Joseph Russell “Pawnee Joe” Coffin portrait by Jos. Pearse, Genoa, Nebraska

Image courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society.

The description accompanying this image says “J.R. Coffin, or Pe-Ri-Ska La-Sarah, Boy Chief.” We always called him Pawnee Joe. Image purchased and licensed for use here from Nebraska State Historical Society, which retains copyright.

This is my great grandfather, Joseph Russell Coffin, whom my family have always referred to as Pawnee Joe. We never met him — he died in 1914. All we knew about him when I was younger was that he was our grandmother’s father, that he had been a great friend of the Pawnee Indians around Genoa, Nebraska, and that he had amassed a sizable personal collection of beaded belts, moccasins, and other Indian artifacts.

Joseph was born on 2 April 1858 in Chatham, New York, to William Bunker Coffin and Caroline Coleman. His mother died in childbirth and his father subsequently left Joe in the care of his wife’s sister Julia Coleman and went West to Nebraska. I’ve not heard a reason given for his leaving Joe behind, but I know that the West was pretty dangerous at that time. Sioux, Ogalala and Brule tribes were still making murderous raids upon the Pawnees in the region around Genoa, Nebraska, where William settled. Then again, that may not have worried William at all. When Joe was about 7 or 8 years old, his father returned to New York, married Susan Robinson, and took both his new bride and his son Joseph back to Genoa.

From what I’ve read recently, Joe lost no time in getting to know the local Indians, the Skidi Pawnee. He learned their language and found childhood friends among the Pawnees who remained his friends into his adult years. It is said that he rode his pony alongside the Pawnees in their trek to a new reservation in Oklahoma. I believe this would have been the trek made to Pawnee City in the Fall of 1875. I don’t know where the information comes from, but the photo above has a description indicating that Joseph had a Pawnee name, Pe-Ri-Ska La-Sarah, or “Boy Chief”. Whether the Pawnees actually gave him this name or he took it for himself, I can’t say.

In 1884, Joseph married Margaret Foster of Genoa, Nebraska. She was born in Scugog Island, Ontario, on 6 August 1858 to Elbridge Foster and Jane Fairweather. My cousin Bob Stake, Joe’s grandson, reports that Margaret resisted Joe’s entreaties for her hand until he gave up his notions of homesteading, which I guess he tried in several places around the state. He was also a well-digger, horseman, house painter and entertainer. Margaret bore him six children, four of whom lived, and they also adopted or fostered (it seems temporarily) a child named Ralph Cecil whose last name was Blake. Their biological children were Allena Luella Caroline (Luella), Robert Coleman, Jane Viola (Jennie), Grace, Nelle May Gertrude, and Horace William. Robert only lived a year and a half. Grace died the same day she was born.

Up until recently I had no idea what my great grandfather Joseph Coffin looked like. In my mind I saw him as a large, imposing figure, a bit like the gigantic John Brown in that famous painting, “Tragic Prelude”, by John Steuart Curry. When my Uncle Dick (Richard Fleagle) died last year and some historical family documents from his long years of research began to recirculate, I saw for the first time a bad photocopy of the photo that is at the bottom of my recent post about Joe’s daughters’ visit to the University of Nebraska to see his collection of Pawnee artifacts.

I didn’t remember ever having seen his face before, and I went looking for a better copy of that photograph last month when I set about writing that other post. I knew that the Nebraska State Historical Society had photos of the his artifacts (which they now possess), and I wondered if they might also have that photo. The NSHS website has a search application which does return images of the pieces in Joe’s collection of artifacts (currently at http://nebraskahistory.pastperfect-online.com/ : search for “joseph coffin”), but apparently the public-facing version of this search engine is not as thorough as what the NSHS associates can achieve with their own internal search tools, so it was a good thing I emailed them. They not only found the photo I knew about (and a similar pose from the same occasion), but they also turned up four photographs taken at the Genoa studio of Jos. Pearse. In three of these, Joseph is dressed in Indian clothes, with dark paint covering his face so that he looks like a vaudeville blackface performer. Here we remember that he performed Indian dances in Diamond Dick’s Wild West show, and apparently had a low regard for another more famous name-brand Wild West show run by someone whose initials were Wild. Bill. Hickok.

These three strange photos are a little alarming. In two he is merely dancing, but in a third he is posing with two men in western clothes. He holds a spear as though he is about to run through one of the men, who is kneeling with an upraised knife, while a second man hidden in the studio’s potted plant is peeking from the foliage and pointing a pistol at Grandpa Joe’s head (pardon the preponderance of Ps in that passage). This tableau is supposed to be amusing, I think, or maybe somehow educational, but it gave me the creeps. I could not afford to buy all of the Pearse photos anyway, so I chose the one shown above because it most clearly shows my great grandfather’s face.

You can’t tell in this one, but judging from the photo taken with the fellow actors, Joe appears to be rather a short and slight fellow. I love him all the more this way; I see a scrawny little boy, much like I was, running off in his new Nebraska outdoors to play with the neighbor kids, the Pawnee children, and in his adult years retaining his boyish delight in the wide world around him. – mdf

Note: Thanks to Robert Stake for providing valuable background information about J. R. C.

Image archive ID:
RG3456-01 (this is the archive number of the Nebraska State Historical Society, who have the original)

About the physical photograph:
The original is in the NSHS’ collection. The NSHS tells me it is “approximately 6.5 inches high and 4 inches wide”. Apparently there is a description with it: “J.R. Coffin, or Pe-Ri-Ska La-Sarah, Boy Chief.”

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2 thoughts on “Joseph Russell “Pawnee Joe” Coffin portrait by Jos. Pearse, Genoa, Nebraska

  1. Pingback: Jennie Coffin | Fleagle Family History in Photos

  2. Pingback: Two of Jennie Coffin | Fleagle and Dowell Family History in Photos

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