The Signer’s Mark: Signatures of the Unlettered — Part II

Nineteeth Century America

When thinking of autographs, the first thing to come to mind is famous signatures—John Hancock, Babe Ruth, Walt Disney, etc. Inscribed names with looping letters and distinct characteristics, but what if someone did not have the ability to sign their name, and how does one ensure that it wasn’t a forgery? Marco Tomaschett, Swann’s autograph specialist, explores these questions and takes us through signatures of the unlettered throughout history in a two-part series. Below, Tomaschett touches on the nineteenth century in America.

During the nineteenth century, literacy in America was expanding dramatically due largely to the pressures exerted by industrialization on a rapidly increasing population. Especially during this period, but also before and since, certain groups have been unwilling, or more often, deprived of the opportunity, to acquire literacy.

American Indians

Some North American Indians marked property with distinctive symbols, but the practice of signing documents as a way of agreeing who would be permitted to control what property was introduced by Europeans. (No writing system for the native languages of American Indians existed until the nineteenth century: Sequoyah of the Cherokee Nation created a syllabary for Cherokee in the early part of the century, and Methodist minister James Evans created a similar system for Cree and Ojibwa in the 1830s.) When a European-style document required a signature by an American Indian who was unable or unwilling to write in the language of the document, it was conventional that the signer would draw an “X” between the words “His” and “Mark”—sometimes even if they were capable of drawing their name in Roman or other characters. The Seneca war chief Cornplanter (ca. 1746-1836) signed this way on ordinary receipts as well as important treaties.

Signature of Geronimo, 1906.
Image Courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Papers of Charles Baehr Gatewood, MS0282

Although the Apache leader Geronimo (1829-1909) was illiterate, he had mastered drawing his name. Toward the end of his life, living as a prisoner after his capture by the U.S. Army, Geronimo was permitted to generate income by the sale of curios or by performing in various fairs and Wild West shows, where he would sell photographs of himself, which he signed for visitors.

Signature of Canonicus on a deed, 1636.

Adapting the pictographic designs that were familiar from artistic, religious, and other contexts, American Indian leaders sometimes signed treaties and other documents using picograms. By drawing a bow pictogram, Narragansett chief Canonicus (ca. 1565-1647) signed a deed in 1636 granting a large tract of land to a colonist that included present-day Providence, RI.

Left: Signature of Eagle Calf on a photograph postcard advertising Glacier National Park, ca. 1915. Sold November 2004 for $1,380

Like Geronimo and his photographs, some American Indians became involved in the promotion of Native American imagery and folkways, frequently as part of exploitative schemes whose primary beneficiary were others. Despite his lack of literacy, Blackfeet Chief Eagle Calf (John Ground; 1874-1952) signed photographs with his pictograms for tourists at Glacier National Park, where he worked as a greeter; he also lent his image to the Great Northern Railway for publicity purposes.

Signature of Two Guns White Calf on a photograph postcard, 1929. Sold May 2016 for $4,420.

Also employed at Glacier National Park was another Blackfeet Chief, Two Guns White Calf (1872-1934). Publicists at the Park claimed that Two Guns had modeled for James Earle Fraser, who created the sculpture that became the head appearing on one side of the U.S. nickel in circulation between 1913 and 1938—but Fraser had used more than one model and, when asked, he could not recall whether Two Guns was among them. Two Guns was unable to write, but, while he could draw his name, he signed photographs using pictograms, as the Glacier Park publicists preferred.

Harriet Tubman & Sojourner Truth

Signature of Harriet Tubman on a document, ca. 1898.
Image Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Affidavit of Harriet Tubman Relating to Her Claim for a Pension.ait

Another population of people who entered into legal agreements without the benefit of being literate is the formerly enslaved. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), who escaped slavery and helped over 60 others to do the same, signed with an “X,” including on a compensation claim for having served as a nurse during the Civil War.

Signature of Sojourner Truth in an autograph album, incorporating initials and an “X,” 1871.
Image Courtesy of the Alfred University Archives, Alfred, NY.

Abolitionist Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883) also escaped her captors, becoming a public speaker to help others to see the truth of the equality of women to men and the injustice of slavery; she signed by drawing her name, her initials, an “X,” or sometimes a combination of these.

Insofar as illiterate leaders have engaged with European law since its beginnings, it has been necessary to express approval on documents by some kind of mark—a seal, or a signature. We have seen how some have done this, and how some have drawn their names not for legal purposes, but to create mementos for admirers. Together, they form a brief demonstration of how the unlettered have left their mark on history.

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