Material Matters: It’s in the Details
January 20, 2024 @ 10:00 am - 2:00 pm
Presence and Absence in Pennsylvania: Carved Head of Captain John Carlton
by John Fisher, c. 1786
Inside a mid-20th century car dealership-turned-local history museum is the representation of an indigenous man. He is carved from the trees that gave name to “Penn’s Woods.” These were eighteenth century woods inhabited by an intersection of peoples speaking different languages: Algonquian, English, High German, and Low German. They each built their architecture in their own image. Few remnants survive. The architecture of white culture is celebrated, preserved, and interpreted. Indigenous culture is little known to the public and oddly, there are no state or federally recognized tribes in Pennsylvania, even though the Commonwealth’s most famous identity inducing image—Penn’s Treaty by Benjamin West and a later version by Edward Hicks—balances the number of indigenous people and their actions against those of the whites.
Yet, this eighteenth century man is here, boxed in Plexiglass. An incised gorget (ceremonial armor worn at neck) inscribed with his name and the date of January 3, 1786, suggests an honorary rank bestowed by the U.S. Little is known. A researcher in the 1990s tried to track down information about this man and this carving. The trail went cold.
We do know Carlton was carved by a German immigrant named John Fisher who specialized in clocks. His masterwork example is on display in the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. There, we know something then. But it’s not enough. The sculpture is a keystone object through which to dissect the intersectionality of historical place on the Susquehanna River and the ways in which indigenous memory has been wiped from south central Pennsylvania identity and common cultural knowledge.
The object offers a means through which to discuss the intensity of violence against local indigenous people; the practice of invisibility by non-whites to avoid white settler violence, and the uses of material and visual culture to expand the upcoming commemoration of America 250. Offering the opportunity to address absence and presence, this paper will assess current scholarship as it may relate to the sculpture. By employing a broad gathering of historical sources and contemporary perspectives on indigeneity, this research will bring to the forefront the themes of presence and absence in Pennsylvania.
The paper will contribute to the existing minimal extant scholarship which utilizes visual and material culture to address indigenous presence and absence in south central Pennsylvania. While traditional historians have examined the political, geographical, and social networks between white settlers and indigenous people in articles and books intended for academic readers, the sculptural head of Captain John Carlton is an overlooked museum object, offering a broader swath of readers the opportunity to use visual and material culture to appreciate presence and absence in the lead-up to America 250 in 2026.