Empire, Science, and the Disembodied Head of Chief Osceola

You might recall Andy McKee's post earlier this year about hauntings and church murals in his hometown of Pittsburgh. These days, he's thinking about what a disembodied Indian head can tell us about empire and appropriation in the past and present.  

Andy McKee

At the latest Florida State University graduate symposium (Next CFP coming early this fall, if Remillard has taught me nothing else, I’ve always got shameless self-promotion) I had the great privilege of talking about empire with Sylvester Johnson. Of course, there are few better places to discuss commercial empire and trading heads than on a campus that, less than two months after the symposium, was up in arms over the changed logo of its athletics teams. Absent from this debate, though, has been the use of the image of an Indian head as a fearsome warrior. This should be a discussion. Yet when I surveyed my World Religions class about their cherished logo, not one student knew the curious story of Osceola's head.

A Seminole chief, Osceola died in 1838 of quinsy while captured and held in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. Before his burial, his head was surgically removed from his body, and taken by Frederick Weedon, a doctor for the U.S. Army. This struck me as odd at first. But as I read further into this subject, I discovered that the trading of Native heads and skulls among the American and British scientific elite in the early nineteenth century was entirely common. They exchanged, sold, gathered, cataloged, and classified the heads of dead Natives in attempts to increase knowledge about the “vanishing” tribes of North America. One of the most famous of these “artifacts” was Osceola's head.

While alive, Osceola was represented in American print culture as a hero of sorts whose name became synonymous with the successes of Seminole resistance in Florida. Osceola’s death, however, brought him his greatest fame as an iconic martyr. He died for, not against, the trudge of American expansionism as something along the lines of an American revolutionary, a patriot. Once he was imprisoned, and certainly once he died and was no longer an active physical threat, Osceola’s image: the headless, defeated, wild native, essentially a specter that haunted the southern border of the United States, could be constructed, controlled, and reified through the consumer marketplace (for this reading of spectral empire, I am indebted to the work of Laura Ann Stoler).

Subsumed under Manifest Destiny and the allegory of the vanishing Indian, Osceola and his detached crania signaled both physical and symbolic representation of the residue of empire building, the sadly cast aside character who no longer has a place within a rapidly modernizing society. Osceola’s head was removed, jarred and effectively pickled in Weedon’s homemade concoction. But the story doesn't end here. Dr. D.W. Whitehurst came into possession of the head after Weedon. Then, in 1843, he sent it to Dr. Valentine Mott in New York, along with this short note: “My Dear Sir: Accompanying this, you will be handed the head of the celebrated Seminole Chief, Osceola, a man who in recent years filled a large space in the eye of the American public, if indeed not the civilized world. The strong sentiment which is manifested in the fate of the aborigines of this country and the policy of the government in consolidating them westward . . . is the removal of the Red Man.”

When Dr. Mott received the package, he replied happily, “I am delayed returning you my thanks for the Head of Osceola. . . . It will be deposited in the collection and preserved in my library at home, for I fear almost to place it in my museum at the University . . . temptation will be so strong for someone to take it.” In 1858, Dr. Mott issued a catalog of his collection, with the first listed “specimen” being the “Head of Osceola, the great Seminole chief.” Alas, on October 11, 1866, the Medical College located at 64 Madison Avenue in New York that stored this collection burned to the ground. There is no further mention of Osceola’s head in Mott’s family records, nor is there a record of it being consumed by the flames.

Throughout the long nineteenth century, the commodification and physical negation of Native bodies likewise was cast as tragic and justified, fearsome but inevitable. While speculation over the location of Osceola’s head is still up for debate, it is clear that the symbolic appropriation of at least one Indian remains unconquered.


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