Questionable Collections: Plains Pipes in Niagara

When The Niagara Historical Society formed in 1895, it immediately began receiving artifact donations. Among the earliest received objects were two pipes given by John A. Blake, businessman and resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Catalogue of articles in Memorial Hall, 1911 p. 33.

These objects –both the Black Stone Pipe, twisted stem and the Sioux Red Stone Pipe, porcupine quill, ornamented stem– became disassociated with their collection documentation at some point. This put them at risk of deaccession and loss. Until recently, nothing was known about these artifacts. They were not known to exist in the collection and were assumed lost.

Black Stone Pipe, Twisted Stem

During the 2012 digitization project, Josh Lichty and I encountered an unidentified and unaccessioned spiral-shaped piece of wood. We noted that there was no associated provenance or artifact number and assumed it may have been a component of another object, possibly belonging to a spinning wheel or loom.

Several years later, I saw similar spiral shaped pipes at the Royal Ontario Museum and we were able to identify the artifact at the Niagara Historical Museum as a Plains pipe stem.

The identification of this object had been obscured because the stem and bowl had become separated within the collection. This began a search for a “black stone” pipe bowl within the collection. One was found that appears be the original, it is black stone and fits the end of the twisted stem. Therefore, the NOTL Museum appears to have retained one of the complete pipes donated by John Blake.

Because the twisted stem pipe was disassembled (and therefore unidentified), this -counterintuitively- protected it from being lost. It seems possible that this mishap protected the pipe from being sold. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the second pipe.

Newspaper advertisement for an auction at the museum.

Sioux Red Stone Pipe, porcupine quill, ornamental stem

This artifact no longer exists in the NOTL Museum collection. It was sold sometime around 1994. A photograph of it exists in the collection files at the NOTL museum. It is a remarkable piece of art. The porcupine quill design portrays a stylized representation of a human figure inside a church.

At the time, it was likely presumed to have no connection to the NOTL museum’s mandate and the Niagara community. As a result, it seems that it was not attributed to John A. Blake’s original donation at the time of sale.

Research into John Blake’s life, and his family/social connections, provides clues about the probable origin of these pieces.

The starting point for this investigation is a letter in the collection at the NOTL museum (2011.031.241a) which was written by John Blake on August 9, 1864 to his family in Niagara. The content of the letter does not give any information about the artifacts, but the paper on which it is written does.

It is written on the letterhead of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the letter, John mentions that he is waiting for a man named “Clark” to arrive. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time was Clark Wallace Thompson.

Clark Wallace Thomspon, Minnesota Historical Society Portrait Collection

Clark W. Thompson was born in Jordan, Ontario and later moved to the U.S. He was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Northern Superintendency under President Lincoln.

According to researcher and author Colin Mustful, Clark Thompson “was involved in crooked business practices and corrupt political dealings—a man of industry who used his position and power to build wealth at the expense of Native populations”.

There is considerable evidence that Clark Thompson embezzled and withheld the funds he was meant to distribute on behalf of the U.S. Government to enrich himself. The consequences of his decisions were devastating. Death, disease and forced relocation ensued. He was Superintendent during the Dakota war of 1862, supervised the removal of the Sioux and Winnebago from Minnesota, and the disastrous removal of the Ho-Chunk people to the Crow Creek Reservation which resulted in mass starvation. Doubling down on this brutal corruption, he organized a campaign known as the “Moscow Expedition” which prioritized the creation of business contracts with his friends and associates over the provision of food, payment and other assistance to the indigenous peoples affected by his actions.

A text panel displayed at the site of the Blake family home on Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake mentions that John Blake collected Indian artifacts while travelling to the American west. Thus, it is apparent that these pipes were obtained through Blake’s close connection to Clark Wallace Thompson, and collected at the expense of desperate people who suffered repeated and systemic injustice.

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