LOOKING FOR MR. TALKHOUSE
THE ORIGINS OF THE STEPHEN TAUKUS PHARAOH
PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPH OF 1867
How did this local portrait photograph become part of the famous Shindler Catalogue at the Smithsonian Institution in 1869?
Researched and Written by
© Kevin J. McCann
Revised January 2016
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Introduction… pathway to appreciation
I was a Montauk kid This means I grew up in the picturesque and historical hamlet of Montauk, New York on Long Island’s eastern tip. Created by a receding glacial movement, Montauk, an Indian Place Name, is the eastern most point of land where rolling hills, dotted with lakes and ponds, terminate as cliffs as it meets the great North Atlantic Ocean. Like a giant arthritic finger it points due east to Europe. A barren and desolate pastoral landscape until the 1900’s Montauk has been the host to fascinating events in the early development of America. It was the homeland of the noble and powerful indigenous Montauks, witnessed Nordic Vikings sailing by, the place where the “cowboy” was born in the 1600’s, where 16th and 17th century Europeans set up cod fishing camps, where 18th century life-saving navigational lighthouses were built, majestic sailing ships wrecked on the coastal shores and harvesting giant beached whales and shore whaling was a way of life. It was only a smoke signal away from one of mankind’s greatest inventions, the windmill and, where pirates hid and buried treasure and world explorers explored. It served as strategic spot in the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish American War, War of 1812, WWI, and WWII. In the late 1920’s it was known as the “Millionaires’ Paradise” and as the “Miami Beach of the North” that created a wonderful playground for the high society players from old and new money. The Firestones, the Chryslers, the Astors, the Lindberghs, the Fishers, the Vanderbilt’s and a flood of “new money Americans” flocked to the new playground of the western world. Today it remains a playground of the western world. American history emanates from this sacred place attracting the curious mind and I clearly gravitated to its beckoning call.
Montauk …. an American Experiment
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “All life is an experiment. The more experiments the better.” American Studies pioneer and scholar Dr. Leo Marx represented research and theory that America was an experimental society with a fate that would be determined only by time. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s penetrating thought “I am myself and surroundings" was the genesis of my own premise “I am me and Montauk.” I realized Montauk was the perfect vehicle to illustrate the American experiment and I, personally, was the hook to hang it on. For me, to better understand and appreciate the kingdom, was to better understand and appreciate photography.
Montauk was a neat place growing up and for a kid from the other side of the tracks I lived and worked in history -drenched “Millionaire’s Paradise” until leaving in late 1977 out of necessity. Enamored with the wonderment of the photographic image I became a self-taught photographer who started collecting old photographs, maps, illustrations and other imagery of the Montauk and South Fork area about 1970. By 1977 I had collected and made copy negatives of some 800 photographs including daguerreotypes from the 1840’s, ambrotypes, glass plate negatives from 1880-1900, and various types of photographic prints up to the 1950’s.The assorted collection including images such as the Montauk Lighthouse, shipwrecks, windmills, landscapes, buildings, and people. Part of the photographic copy negative documentation was 10 years of the personal diaries of Peter H. Beard, some 3600 images and 100 rolls of film.
What started out as a regional historic photography project in the 1970’s has now evolved into educational and fascinating stories for the audience interested in early American history. Who knew what photography appreciation would bring to my life.
The first piece of life’s puzzle came from Herman Melville, in the first chapter of Moby Dick, “Loomings” he eloquently philosophizes about the meaning of life offering rationale that man’s subconscious attraction to the meditative magic of water lures people to where they can see their own image in the water’s reflection. “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” That’s what researching historic photographs is truly about, grasping phantom images from past lives to tell a story. As a photographer that’s what I was doing, snatching phantoms out of the Montauk time warp.
Appreciation…leads to Education
This year marks the 175th anniversary of photography (1839-2014) when Louis Jacques Mande M. Daguerre and the country of France provided the photographic process “free to the world.” As a photographer and collector of historic images I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate this wonderful event. After contemplating a number of ideas, inspiration for the “Looking for Mr. Talkhouse” research project came from a 1972 concept that I could use photography as a documentary and educational tool to better understand life and the world around me. For the story I reflected on a long and varied list of quotes from artists and photographers about the wonderment of the photographic image. Henri Matisse, the painter, wrote to Alfred Stieglitz in 1908 “Photography can provide the most precious documents existing.” Robert Frank, the photographer and filmmaker once quipped “The one thing the photograph must contain, is the humanity of the moment.” Nonetheless, the guiding pensive force that stimulated the imagination was found in the perceptive analysis of Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) who declared "Photography, for me, brings us back to the actual event more clearly, more directly. Contemplation allows me to imagine my own truth, and the idea that I get of this truth helps me to discover other ideas, and so on…My work becomes a chain of ideas created by the many images that I look at and which I have registered, often on contrasting subjects.” Amen.
