Select Page
Portrait of a Seated Man, Tintype, Circa 1860-1869, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.
Portrait of a Seated Woman, Tintype, Circa 1860-1869, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.

This past August, as our “Curating Hidden Collections & the Black Archive” course commenced at the University of Delaware, students were presented with dozens of nineteenth and early twentieth-century portrait photographs in need of research and metadata. I chose, as a solo endeavor, a pair of whole-plate tintype portraits depicting a man that appears to be somewhere between youth and middle-age and a woman that appears to be somewhere between middle-age and elder. The tintypes have been hand-tinted, adding a rosy color the sitters’ cheeks and lips as well as filling in the areas such as the man’s irises and woman’s hair with black pigment. These two photographs were not acquired with the intent to become part of the Black Portrait Photography Collection and had little provenance information other than a Swann auction house listing in which they are “said to be Ramapough Mountain Indians.” [1] My research into these photographs proved my suspicion that they would be as elusive and challenging as they are intriguing and mysterious.

Beyond their material form as tintypes, the clothing, accessories, and hairstyles provided insights as to a more specific time period based on style and textile production. The man has dark eyes and dark hair with a chin curtain beard and a side-parted hairstyle that curls forward on the sides. He wears a white shirt with a standing collar and thick necktie under a waistcoat and coat. A gros-grain moire ribbon spans across his chest and appears to be fastened to his waistcoat which may have held a watch or other accessory. The woman has lighter eyes and dark hair in the style of ringlets that have also been referred to as barley sugar curls, drop curls, hanging curls, and the coiled chignon. She wears what appears to be a dark silk dress with coat sleeves and a brooch centered at the front of her collar. Collectively, these all indicated the photographs as most likely being produced in the 1860s. [2]

The practical methodology of visually attempting to date these photographs and identify the ancestry of these sitters inevitably collides with the philosophical context of categorization, as this is an inherent quality of organization and systems. In two similar lines of thought, Alberto Manguel states in “The Library as Order” that “order of almost any kind has the merit of containing the uncontainable” [3], and Emily Drabinski states in “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” that “other identities will emerge at the boundaries of what can be contained by this language.” [4] While categorization can clearly be detrimental, it is paradoxically the creation of categories that allows for the expansion of other categories. This corresponds strongly to the actions of Dorothy Porter in which she utilized and restructured the “epistemological battleground” of Dewey’s decimal system to “remap knowledge structures that erased or flattened blackness”, as stated by Laura Helton in “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading.” [5]

Regarding the pair of tintypes from a practical perspective, I visually observed the material and process of the object and the attire worn by the sitters in order to try and understand the historical and temporal contexts of the photographs. From a philosophical perspective, I was tasked with the decision of whether or not to include the vague suggestion that these two individuals are “said to be Ramapough Mountain Indians.” The Ramapough Lenape Nation (also spelled Ramapo), are a multiracial group of around 5,000 people living in and around the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey and southern New York, with American Indian, European, and African ancestry. [6] The tribe was recognized as an Indian tribe by the state of New Jersey in 1980 but is not recognized federally despite multiple petitions and appeals. [7] If the claim by the auction house that these sitters are of this ancestry were to be true, it is certainly an important detail that should not be excluded, but if it cannot be proven, then it could lead to the creation of false narratives and assumptions that I seek to avoid. It is challenging to find a peaceful balance between risk and reward when applying concrete documented evidence versus circumstantial speculation, but ultimately, I decided to include the fact that this was suggested but unproven.

The full Swann auction description reads “(PHOTOGRAPHY.) Pair of whole-plate tintypes, said to be Ramapough Mountain Indians. Hand-tinted tintype photographs, each 8x 6¼ inches, with no photographer marks or captions; thin line of corrosion at right edges, otherwise only minor wear. [Nyack, NY?], circa 1860.” The pair of tintypes were included in the Swann sale #2631 entitled “Printed and Manuscript African Americana.” Other items included in this sale include slavery and abolition correspondence, “portraits” of enslaved individuals with their enslavers, receipts for the sale of enslaved individuals, catalogs from the 1940 Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, as well as numerous other documents, portraits, artworks, and exhibition catalogs spanning roughly over a century from the early nineteenth to early twentieth century. [8] The inclusion of these photographs within this sales grouping could be another potentially problematic example of categorization.

