John Two Guns White Calf

John Two Guns White Calf (1872-1934), shown above, may indeed be memorialized in a way few other Native Americans have been – on a piece of American money – the buffalo nickel to be specific.  But then again….maybe not….there is a very interesting mystery.  So sit down and pull up a mug of something to drink….

Two Guns White Calf was born near Fort Benton, Montana, son of White Calf who was known as the last chief of the Pikuni Blackfoot.

Two Guns White Calf, also known as John Two Guns and John Whitecalf Two Guns, was also, in time, a Blackfoot chief.  He provides one of the most readily recognizable images of a Native American in the world as impression of his portrait appears to appear on a coin, the Indian head nickel.

His visage was reportedly used along with those of John Big Tree (Seneca) and Iron Tail (Sioux) in James Earl Fraser’s composite design for the nickel.  Notice the chief’s signature in the photo below taken by T.J. Hileman.

After the coin’s release around the turn of the century, Two Guns White Calf became a fixture at Glacier National Park, where he posed with tourists. He also acted as a publicity spokesman for the Northern Pacific Railroad*, whose public relations staff came up with the name “Two Guns White Calf.”  He died of pneumonia at the age of 63 and was buried at Browning, Montana in a Catholic cemetery.

Chief Two Guns White Calf and the Indian-Head Nickel Story, below, was summarized from “Twisted Tails,” by numismatist Robert R. Van Ryzin, Krause Publications, 1995.

“John Two Guns was born in 1871 and adopted at an early age by White Calf, a prominent warrior chief who was responsible for many of the Blackfoot Tribe’s treaties. After the death of White Calf in 1902, Two Guns became a tribal leader. When Two Guns first saw the buffalo/indian-head nickel (released in 1913) he was convinced that it was his own likeness on the coin. However, the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, always insisted that the head was a composite of several models. He specifically named Two Moons (a Cheyenne) and Iron Tail (a Lakota Sioux) and “one or two others” (in his later years, he mostly said, “one other”).

The Great Northern Railroad, always interested in promoting tourism to its Glacier Park Hotels and passenger traffic on its trains, sought to encourage the idea that Two Guns was the model. The argument raged from 1913 to the death of both figures in 1934 and continues to resurface even now.

The question would seem to have been put to rest by a letter from Fraser to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1931, in which he denied ever having seen Two Guns.

But Charles Bevard, an auctioneer who had come into possession of a number of Two Guns’ personal effects which led him into extensive historical research on the subject, suspected that the US Government wanted Fraser to “discredit” Two Guns as a coin model because they were afraid of the great influence he had on the tribes.

The Chief headed a secret organization known as the Mad Dog Society which was attempting to preserve Blackfoot Heritage. Traditional Indian dances such as the Sun Dance and the Ghost Dance, which had been banned, were again being performed after American Indians received blanket citizenship in 1924. Bevard believed that the US Government feared that Chief Two Guns, like his father, might again take the fierce Blackfoot warriors on the warpath in an attempt to regain their land.

Others pointed out that if Fraser had never been able to remember the third model, how could he be certain that it wasn’t Two Guns Whitecalf? “If he wasn’t a model for the Buffalo nickel, he was [still] the most famous Indian in the 20th century,” Bevard said, “….He had a relationship with non-indians, anyone from presidents on down, and he did a lot of great things for Indians and he was quite the statesman, and, if nothing else, he should be remembered for that.”

Although he is widely remembered for his appearance on the buffalo head nickel, he was an emissary for his people as their Chief, in particular regarding the government’s unmet treaty agreements.

Chief White Calf (son of the first Chief White Calf) also went to Washington DC to collect monies owed to the Indians.  Here’s what he had to say about the government’s delinquent payments:

“In the old days, when we made war on the other tribes, and conquered the land you [whites] later took away from us, our warriors carried a bow and two quivers full of arrows. In the old days my quivers held arrows, because in those times we fought with arrows. But nowadays one can no longer fight with arrows; nowadays one must fight with money, and you can clearly see that the quivers which should hold the money with which to fight for my people are empty.”

The Chief pulled his pants pockets inside out to show they were empty.

“If you want me to be able to fight then fill my empty quivers. Fill my empty quivers with money, and then I will be able to fight.”