…is the Photograph
The technical discovery of photography was and remains magical. Considered by many to be better than the “Jedi light saber” but only because the “light-writing” (photo-graphy) could be memorialized forever. The light saber, of course, is only amazing. That’s what researching historic photographs is truly about, grasping phantoms from the infinite library of time to tell a story. Each image contains a fantastic story but often the image itself is not enough. By tracing the possible history of the image to determine who, what, where, how and why of its existence one can appreciate the importance of photography as a documentary and educational tool. It can only tell us more about who we are. This is what I find attractive about Bacon’s quote. To participate in the anniversary event I selected an image that could allow me to look back and investigate its origins to perhaps tell a better story. There were a number of worthy candidates but the one historically significant representative image of the South Fork’s (eastern end of Long Island, New York) transitional history is that of Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh, the Montauk Indian (1821-1879). The Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh (for the timeline known as the “Talkhouse” image) photographic portrait may be the most recognized photo on the South Fork yet this image has been viewed only as a postcard, momento, poster or “photo of some Indian” taken a long time ago. Over the years his image and name have dignified restaurants, bars, and other places of business and promotional activities. The overall concept in collecting the photographs was to visually illustrate Montauk’s transformation into the new European western culture. The Talkhouse portrait image of 1867 chronicles the pivotal point when one culture is vanishing from the landscape as new one becomes the more influential and permanent.
The photographic portrait of 46 year-old Stephen Taukus Pharaoh, taken in August 1867, is the most monumentally significant photograph that clearly documents the South Fork’s evolution as it transitions within the American Experience. Sitting stoically, emanating a regal air, his ancient face representing thousands of years of lineage of his indigenous culture he except for the tie and shirt he wears his Civil War uniform. The portrait is a rare, irreplaceable one of a kind photo with no comparative photographs from that time period of Montauks other than that of his father Sylvester taken the same day. The Montauks played an invaluable role in the American Experiment and a small part of it can be seen in the Talkhouse photo.
This exploration is not about the life of Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh, or the history of early American photography. It’s a specific investigative look about the who, what, where, why and when of the 1867 portrait photograph of him with the findings presented in a historic timeline. The material presented is an overview intended for a general audience and should not be considered a thorough or academic representation. It is presented in general terms and dates with no claim for historical accuracy as some of the resources reviewed make no such claim. The formulation of the story is based on photographs, maps, drawings, newspaper articles, advertisements, books, catalogues, magazine, specific interest websites and other resources. Some dated and some not. The resources are not sited however, the resource information is available and assumed adequately reliable for this specific story. Additional research, alternative comments and conjecture from others is welcome. For those interested and concerned readers numerous academic resources extensively explore the early world of the indigenous peoples of eastern Long Island.
The King and Son become part of American History
For the Montauks, Stephen Taurus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh remains the esteemed and distinguished figurehead of their proud ancestry. However, these two “local” photographic portraits actually have an esteemed place in the annals of early American photographic history. I have known for 35 years or more that the photographs of Stephen and, his father Sylvester, were included in the invaluable 1869 Shindler Catalogue at the Smithsonian Institution (SI). The catalogue was the first organized photographic catalogue at the Smithsonian Institution and is considered the first photographic exhibit by an American Museum. Adhering to the first mission of the Smithsonian, to collect artifacts of the indigenous peoples, the catalogue consisted solely of the earliest photographs of Native American Indians. All the photographs in the catalogue (1840-1868) are of tribes from the western United States except Stephen and Sylvester who . They aare the only representatives of east coast Algonquin peoples. How did that happen?
It is the portrait photograph of Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh that not only represented east coast Native Americans in the Shindler Catalogue but the South Fork’s humanity of a moment in 1867. Stephen Pharaoh, sold for $40 when 40 pounds (probably around 4 o0r 5 years old)as an indentured “bound out” servant whoeventually left Montauk when he was released from indenture at age 21 with a white boy around his age toanother bound out boy, William Jackson Bennett, to see the world from a be a whaling shiper., How long he spent whaling probably in the South Pacific and China Sea is unknown. It’s referenced he participated in some capacity during the California Gold Rush between 1849-1851. The echo of there is gold in California ricocheted around the world and people dreaming of fame and fortune from all over flocked to the golden mecca causing one of world’s largest mass migration to California. Hundreds of whaling ships headed towards San Francisco where abandoned at the San Francisco wharfs. Fortunately, whatever Talkhouse did during his gold rush activities he was lucky to survive as an American Indian as many thousands of California’s indigenous peoples were killed. Back on the east coast he answered the call to serve in the Civil War when blacks were allowed to serve in 1863 joining the 129th Connecticut Volunteer (Colored) Regiment for the Union Army. Following service in the military it’s been widely referenced that he was a star performer for P.T. Barnum circa 1864-1865, as a champion long distance walker that included contests from Boston to New York however, the Barnum Museum has no records. Returning to Montauk he worked at odd jobs including delivering messages and mail between villages. He became a revered leader of the Montauks, who still walking long distances, died August 30, 1879, at the age of 58, of consumption, a form of tuberculosis, 135 years ago (1879-2014).