Beginning this course with much interest but no real experience in museum, curatorial, and cataloging work, I have been enlightened by the concepts of critical cataloging and reparative description within museums and libraries. These concepts fascinate me in that they are forms of quiet or almost intangible activism, yet have extremely far-reaching effects and potential for significant positive changes and deconstruction of damaging hierarchies. My aim after this course is to continue using critical analysis and empathy to guide my understanding and decision making processes in regards to caring for objects and histories within both physical museum and digital humanities settings. The task and privilege we were given in creating metadata for these images, came with a great responsibility and I aspire to continue contextualizing and interpreting objects in a way that contributes to the efforts of dismantling hierarchies within collections and cataloging practices.

[1] Swann Auction Galleries. Sale 2631 – Lot 267, Mar 30, 2023.

[2] 1860-1869 | Fashion History Timeline. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

[3] Alberto Manguel. “The Library as Order.” The Library at Night. Yale University Press, 2009.

[4] Emily Drabinski. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.” The Library Quarterly 83, 2013.

[5] Laura Helton. “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading.” Modern Language Association of America, 2019.

[6] Evan T. Pritchard. Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York. Council Oak Books, 2002.

[7] “Reconsidered Final Determination Declining to Acknowledge that Ramapough Mountain Indians, Inc. Exists as an Indian Tribe.” Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Interior, 1998.”

[7] Swann Auction Galleries. Printed & Manuscript African Americana: Mar 30, 2023 – Sale 2631.–MANUSCRIPT-AFRICAN-AMERICANA?saleno=2631&viewby=Lot_asc

UD Living Land Acknowledgement:

The University of Delaware occupies lands vital to the web of life for Lenape and Nanticoke, who share their ancestry, history, and future in this region. This interactive map shows that the Lewes, Georgetown, Dover, Newark, and Wilmington campuses are located in these Indigenous homelands. UD has financially benefited from this regional occupation as well as from Indigenous territories that were expropriated through the United States land grant system. We acknowledge that the centuries of harm to Indigenous people and their homelands are beyond repair. Yet, we pledge a sustained commitment to accountability.

We honor that the Nanticoke and Lenape have lived in harmony with one another and this land since ancient times. The ancestors of the Lenape, translated as “the Original People,” were farmers and diplomats throughout their homeland, Lenapehoking, which includes present-day New Jersey, most of Delaware, and the eastern parts of New York and Pennsylvania. The ancestral Nanticoke, known as the “Tidewater People” because their livelihood depended upon the bounty of the land, ocean, and rivers, lived along the present-day Delmarva Peninsula. We express our appreciation for ongoing Indigenous stewardship of the ecologies and traditions of this region, despite the centuries of colonial-capitalist plunder.

We commit to learning the stories of all those who have, and have not, survived genocide, ecocide, displacement, slavery, and ongoing occupation. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch, Swedes, and British established settler colonies in this region, resulting in Indigenous epidemics and warfare. In parallel, the trans-Atlantic slave trade had devastating consequences for people of African descent, Indigenous communities, and their shared kin. European nations and eventually the United States forced some Nanticoke and Lenape westward and northward. Others never left their homelands or returned from exile when they could. Many survived by forming tribal congregations in Christian churches and controlling segregated Native American public schools in the 1800s and 1900s, while maintaining much of their traditional spirituality. They persist today as the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, the Nanticoke Indian Tribe, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, the Ramapough Lenape and other continuing tribal communities throughout the eastern seaboard. Other Nanticoke and Lenape form the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Bowler, Wisconsin, the Munsee-Delaware Nation near St. Thomas, Ontario, the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown near Chatham-Kent, Ontario, and the Delaware of Six Nations near Brantford, Ontario.

We will foster right relationships going forward through tangible and actionable institutional steps elaborated in collaboration with tribal leadership. The future viability of the University of Delaware necessitates reparations for Indigenous people. With this living land acknowledgement, UD commits to building relationships with Indigenous people based on respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility to redress centuries of harm.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email