Saturday, September 25, 2021

Native American Ledger Art

By Jennifer Uhlarik


From prehistoric times, Indigenous people across the world have been drawing or etching their artwork on cave walls, boulders, animal hides, and other surfaces. From the earliest times, these drawings or carvings were a way of chronicling life among their various cultures.

Newspaper Rock, Arizona
(copyright Jennifer Uhlarik)


It was no different for the Native American tribes of the Great Plains. They drew or painted pictures on their tepees, on their war shields, other animal hide products, and even on themselves or their horses as they prepared to ride into battle against an enemy. Their pictures told stories. Stories of daily life among their camp, courting their loves, successful buffalo hunts, important ceremonies and meetings, and great battles they fought. It was a way to preserve their history when many of the Plains tribes didn’t have written language, but rather an oral tradition.

Two Hunkpapa Sioux tepees adorned with drawings
depicting coup the owners counted during the 
Battle of Little Bighorn. Photo taken circa 1890
(Public Domain)


But what happened when the Native Americans were moved to reservations and were no longer going on buffalo hunts to obtain the animal skins in which to record their lives, or no longer living in tepees or carrying war shields on which they could draw? How would the tribes keep track of the important events that defined their existence? They drew on paper, of course! Paper was easily obtained among the Army forts of the west, especially in the form of ledger books. So a new art form was created—Native American ledger art. Adding to the phenomenon was man by the name of Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt was an Army officer who was put in charge of seventy-three Plains Indians who were incarcerated in St. Augustine’s 350-year-old Spanish fort (known today as the Castillo de San Marcos) between 1875 and 1878. While these men were under his charge, he gave them bookkeeping ledger books and colored pencils on which to draw. The artwork that was created by these Native Americans while at Castillo de San Marcos (or Fort Marion as it was known in that day), is some of the most notable examples of this art form that we have today.

An example of Native American ledger art
drawn by Bear's Heart.


The bookkeeping ledgers were an inexpensive source of paper, and they were readily available. No hunting required to get a new “canvas” on which to create art. Just open the cover and find a blank page. Lieutenant Pratt asked “his Indians” to draw pictures in their books that told of their life before coming to the ancient fort, as well as the events that happened while they were there. So these men began to draw pictures of buffalo hunts, of battles, the surrender of their tribes to the Army, the journey they took to get from Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) to Florida on wagons, trains, and steamboats, and then daily life in and around the fort. 

Drawn by Zotom (or "Biter"), this example depicts
the Native American prisoners arriving in Jacksonville, FL
and transferring onto a steamboat for one of the final legs of their
journey to St. Augustine's Fort Marion.


While much of this type of artwork is not particularly refined in technique or skill level, it serves an important purpose in telling the story of the Native Americans who created it. The Plains Indians were known for their story-telling abilities. They spent many nights around the fire telling stories of their buffalo hunts or great feats in battle, funny events or tragic happenings. These pieces of ledger art were a way of the Native Americans preserving those stories in pictorial form so future generations could also understand the events that shaped their lives. 


This style of art not only tells of the history of people from the past, but it also serves to inspire artists of today. Many artists from within the Native American communities look at what their ancestors did with ledger art and find the vision and creativity to make their own brand of art and a way to put their stamp on the world around them.

"On the Parapet of Ft. Marion, next day after arrival."
Drawn by Zotom (or "Biter").


Interestingly, in researching the value of different examples of Native American ledger art for my upcoming novel, Love’s Fortress, which deals with the incarceration of the seventy-three Plains Indians at the fort in St. Augustine and the artwork they drew while there, I stumbled across two different samples that went to auction. The first I found was from an art auction website, where a book of ledger art with twenty-nine drawings was sold in 2009 for over $20,000. The second was even more interesting. In the second case, a book of seventy-six ledger art drawings was inadvertently given to Goodwill in 1993 when the file cabinet it was stored in was donated to the charity. Once found, the organization’s director contacted the Lakota tribe to ask about provenance and wound up getting into a bit of a legal tangle because of the Native America Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, a law from George H.W. Bush’s tenure as president. The book was eventually sold at auction by Sotheby’s for nearly $400,000, and it is now part of the private collection of Eugene and Clare Thaw, though it is kept at the Fenimore Art Museum.


It’s Your Turn: Have you ever seen examples of Native American ledger art in museums or on display in cultural centers or historic sites? What is your impression of it?



Award-winning, best-selling novelist 
Jennifer Uhlarik has loved the western genre since she read her first Louis L’Amour novel. She penned her first western while earning a writing degree from University of Tampa. Jennifer lives near Tampa with her husband, son, and furbabies.





Love’s Fortress by Jennifer Uhlarik


A Friendship From the Past Brings Closure to Dani’s Fractured Family


When Dani Sango’s art forger father passes away, Dani inherits his home. There, she finds a book of Native American drawings, which leads her to seek museum curator Brad Osgood’s help to decipher the ledger art. Why would her father have this book? Is it another forgery?


Brad Osgood longs to provide his four-year-old niece, Brynn, the safe home she desperately deserves. The last thing he needs is more drama, especially from a forger’s daughter. But when the two meet “accidentally” at St. Augustine’s 350-year-old Spanish fort, he can’t refuse the intriguing woman.


Broken Bow is among seventy-three Plains Indians transported to Florida in 1875 for incarceration at ancient Fort Marion. Sally Jo Harris and Luke Worthing dream of serving on a foreign mission field, but when the Indians reach St. Augustine, God changes their plans. However, when Sally Jo’s friendship with Broken Bow leads to false accusations, it could cost them their lives.


Can Dani discover how Broken Bow and Sally Jo’s story ends and how it impacted her father’s life?


(NOTE: This blurb does not yet match bookseller’s descriptions, but it IS the same book).




  1. Thanks for posting! This was very interesting. I've only ever read about the way the Native Americans were mistreated while in captivity, and this is really quite an act of kindness! I've seen some pictures on dishes or such from museums but never anything like this. It's remarkable!

    1. Hi Connie, there were a few "progressive" sorts who thought outside the box as far as the treatment of the Native Americans in captivity. When you read about them, it's a refreshing perspective!