The Picture…seeks to answer compelling question.
The compelling question is: How did the Talkhouse photograph and, the one of his father Sylvester, became part of the historic Shindler Catalogue at the Smithsonian Institution in 1869. The path to answer the big question requires the investigation of pertinent questions such as who actually took the photograph, why it was taken, where it was taken and how it got to photographer Antonio Zeno Shindler in Washington, DC. This is a step by step research effort attempting to answer all questions.that question.
Motivated by years of a lingering curiosity about the big question the research activities started in November 2013 with a strategy to locate original prints and or glass plate negatives with the thinking it would assist in helping establish the provenance of the photos and answer the compelling question.
The task at hand, to identify the provenance, the original ownership, of the Talkhouse photo taken 147 years ago, can be somewhat daunting. The methodology of investigation to determine the provenance is an exercise in problem solving. The first order is to identify the root factors and causes that created the problem. In this case the who, what, when, where and how of the Stephen Talkhouse portrait photograph. The basic questioning started with who would want this photograph taken and after a long and varied path scenarios developed by identifying commonality of interests of possible players. Eventually the deductive and evaluative process became more clear as the pieces of the puzzle were assembled revealing a probable story based on supporting information. All variations, rejections, alternative ideas are welcome but this is my story and I’m sticking to it…for now!
The story is best presented as a timeline somewhat like a wide open aperture to let all the information in. As the story unfolds like a closing aperture to an analytical evaluation of possible scenarios. For this research venture, the Talkhouse image serves as a vehicle that weaves back through time, not only in an attempt to find its origins but, to provide a flowing and sequential context for the reader to realize certain developments of photography in early America. It is a descriptive and informative sequence of dates and events with expanded notes on pertinent places and points of interest. This approach offers the reader a “big picture” perspective of the people, places, culture, and relationships at the time when the Talkhouse image was taken and, what the world of photography was like at that point. The story will reveal seven main characters: William Henry Blackmore, Superintendent Joseph Henry, Antonio Zeno Shindler, Thomas W. Field, Isaac S. Van Scoy, Henry P. Hedges, Eleazar Latham, and Stephen Talkhouse Pharaoh with supporting roles by Sylvester Pharaoh, James Smithson, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, and J. Warner.
The characters or better yet players in the story and events are introduced in chronological sequence with pertinent points highlighting their specific involvement and/or activities and at the concluding end with additional information when formulating probable answers to the compelling questions.
The “Big Picture” Timeline…opening the aperture
The Talkhouse portrait photograph has had very few references indicating its genesis. The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), in a 1995 descriptive detail of the photo, indicates a reference from the Sag Harbor Express (1867) that the photos of Stephen Talkhouse and his father Sylvester were taken in Sag Harbor, New York (a small village situated on the north side of the east end of Long Island).. Settled in 1707 it has a long distinguished history in American culture starting out as an international whaling port with the first Customs House on Long Island) in August 1867 at the It states that at the request of Sag Harbor resident Eleazar Latham a photographer named J. Warner, a successful real estate broker. In was hired to take the photograph and then in 1868 Latham contributed an original prints to the Long Island Historical Society (LIHS) which was the cultural center for Long Island and located in Brooklyn, New York. The possible reason for taking the photograph was always clouded. One notation indicated that a General Anson Mills questioned Talkhouse’s Montauk royalty and another notation mentioned a lawsuit between the Montauks and Arthur Benson, an early developer of Montauk. The photo was taken 1867 when Sylvester was the “King of the Montauks” and the lawsuit wasn’t until years later, so that reference doesn’t make any sense. A Sag Harbor newspaper article also indicates the photographer was J. Warner who was working in Sag Harbor at the time. Without a source, it also suggests that maybe the photo was taken by J.H. Howell of Southampton. There is also a reference that Isaac Van Scoy had the photo taken to sell as a momento. A follow-up in September 2014 with RAI revealed no supporting information in the 1995 file.