Black Hawk Life Cast Used for Gari Melchers’ ‘Conspiracy of Pontiac’ Mural

Gari Melchers Home and Studio docent Murray Corliss contributed to this post.

This life cast, or three-dimensional plaster cast made from a mold of a living body, is placed high on a Dutch cabinet in Gari Melchers’ Falmouth studio quietly watching over our guests.  Recently, a visitor walked in and exclaimed that it was Black Hawk, a famous Native American. This piqued Murray’s interest to discover more.

The life cast of Black Hawk on display in the studio was part of an extensive collection of Native American artifacts owned by Gari Melchers’ father and sculptor,  Julius T. Melchers (1829-1908) of Detroit. The elder Melchers acquired the artifacts from the collection of John Mix Stanley (1814-1872) around 1870 for use as props for his popular carved cigar store Indians.

Black and white image of Gari Melchers' "Conspiracy of the Potomac" mural

Black and white image of Gari Melchers’ “Conspiracy of Potomac” mural

The cast was used by Gari Melchers as a model for Pontiac when he was commissioned to paint a mural depicting Detroit’s early history. He painted three scenes, including Conspiracy of Pontiac painted in 1921, for the Detroit Public Library’s Adam Strohm room.

Sketch of Pontiac by Gari Melchers

Sketch of Pontiac by Gari Melchers

Sketch of Pontiac by Gari Melchers

Sketch of Pontiac by Gari Melchers

Murray called Black Hawk State Historic Site and Museum Director Julie Nelson who shared that their museum has a similar Black Hawk life cast in its collection which was made in 1837 as part of a phrenology study by the Orson and Lorenzo Fowler brothers. The picture below shows a copy that has been painted to appear bronze.  The museum’s original plaster cast is in storage.

Courtesy of the Black Hawk State Historic Site and Museum

Courtesy of the Black Hawk State Historic Site and Museum

Brief History of Black Hawk

Black Sparrow Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-Kiak), a warrior and leader in the Sauk Indian clan, was born in what is now Illinois in 1767 and died in Iowa in 1838.  He is sometimes called a Chief but chief is a misnomer as the Sauk tribe is patrilineal he would have had to inherit the title from his father. Black Hawk was a leader with prestige carrying the tribe’s “sacred bundle” that he received from his father. The sacred bundle contained items used in tribal ceremonies.  

Black Hawk became a warrior at the young age of 15 when he killed a man during a conflict with the Osage Indians. Black Hawk fought hard to protect his ancestral land, Saukenuk, and the customs of his people.  In 1804, the Treaty of St Louis was signed by a tribal leader giving 50 million acres of Sauk territory to the United States for settlers. 

The Sauk were expected to move west of the Mississippi but Black Hawk stayed on his land. Black Hawk’s rival was Keokuk, a war chief,  that the United States held in high regard but Black Hawk did not feel he did enough to protect the ancestral land. 

Black Hawk and other Sauk warriors fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812. Britain wanted to hinder American expansion into the Northwest Territory and Canada, and saw the Native Americans as allies in this effort.  

In 1832 Black Hawk, who was in his sixties, banded together with warriors from the Sauk and Fox tribes (known as the British Band) to battle American settlers in Illinois and Michigan territory, wanting to resettle this Sauk ancestral land that was ceded to the United States.  This conflict was named Black Hawk War.   There were heavy Native American casualties and Black Hawk surrendered.  This was the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi.

Black Hawk and his leaders and were imprisoned for seven months near St. Louis.  The army lieutenant in charge was Jefferson Davis.  The captives were visited by author Washington Irving and by the artist George Catlin who painted their portraits.   They were then led east to Washington DC, imprisoned again for several weeks at Fort Monroe in Virginia.  At Fort Monroe time was spent sitting for portraits.  George Catlin considered Black Hawk a distinguished speaker or councilor rather than a warrior.   Prior to leaving captivity Black Hawk told his story to an interpreter, Antoine Le Clair, aided by a newspaper reporter, JP Patterson. “Life of Black Hawk” became the first Indian autobiography. This best seller was published in 1833 and is still available today. When the Native Americans were released from Fort Monroe they were sent west via a circuitous route passing thru large cities as a spectacle.

Black Hawk lived his last years west of the Mississippi reconciling with American settlers. 


Coincidently, Julius Melchers did carve a cigar store Indian named Keokuk.

Gari Melchers inherited his father’s Native American artifact collection and donated thirty-eight pieces to the National Museum of the American Indian in 1929. It appears that the men’s shirt on the left was used by Melchers on his model for the  ‘Conspiracy of Pontiac’ mural. 

~ Michelle Crow-Dolby, Education and Communications Manager, Gari Melchers Home & Studio

Suggested Reading

Their Spirits Were Trapped in Those Masks

Black Hawk Bio

Video:  Indian War Chief Black Hawk, a symbol of Native American resistance

Book Review:  Black Hawk and the Warrior’s Path:  A Superb Little Book

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