April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
A ponderous memorial to a people who refused to vanish
Had one man’s grandiose vision been realized, the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in the New World after 1913 would not have been Bartholdi’s graceful, torch-bearing Goddess of Liberty, but something more nearly resembling the world’s largest cigar-store Indian.
At the entrance to New York Harbor, overlooking the Narrows from the heights of Staten Island and perched atop a seven-story pedestal, the mammoth figure of an Indian chief was to have been erected, his hand uplifted and two fingers extended in the “universal peace sign of the red man.” Towering 165 feet above a sprawling complex of museums, libraries, and formal gardens, he would have been the nation’s ultimate memorial to the “vanishing” North American Indian.
This flamboyant scheme was gotten up by Rodman Wanamaker, the son of John Wanamaker, who had built a Philadelphia men’s clothing store into one of America’s largest retail empires. Blessed with the bounty of this heritage, the younger Wanamaker acquired a formidable reputation as a patron of the arts, an aviation enthusiast, and an American Indian buff of considerable dimensions. Convinced, as was much of his generation, that the Indian was fast approaching extinction, he had financed expeditions to collect facts, artifacts, and movie film of the doomed people before they slipped into oblivion. Then, at a dinner party in 1909 at New York City’s fashionable Sherry’s restaurant—with such notables as Buffalo Bill in attendance—he proposed the construction of a great monument to the Indian in New York Harbor. The notion was roundly applauded.
Wanamaker next turned to Congress, not only for its imprimatur, but for federal land on which to build his dream. Debate was unmarked by any important opposition, though West Virginia’s Senator Nathan Scott said: “I think it would be expressing a very nice sentiment to erect a monument or statue to commemorate the American Indian, although my recollections of the American Indian as a boy, when I crossed the plains, were not of the most agreeable character, as I was once tied up by them to a cottonwood tree.” On December 8, 1911, Congress brought forth an act: “Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That there may be erected, without expense to the United States Government, by Mr. Rodman Wanamaker, of New York City, and others, on a United States reservation … a suitable memorial to the memory of the North American Indian.”
The team of Thomas Hastings, architect, and Daniel Chester French, sculptor, came up with the plan for the monument, and the site finally selected was the front portion of Fort Tompkins, the highest rampart within the Fort Wadsworth complex on Staten Island (the same structure that today houses a military museum). And so it was that on Washington’s Birthday, 1913, President William Howard Taft, struggled up the steps of Fort Wadsworth for the dedication. On hand was an odd assortment of politicians, military officers, academicians, battle-garbed tribal chiefs, newspapermen, and movie cameramen hired by Wanamaker.
Following bombastic introductory remarks by “Doctor” Joseph Kossuth Dixon, head of Wanamaker’s “education department” and the leader of his earlier Indian expeditions, President Taft expressed the nation’s gratitude to Wanamaker and proclaimed that the memorial would “tell the story of the march of empire and the progress of Christian civilization to the uttermost limits.” After a slight altercation regarding the crowd’s encroachment on the grinding movie cameras, Taft took hold of a shovel and broke ground, then used the thighbone of a buffalo to do likewise. The resplendent Indian chiefs—thirty-two of them in all—then raised the Stars and Stripes, and ceremoniously signed a document called “Declaration of Allegiance to the United States.” After this, Dr. George F. Kunz, on behalf of the American Scenic and Historical Preservation Society, opened a bag of newly minted Indian-head nickels and passed them out. Finally, a bronze tablet was set into the earth to mark the spot.
Flushed with the success of dedication day, Wanamaker sent off one more expedition in quest of artifacts and photographs. Dixon, as its head, inexplicably donned the uniform of an army colonel and set out to drum up enthusiasm for the memorial on sixty-six reservations requiring some twentytwo thousand miles of travel. The excursion was given the cumbersome title of the “Rodman Wanamaker Expedition of Citizenship to the North American Indian,” and at each stop the Fort Wadsworth flag-raising ceremony was re-enacted. Indians along the way cheerfully signed the Declaration of Allegiance, as well, then gathered around an Edison phonograph to hear a message from the Great White Father himself—Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson: “Because you have shown in your education and in your settled way of life, staunch, manly, and worthy qualities of sound character, the nation is about to give you distinguished recognition through the erection of a monument in honor of the Indian people, in the harbor of New York.”
It was then that the great balloon of Wanamaker’s hopes began to leak. First, considering the name of the expedition and all the formalities connected with signing the Declaration of Allegiance, the Indians—most of whom had not yet been granted even second-class citizenship—came under the delusion that they suddenly had been enfranchised as participating members of the Republic. Dixon, backpedaling, hastened to explain that the “citizenship” of the expedition’s title meant only that the Indian was given the right to honor his country, not the right to vote or otherwise become a real citizen. Second, the press, which had bally-hooed the project at the beginning, turned sour, calling it a “philanthropic humbug” and “tomfoolery” among other things. Finally, the public, turning its attention to World War I, lost interest, and even the active sponsors of the idea began squabbling among themselves.
Wanamaker’s monument never got beyond the paper it was drawn upon. The bronze tablet that had been implanted in 1913 mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again. The concept was resurrected briefly in 1936 as a potential Work Projects Administration program, but died away, then arose again a decade later when a proposed memorial to World War II veterans from Staten Island had to be shifted from Fort Tompkins because of the Indian monument’s previous claim; this brief surge of interest died also.
The Congressional Act of 1911 remains on the books, but it is not likely now that anything will ever be done about it. It is probably just as well; it would be embarrassing to have Wanamaker’s monument rising at the entrance to this land as a kind of preposterous tombstone for the people who would not go away.