Chief White Calf went to Washington D.C. and met with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to get the money due the Blackfeet people, but the commissioner John Collier told him to go home and the check would be sent in due time. The Chief refused and told Collier he was “going to stay until he got the claim money due his people even if he had to die like his father Chief White Calf died in 1903 in the Presidents private chamber, fighting for tribal claims.”

Chief White Calf, the son, told Collier he would “take an old blanket and sleep in the streets and eat garbage” if he had to, but he would not leave without that money.

Then he said, “The whole world will know that two Chief White Calf’s died in Washington D.C. fighting for the rights of their people. The whole world will know that the old Chief White Calf and his son, the new Chief White Calf, both died right here in Washington D.C. I will do the same [as my father]. I will die here before I will turn around like a whipped dog and go home without the check.”

Commissioner Collier relented the next day and called the Chief to his office and handed him the check due the Blackfeet Indians.

*Another historian has indicated that the railway was the Great Northern Railway, but I cannot verify if only one or both were involved.

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About robertajestes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Blackfoot, History. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to John Two Guns White Calf

  1. Th says:

    What a great story,a tragic trail of broken promises and exploitation of a great people, I recently bought a photo of John Two Guns White Calf, his profile is faceing to the left,he has the shell ear rings as in the photo in your article,and also a bear claw necklace and other bead work. the photo is marked with his name as in your photo and Hileman 27,possibly the year it was taken. It will hang in my home in respect of John Two Guns White Calf and the Indian nation,Thanks !!

  2. Harris Stein says:

    While going through old family stuff, we came across a letter to my late mother-in-law from Two Guns White Calf. The letter was dated 1928. It seems that when my mother-in-law was in school she had written a letter to Two Guns White Calf. He answered her letter and sent a large picture of himself (signed), a publication about Glacier National Park and a publication from Northern Pacific Railroad.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello Harris Stein:
      I’m working on a biography of Two Guns and I’d be interested to learn more about the letter Two Guns sent your mother-in-law. If you could contact me, I’d be most appreciative.

  3. Linda Hanley says:

    What a nice article. It was what I was looking for during my research of a picture I just purchased at a local estate sale. It’s the chief and was produced by the GNRy but I noticed the signature at the bottom of the print. Then I noticed your picture above with the same signature. Could this really be his signature? It’s done in pen at the bottom of this unusual print. Can you tell me what something like this might be worth? Thank you for the great article.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello, Linda:
      Yes, that is Two Guns signature, but . . . Two Guns initially did not write English, so all the earliest signatures I’ve seen of his are an “X” accompanied by a thumb print, which was common at the time among Native Americans. The pictographic signature you see below the photo was a creation, done for Great Northern Railway publicity purposes. It initially did no look like that, but evolved from 1913 so that by early 1920s it took on the form you see on your image. How much of a say Two Guns had in its creation I do not know. I just know that each of the Blackfeet who worked for the Great Northern eventually had a pictographic signature which he or she used for publicity purposes, based on the individual’s name.
      I have found only two documents that show Two Guns wrote his signature in a cursive hand. I suspect he was taught how to write his name by his daughter Mary, or his wife Susan, who had been married to a white man for 20 years before marrying Two Guns.
      There are many documents that have the pictographic signature of Two Guns. Some are signed by him while others were either done with a stamp or an auto-pen. These latter documents were usually issued by the railway out of its head office on behalf of Two Guns, such as a press release from the Great Northern’s publicity department.
      Most postcards and some portraits done of Two Guns were signed by him, but beware of forgeries. I have what I suspect to be one forged Two Guns signature and I’ve seen at least one other suspected forgery for sale on eBay. (A good indication is the color of the ink. Most ink from the fountain pen era will fade to a brown color. Darker ink should be viewed carefully, but should not be discounted.)
      As to value, it’s variable. I’ve picked up a signed Two Guns photo for under $10. There’s one listed for sale on eBay for $10,000. Most run between $50 and $150. You will see some signed postcards at live auctions (not eBay, but held by auction companies) going for $500 plus to $1,500, but I rack that up to people with money and limited time to hunt out bargains. Given that the signatures of many historical celebrities don’t reach prices above $250 or $500, it’s hard to fathom that Two Guns’ signature should fetch more when he signed thousands of real photo postcards.
      Just a further note. There is likely a second signature on the photo-print of Two Guns that you have. That would be of photographer T.J. Hileman of Kalispell, Mont. It is likely follow by ” ’27 “, indicating the image was signed in 1927. That was a busy year for Two Guns and fellow Blackfeet working for the railway, which took them to the “Fair of the Iron Horse” in Baltimore that fall to mark the 100th anniversary of the B&O Railroad. As many a one million people came out to the fair, where Two Guns and the Blackfeet appeared daily and signed thousands of postcards.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      I forgot to add that while the pictographic signatures for Two Guns and the other Blackfeet are creations that the individuals did not use prior to their work for the Great Northern Railway, the signatures are based on the Blackfeet tradition of pictographic writing used on buffalo and other hides, sometimes teepees, and also seen in petroglyphs (carvings in soft stone). So in that sense the designs are authentic, although likely designed with help from personnel in the railway’s publicity department.

