writer and speaker, Upshaw became a public advocate for the boarding schools' goals. In 1896, he was elected as president of "The Invincibles," the Carlisle school’s debate team, and he began to write short articles for the school's newspaper. In one of these, he embraced the teachings of the school, writing, "unless we break away from our tribal relations and go out into the world as men and women, we will remain Indians and perish as Indians" (Red Man and Helper, 14, April 1897, p 8).
While statements like this seem to indicate that Upshaw had fully accepted the Carlisle doctrine, a closer look at his life seems to suggest that what he learned at school was to play the white man's expected role in public but quietly use his knowledge for the benefit of his People. The great Crow Chief Plenty Coups hinted at such a strategy when he said, "With what the white man knows he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, then he can never oppress us again."
In his Master's thesis titled, Unintended Consequences: How the Crow Indians Used Their Education in Ways the Federal Government Never Intended, 1885-1920, Peter P. Holman examined some of the effects of Chief Plenty Coups' teachings. He concluded,
The federal government intended on individualizing the Indians by giving each his or her own land, surrounding them with whites, breaking up tribal unity, and making the Indians agriculturists. The unintended consequences were that the Crow used the education from boarding schools to maintain tribal unity, redefine tribal leadership and political structure, and protect themselves from white encroachment.
Upshaw was challenged by the gap between knowing Western knowledge and finding ways to use it that would not offend those in power. It took him several years to find the right path.
School records show that Upshaw graduated in 1897, but he did not officially leave Carlisle's authority for another three years. The school offered him the opportunity to attend nearby Bloomsburg College and Pennsylvania State College, and he spent part of the next two years taking classes at those institutions.
During the late summer of 1898, Upshaw traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to work as a translator for photographer Frank Rinehart at that year's Indian Congress. Held as part of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, the congress was the largest meeting of Native Peoples in the U.S. to that date. Rinehart was hired as the official photographer for the event, and he and his assistant, Adolph Muhr, created nearly 1,000 portraits of the Native leaders and others who participated in the event. It was Upshaw's first encounter with large numbers of Native Peoples from around the country, and he is sure to have gained a great deal of perspective on their lives, cultures, and interactions with the federal government.
After Omaha, Upshaw moved to Nebraska to teach at the Genoa Boarding School near Omaha. While there, he met Emma Young Mart (1861-1916), who worked as a laundress at the school. Mart was a divorced white woman with three teenage children, but that did not seem to matter to Upshaw. The couple married in Genoa on August 17, 1899. The following year, the Upshaws moved to Alexander's homeland on the Crow Reservation in Montana.
Soon after that, Upshaw helped survey the Crow Reservation for allotment, a government program designed to break up reservations into individual parcels that could be bought and sold. It was a controversial effort intended to accelerate Natives Peoples' assimilation into Western society by making them responsible for their private property rather than the greater good of the reservation.
A few years after the Omaha Indian Congress, Edward Curtis sought out Adolph Muhr, who was responsible for most of the Native portraits that bear Frank Rinehart's name. Curtis was so impressed with Muhr's work that he eventually hired him to oversee all darkroom work for the images in The North American Indian. Muhr likely introduced Alexander Upshaw to Curtis sometime in 1904-05. Curtis’s son, Hal, wrote that Edward hired Upshaw as a translator and "arranger" on his 1905 trip to reservations in Montana. At the end of that trip, Curtis told a newspaper reporter, "In the Crow country, I had an Indian interpreter [Upshaw] who in some respects was the most remarkable man I ever saw."
Curtis's praise was undoubtedly due to Upshaw's skills as a translator and because he contributed directly to the project by writing detailed notes about what he saw, heard, and, most importantly, understood as part of the Crow culture. This was especially valuable during what was perhaps Curtis's most important fieldwork, the investigation of the Battle of Little Bighorn (once called "Custer's Last Stand").
Helped by three Crow warriors who had served as scouts for General Custer, Curtis systematically retraced every movement of the army and the Sioux warriors leading up to the battle. He found a very different story than what had been told and concluded that Custer "unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of his soldiers to further his personal ends." This was a very unpopular revelation at the time, and, at the urging of government officials, Curtis never published a full version of his investigation. Instead, he mentions his work with the Crow scouts in Volume IV but only in passing.
