Today’s post is by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.
It is the early 1870s, on the expansive western plains. Starvation is gripping an unspecified tribe. The once plentiful bison, those that their elders assured them could never be wiped out, were in fact being slaughtered wholesale by the white hide hunters who the Osage had only recently warned them against. They must act. They must go to war.
While white hunters did in fact nearly drive the American bison to extinction, this story, found in the correspondence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is a complete and utterly generic fabrication, a synopsis of Zane Grey’s The Thundering Herd that in 1925 was made into a silent film. The film star Tim McCoy recounted the above plot in a letter to R. P. Haas, Shoshone Agency superintendent, where the film’s Native actors came from. The story of that 1925 filming is found in part in our records, but as Hollywood oft notes, the story begins earlier.
Originally the Shoshone and Bannock Indian Agency, the office was established in 1870 to administer the Shoshone and Bannock peoples living on the then newly created Shoshone Reservation in northwestern Wyoming Territory. In 1872 most of the Bannock were moved to the Fort Hall Reservation, but Bannock was not removed from the agency name until 1883. In 1878 the first Northern Arapaho were moved onto the reservation, and that name held until 1937, when both the reservation and agency were renamed Wind River. The local records of the Wind River Agency, dating 1873–1975, are today found at the National Archives at Denver in Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
Within this collection is a 164-cubic-foot series called “General Administrative Records, 1890–1960.” The records therein, as we will see, are sometimes in rough shape, with damage from water and rusty metal fasteners found throughout. Known locally as Entry 8, this series is actually composed of four subsections. In the early 20th century, BIA agencies nationwide switched from a chronological filing system to homegrown ones arranged by subject, varying from numerical, alphabetical, alphanumerical, or early iterations of a decimal system. This series reflects that shift, with the earliest records featuring a unique numerical system before switching to the standardized decimal system put in place nationwide in 1926. It is here in a folder entitled “501 Famous Players, Lasky Corporation, Indians employed in filming ‘The Covered Wagon’ Indians in entertainment, exhibits, etc. 1915–1925” where we travel from rural Wyoming all the way to Hollywood and later even London.
The story starts in 1922. The ranch hand, horseman, soldier, and actor Tim McCoy, who was born in Michigan but settled in Wyoming, had been hired on as an advisor with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. The studio was planning a massive western film and needed actors and extras. Leveraging his Wyoming contacts, McCoy reached out to Congressman Frank Mondell, and the two lobbied Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke for permission to hire Native actors. On October 9, 1922, Burke telegrammed Haas at Fort Washakie, giving him permission to work with McCoy and the film production.
The filming kicked off shortly after, and on October 27 enter E. J. Farlow, who became McCoy’s local liaison of sorts. Farlow wrote to Haas about the filming, apologizing for not writing sooner, and explaining that he had hoped “we could stage a big battle before I wrote you” but the filming had gone slowly, with poor weather hampering the efforts. We learn from his letter that along with the Arapaho from Wind River, there were 102 Bannock and 48 Navajo on the set. Farlow is full of random filming details: along with 700 horses there were 175 covered wagons and a dining tent to feed 500 at a time, and a clerk told him the whole operation was costing $18,000 a day.
By November 27 filming had wrapped, and the studio thanked Haas for his cooperation. The Famous Players-Lasky Corporation also informed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs office of how well things went. Assistant Commissioner E. B. Merritt passed on the kudos to Haas, but as we see so often with records from the 1920s, regardless of which reservation we’re looking at, Merritt was a demanding, detailed bureaucrat. He holds true to character here, sliding in a request for a report about the filming experience into his kudos to Haas.
The following spring Haas asked McCoy for a copy of the film to screen on the reservation, a request heartily endorsed by the studio. In May the Salt Lake City Exchange promised to send one over but didn’t expect a copy until the fall; however, only weeks later the Denver Exchange had a copy in hand to send on up to Wyoming. On June 9 the film arrived, shown at the reservation school, St. Stephens School, and St. Michaels School on successive nights before being placed back on the train in Riverton and returned to Denver.
Some of those in the film wouldn’t see it on the reservation, however, as they had traveled to Hollywood itself in early May for a prologue, or live show before a film screening. A small group had been hired to put one on before screenings of The Covered Wagon in Los Angeles and on May 7 McCoy wrote Haas from the Hollywood Hotel, noting the film “is a real sensation” and the tribal members were enjoying their time in the city.