  4. Caroline says:

    Hello Ray. I wonder if you have can come across a pic on the web with Two Guns, his wife, the wealthy American Van Laer Black and 2 KLM pilots Geysendorffer and Scholte (my grandfather) – during the early years of aviation (1927) and if you know anything about this meeting? I only have copies of 2 such photos – the other is of the same persons and other Blackfoot family members. I also have a nickel (indian head/buffalo) coin which I presume is from my grandfather’s meeting.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello, Caroline:
      I did a quick check of my files and can find no reference to the meeting between the Blackfeet, Van Laer Black and the KLM pilots. I have a couple of photos of Two Guns with planes, but obviously not that particular meeting.
      As the meeting took place in 1927, it was likely during the Blackfeet presence at the Fair of the Iron Horse just outside Baltimore in October. Black was on the board of the Baltimore Sun, so would have had access to the Blackfeet as the Great Northern Railway wanted to curry favor with the local press to get as much media publicity as possible. I do not have a full agenda for the Blackfeet during their stay in Baltimore during the Fair of the Iron Horse, but this sounds like an occasion to which the railway publicity people would have readily agreed.
      I would appreciate seeing the photo you have with the Blackfeet. I might be able to determine the time and place, as well as individual Blackfeet shown.Contact me at rdjuff at shaw.ca

  5. Wendy Boure says:

    Two Guns was my Great Grandpa 🙂 He was the dad to my grandpa Willow White Calf & Willow had my grandma Marie White Calf, she married my grandpa Percy Bullchild, they had 5 children (1 being my mama) I love reading about my great grandpa, he was so famous. He loved the camera! Very handsome he was!!! 🙂

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello, Wendy:
      Fascinating possible connection to Two Guns. And, yes, he was very handsome. Definitely not shy of the camera.
      I have found only one living direct descendant of Two Guns and I’m afraid it is not the line you mention. However, the Bullchilds are, to my knowledge, related to Two Guns indirectly. The father of Susan,Two Guns’ second wife, was Good Medicine, and I believe Good Medicine had a brother named Bullchild.
      Adding to possible confusion is the fact there were two Percy Bullchilds on the Blackfeet reservation at the same time, one born in 1916, son of George Bullchild, and an earlier Percy Bullchild born about 1881 who adopted the Bullchild name.
      Please don’t take what I say as gospel truth. Here’s a link to Blackfeet reservation census starting in 1890 that might help you in your quest for information about the Bullchilds and Two Guns.
      http://www.donslist.net/PGHLookups/IC001021M.htm
      I’ve gone through it and drawn my own conclusions, but you may come to another conclusion, which I’d be curious to hear about.
      Good luck with your research.

  6. Jan says:

    I have obtained a great photograph of the blackfeet and blood indian delegation to B&O century pageant with President coolidge sept., 17, 1927. It was taken by Frank Scherer on the front lawn of the white house with coolidge, the chief of indian affairs at the time and 39 members of the tribe. One of them is definitely Two Guns. Any interesting history about this event?

    • Ray says:

      Hello, Jan:
      Have my own copy of that image, or similar ones taken by other press photographers there at the time. Two Guns is fifth person on the right from President Coolidge, who is wearing the light-colored suit. Two Guns is not wearing a headdress and has his hands clasped in front of him. Earlier in the day the president and his wife were given a tour of the William Crooks train and cars that pulled the old cars the native delegation had ridden on from St. Paul, on their way to the B&O Railroad centennial just outside Baltimore. Some 3,000 people also took a tour of the train during its stop in Washington. That day the natives had a luncheon at the National Press Club. Later, they attended a ballgame between the Washington Senators and the Cleveland Indians. I believe the Senators shut out the Indians 3-0.

