On the Road Again: Max Bigman’s Lecture Career

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

In Edgemont, South Dakota, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad would branch off, one line going into the Black Hills and the other continuing northwest, through Wyoming, and looping around in Montana to arrive at the Billings Depot. Just before Billings, however, the train would stop for 10 minutes at a little platform on the Crow Reservation. It was here that Max Bigman, a member of the Crow Nation, started his lecture career, regaling tourists with the history of the nearby Little Bighorn battlefield and stories of Native life in general.

In the National Archives Cartographic Branch’s collection of digitized railroad valuation maps (NAID 160924708), dating 1915–1920, we see the section of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad that passed the Crow Reservation.

Bigman’s story is told in records housed at the National Archives at Denver, specifically Crow Agency decimal files in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the early twentieth century, Office of Indian Affairs jurisdictions—whether the D.C. headquarters, area offices, or individual agencies that administered reservations—began organizing the bulk of their administrative records by topic, issuing each topic a decimal number and filing related records by it. These records run the gamut of types, including letters, telegrams, reports, photographs, and maps, and cover a variety of topics, such as censuses, vital statistics, health, education, law enforcement, employment, and military service, to name but a few. Occasionally, a researcher can find an entire file on one individual, whether employee or tribal member, categorized under whatever topic the file loosely fit. For example, in the Crow Agency files under decimal 003—generally reserved for the decidedly unhelpful “miscellaneous” designation under the 000 General and Statistical Records heading—we find a folder entitled “003 1928-1932 Custer Battlefield” (NAID 6984162). Referencing the Custer Battlefield Highway, it is in this folder that we learn about Max Bigman.

Letter from the Custer Battlefield Hiway Association to the Crow Agency Superintendent Charles Asbury concerning Max Bigman’s 1930 lecture tour (top) and map of the highway (bottom), both of which are found in Crow Agency decimal file 003 1928-1932 Custer Battlefield. As the records show, however, the file also includes extensive documentation of Bigman’s lecture work for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad.

In 1928, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, colloquially known as Custer’s Last Stand, was only 52 years in the past, and some of Custer’s Crow scouts were still alive, a topic the Text Message examined when highlighting the story of Hairy Moccasin. It is unclear when Bigman started giving talks on the Crow Reservation train platform about this history, but the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad heartily endorsed the work and made him an employee of sorts. In May, Crow Agency Superintendent Charles Asbury wrote the railroad about building a small store at the platform to capitalize on Bigman’s growing popularity and present a venue for selling his crafts and “curios.” The railroad, however, had other ideas. They explained to Asbury that eastern visitors have “expectations” when visiting the West and then delved into a list of Native stereotypes that tourists expected: buckskins, eagle feathers, war bonnets, tomahawks, and “above all, wigwams in place of wooden buildings.” Completely mixing up traditional Native structures, they then asked Asbury if maybe a couple of tipis could be erected, this being the “atmosphere” preferred and “just what is needed to complete the picture.” Sensing a money-making venture, the railroad also discussed publishing a booklet about the battlefield to sell for 10 or 15 cents—although it couldn’t mention the railroad by name, they stressed, as all they were apparently allowed to sell was transportation.

Crow Agency Superintendent Charles Asbury wrote the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad about building a little store near the railroad platform for Bigman to sell crafts and souvenirs. The railroad initially refused, sending this stereotype riddled letter of what “Eastern people” expect to see when they visit the west.

The proposed booklet for Bigman to sell became a reality; while there is no copy in the Crow Agency file, the file does include a five-page speech that appears to be what Bigman would deliver to visitors, the first page of which seen here.

For the next tourist season the following summer, the railroad went further: they finally came around to the store idea and so built Bigman a log cabin at the station where he could sell wares and had both the #41 and #42 trains stop there, extending the stop time from 10 minutes to 15 minutes. For his work during the summer of 1929, Bigman was paid $50 a month. But unlike in 1928, Bigman was not done for the year when the summer was over. Rather, the railroad wanted him and his family to attend the Diamond Jubilee in Omaha, Nebraska, that fall and to bring paintings and cards to sell, the entire trip and accommodations courtesy of the railroad.