By all accounts The Covered Wagon was a hit, and the prologue with the Native actors went well in Hollywood. On July 27, 1923, McCoy wrote to Haas again with an even more ambitious plan: to bring a group across the pond to perform before the London screenings. The studio offered to handle everything from travel arrangements to passports. If they wanted to go, Haas saw no problem with it, and so the contract was signed for 24 tribal members to head to England. The men were to be paid $5 a day and the women $3 a day, and it was stipulated that the group was not to be gone longer than 300 days.
On August 31 Francis Eagle wrote home to Haas, and through his letter we learn the details of the trip thus far. The group left the reservation on August 10, spending one day in Chicago and four in New York City before boarding the Baltic on August 18. “Hardly anybody got sick” before the ship pulled into Liverpool on August 27, and they took a train down to London. Of the several who wrote Haas about the trip, Eagle provided the most details. Between performances the group took in the sites, one day visiting the zoo. While the group enjoyed seeing the animals from around the world, it was noted that the other visitors were more interested in them, following the group and asking questions. The group also took in museums, with Eagle writing Haas about the claims that buildings and guns were 900 years old – “they say,” he added. One thing in particular puzzled him, as he went on about the use of pounds and the exchange rate: “I have to study before I buy anything,” he bemoaned.
Farlow accompanied the group, and on November 1 he reported to Haas from the London Pavilion, also noting his confusion with pounds and shillings. The group, he said, was buying nice clothes and jewelry, enjoying the food, and gaining weight; he even noted that Setting Eagle had gained 20 pounds. He discussed their daily routine: “we ride about 2 miles in the tube, or underground R.R. to the theater every day at 2:30 and 8:30 P.M.” For five weeks they had camped in tipis on the Crystal Palace grounds, but it rained so much they moved into a hotel. Farlow told Haas the theater house was packed for the shows, though their time in London was uncertain because if attendance dropped they would be sent home to save the studio money. Money was mentioned in another part of the letter: Farlow noted there was talk of sending some of the group for a prologue in Paris, as sending the entire group would be too expensive. However, nothing else in the records indicates this came to pass.
Haas wrote back to the group on November 8, thanking them for the letters and providing mundane local updates; it had been a wet fall, and some of the second alfalfa crop spoiled. The file then goes quiet for eight months, until July 26, 1924, when Merritt wrote from Washington, DC, that the office heard everyone had returned home from London. Again a report is requested on how well they were treated and if the terms of the contract were followed. Haas had no complaints and reported as much on August 1.
“Dear Paul. . . .” By November 1924 McCoy was on a first-name basis with Haas in the correspondence and approached him with another proposal: the studio again needed some Native actors for a production and was willing to pay all expenses plus $2.50 a day. McCoy had already wired Commissioner Burke and gained approval for the two weeks of work on what would become The Thundering Herd. One week later Farlow escorted ten men, four women, and two children—ages eight and five—to Rock Springs for the midnight train to Los Angeles. Not one week passed before Merritt wrote to Haas; the office again wanted a “full and complete report” that everyone was being treated well and compensated.
The originally planned two weeks stretched into a month. In December Haas wrote McCoy for an update and to let everyone know they were “having ideal weather for this time of year with little, if any, sickness among their people.” By January the group was still filming, and the commissioner’s office wanted a progress report. Haas fired back that he was waiting for a reply to his last inquiry. Five days later McCoy finally resurfaced.
McCoy claimed he had delayed answering because he wanted to see the conclusion of the story before writing. The picture was complete “and the Indians will be returned to the reservation about the middle of next week.” He went on to describe the plot, noting Goes-in-Lodge’s prominent role as an elder. The group left Los Angeles on Friday, January 23, and finally returned to Wyoming the following Monday evening. On January 26 Haas was finally able to get Merritt off his back by reporting that all was well.
Fitting for an industry that is always looking ahead, the last record in the file is a telegram dated September 9 from Commissioner Burke to Haas: approval was granted for 12 to travel to Philadelphia and perform before The Iron Horse‘ there. Show business never sleeps!
All records referenced here are found in Record Group 75 (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) holdings held by the National Archives at Denver. For more information on these holdings, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Images from elsewhere are noted; for more information on McCoy and Farlow’s work in Wyoming, see the Wyoming State Historical Society’s essay “Ed Farlow, Tim McCoy and Their Native Friends on Stage and Screen.”