It is especially interesting to compare three of the Upshaw photos I included in this post. In the one directly above, he is dressed in classic western clothing, with boots, jeans, shirt, and a cowboy hat. This would have been his typical clothing while on the reservation in the early 1900s. In Rinehart's portrait from 1898, he appeared as a quintessential western businessman in a suit, tie, and well-groomed hair. It is likely he requested to be shown this way at that time since he was still under the auspices of the Carlisle School. In Curtis's portrait, thought to have been created on their 1905 Montana trip, Upshaw is in full Crow garments, including feather headgear and an intricately beaded necklace. It is the only known portrait of him in his Native apparel.
This image of Upshaw is remarkable because a few years earlier he strongly objected to being portrayed as "an Indian." A notice in the Carlisle School newsletter reported, "Alex Upshaw, '97, has heard that it was said that he was seen at the Omaha Exposition dressed as Indian, and he would have it distinctly understood that the statement is false and injurious. Alex would have his schoolmates know that he is trying to be a man, although in the midst of trials and temptations" (Indian Helper, October 28, 1898). To agree to be photographed in full Native clothing just a few years later, Upshaw must have had a great deal of trust in Curtis's integrity and his intentions for The North American Indian project.
Upshaw continued to work with Curtis in the field for several years. Author Mick Gidley wrote that Upshaw "collected ethnological data from members of a number of tribes, including the Sioux, the Arikara, and the Blackfoot. Most of this material, without specific acknowledgment to him, found its way into the published volumes of The North American Indian." (Gidley, 97)
During this time, Upshaw carefully balanced his life between working with Curtis and his role as an ambassador for the Crow Nation. In early 1909, he traveled with Curtis to Washington, D.C., where he met President Roosevelt and spoke to him about conditions on the Crow Reservation. That same year, Upshaw used the government's land patent program to buy three pieces of property totaling nearly 1,000 acres on the Crow Reservation. His purchase effectively removed the threat that white settlers might buy these lands, thus using the capitalist system he had been taught to help maintain some of the Crow Nation's unity.
Sadly, Upshaw's growing reputation as someone who "fought hard for tribal members" (Gidley, 99) who were trying to protect the reservation from encroachment by settlers, combined with his having a white wife and children, did not sit well with some of the newcomers in Montana. On October 19, 1909, his life was cruelly cut short in Billings, Montana, the largest town near the Crow Reservation. He was 38 years old.
The local newspaper reported Upshaw was locked in jail overnight as the result of his “suffering from a protracted [drinking] spree.” After supposedly being left alone to sleep off the effects of the alcohol, he was found the next morning “lying cold in the icy grasp of death and with the blood splattered walls and floor of his cell telling the story of an unexpected hemorrhage.” The local coroner looked at the body and quickly wrote off the death as another “drunken Indian.” No attempt was made to look for any other cause of death.
Men in the Crow Nation who knew Upshaw told a different story. They said he was drawn into an argument with several white men who attacked and severely beat him. Left alone in a jail cell, Upshaw bled to death from his untreated injuries. It was a horrific and unjust ending for a man who had been taught to trust that the white man's system was the best way to get ahead in his life.
Curtis mentioned Upshaw four times in The North American Indian. In volumes III, IV, and V, he credited Upshaw as his interpreter during his fieldwork in Montana and North Dakota. Then, in volume VII, he announced Upshaw's passing, saying,
"It is with profound sorrow that the author announces the death, in the autumn of 1909, of Mr. A. B. Upshaw, his Crow interpreter and informant, whose assistance in collecting the material for Volumes III, IV, and V was of such inestimable value."
Upshaw was buried on the Crow Reservation. His wife, Emma, died in the home of her daughter in Berkeley, California, in 1916.
To learn more about Alexander Upshaw, see these resources:
Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012.
Mick Gidley, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. All quotes above are from this book, specifically pages 94-99.
Shamoon Zamir, The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
For more about Curtis's investigation of the Battle of Little Bighorn, see James S. Hutchkins (ed.), The Papers of Edward S. Curtis Relating to Custer's Last Stand. El Segundo, CA: Upton & Sons, 2000.