In a photo montage highlighting the Diamond Jubilee, the Omaha World-Herald ran this photograph of Bigman’s sons in a tipi made of apples at Omaha’s Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum during the stock and horse show. A copy of the paper was sent back to the Crow Agency and is now in file 003 1928-1932 Custer Battlefield.

According to correspondence between Bigman and Asbury, the trip went well, with Bigman’s sons even appearing in the local newspaper. In fact, Bigman raved to Asbury about how well they were treated.

By that point Bigman’s prominence had come to the attention of the Custer Battlefield Hiway Association, one of the many U.S. highway associations that had sprung up in the early years of interstate travel to promote specific roads. The Association hired Bigman for $25 a week to go on a tour of the Midwest, promoting the Custer Battlefield Highway throughout the spring of 1930.

A copy of the letter of introduction Max Bigman carried with him on tour, found in file 003 1928-1932 Custer Battlefield.

As Bigman and his sons hit the road, accolades poured into the Crow Agency. On April 30 the St. Louis YMCA wrote how much their boys enjoyed Bigman’s stories and songs. The Shenandoah, Iowa, chapter of the Kiwanis club also wrote that Bigman and his two boys “took our club by storm” and was one of the best presentations they had all year.

By October of 1930, Bigman was back working with the railroad on planning a winter lecture tour. Kicking off shortly thereafter, he went to New York City where he set up shop on a balcony at Grand Central Station on January 15, 1931. A staged photo op with Mayor Jimmy Walker was ruined when the mayor saw Bigman and introduced himself before the cameras were ready. A month later, on February 19, Bigman was in Cleveland, on his way to Detroit. He wrote to Superintendent Asbury that Asbury’s daughter had found him in New York and he had enjoyed seeing a familiar face. He also wrote his observations of the city, specifically that many people had no work or anything to eat and that the complaints of his fellow Crow back home about life on the reservation were echoed in the city as well. His tour had taken him throughout greater New York, where he had the chance to meet Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later in the tour, he was asked about his feelings on Roosevelt running for president. “He would make a fine president,” Bigman was reported to have said.

By March 4, 1930, Bigman was in Chicago, where he reported feeling more comfortable but also a little homesick and glad that the tour was almost done. April 11 was his last talk, in Philadelphia, and the next day he decamped to Washington, D.C., where it had been arranged for his wife to arrive and them both to meet Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Rhoads.

Clipping from the March 2, 1930, Chicago Daily News discussing Bigman’s tour. Apparently he had been promoted “Chief” by the newspaper authors, or possibly the railroad officials who organized the lecture tour.

Bigman met the commissioner and even the Secretary of the Interior. Apparently a chance visit with Roger Toll, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, in Minneapolis earlier in the tour had given Bigman the idea of obtaining a few bison from the park. He then broached this idea with the Secretary of the Interior while in D.C. Given Yellowstone culled their famous herd periodically, permission was given for five to be shipped to the Crow Reservation. The railroad, perhaps recognizing the optics for train passengers of a small bison herd on a reservation, fenced in a section of Bigman’s wife’s allotment near the train stop for the animals.

Office of Indian Affairs Commissioner Charles Rhoads wrote Asbury of Bigman’s visit, and his request for bison from Yellowstone National Park.

Bigman continued to deliver his train station lectures during the summer of 1931. In October he auditioned for a job in Chicago with the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Company, which gave him $120 for two weeks of lecture work and the possibility of work for a full year. The agency noted his voice carried well but he spoke too slowly for radio work, so they hired him temporarily for a series of in-person lectures. By November 30 he was visiting up to four schools a day in the Chicago area but was feeling run down, his health poor. The file ends in 1932 with another railroad, this time the Northern Pacific, offering Bigman $50 to head to the Grand Canyon for a film. Nothing notes whether he did, and thus the story of Max Bigman’s lecture career comes to an end in our records.

The records related to Max Bigman are from file: “003 1928-1932 Custer Battlefield” (NAID 6984162) within the series: Correspondence Files, 1910 – 1958 (National Archives Identifier 1135936). Department of the Interior. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Crow Indian Agency. Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

For more information on this particular file, Crow Agency records, or Bureau of Indian Affairs holdings in general, please email denver.archives@nara.gov.