  7. spike says:

    ray, in the early 50’s when i was very young i was at my grandmothers home and she had some old encyclopedias. I cant remember World Book or Britanica or what they were, but they had the story of Chief 2 guns Whitecalf and his portrait on the nickle.
    I remember that fact my entire life. Yes it was in an encyclopedia.
    Good luck and thanks for continuing your research to commemorate Americas great people

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Dear Spike:
      As I’ve mentioned, it was accepted wisdom that Two Guns was a model for the coin and that “fact” was erroneously published and republished many times over the decades, even by reputable sources. The Great Northern Railway’s publicity claim that it was Two Guns on the coin has definitely stuck, unquestioned, in the popular imagination.
      You may find an article I wrote on the subject for Coins Magazine interesting, as it details how the railway was able to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
      http://numismaster.com/ta/numis/Article.jsp?ArticleId=26596

  8. Kristy Olsgaard says:

    Hi Ray~ Based on all the confusion about the model for the 1913 nickel, how do the Blackfeet feel about the issue today? Do they acknowledge it to be based on Two Guns? Or do they refuse to comment? I’m working on a fictional middle grade novel with a reference to Two Guns and would want to be accurate to their current opinion. I have other questions regarding Blackfeet and wonder if you could direct me to a reliable source. Thank you!
    Kristy O.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Dear Kristy:

      You might want to contact the Blackfeet studies department at Blackfeet Community College and see if one of the instructors would like to talk/correspond with you about your writing and questions you have about the Blackfeet. These are some of the most knowledgeable people about the history of the tribe and reservation.
      As for thoughts of the Blackfeet on the buffalo nickel-Two Guns matter, I would imagine those who know about the association probably would believe he was a model for the figure on the coin, as that’s been the general opinion for decades.
      I’d hazard that the majority of Blackfeet or reservation residents (not all are Blackfeet) don’t know and I’m not sure they care. The coin has been out of circulation for decades.Younger people may never have seen it.
      Some members of Two Guns’ wife’s family are quite adamant that he is portrayed on the coin. These are the children Susan had in her marriage before Two Guns, Two Guns’ step-children (if you can call them that as they were mostly adults by the time Two Guns and Susan got together). Susan and Two Guns had no children together. One of Susan’s descendents is quite angry at me for questioning the link between Two Guns and the coin.
      Two Guns’ only direct living descendent, whom I’ve met, knows only what he’s been told by others, which is that they believe it is Two Guns on the coin or that he was a model for it.
      One of the last living Blackfeet who was around in 1912 and knew Two Guns then, believed he was a model for the coin. The account this person gives is, unfortunately, riddled with errors and unreliable. She died in 1990.
      Best wishes.

  9. Lola says:

    Thank you very much

  10. TiannaLee Stewart says:

    I believe that is my great great grandfather. My paternal grandfather used to tell us his grandfather was chief of the blackfoot tribe. How can I find out if he is related to me? This would be amazing to find out!

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello TiannaLee.
      I might be able to help. I have mapped out most of the White Calf family and can possibly find where your paternal grandfather may tie in.
      Write me at rdjuff at shaw.ca and we can go over some of the details.
      I can also tell you about some resources that would be of help so you can independently confirm the information and check for yourself.
      Best wishes.

  11. Frances McClure says:

    Following the celebration in Baltimore, the train carrying Two Guns White Chief and the tribal delegation, stopped in Oxford, Ohio. A townswoman, now deceased, talked about being a small child accompanying her mother as ladies of the town went on board the train with sandwiches and drinks (possibly lemonade) for the travelers. The Chief and a young woman interpreter, “White Dawn” I believe, walked with townspeople to the nearby gazebo on the campus of Oxford College for Women where the the mayor of the town presented the Chief with the keys to the city.

    Photographs of the occasion are housed in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections and Archives, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello Frances McClure:
      Yes, I’ve seen the photo of Two Guns and “Princess Dawn Mist,” who was really Irene Goss, a mixed blood Blackfeet woman. Several lovely lasses on the reservation got to play the role of Princess Dawn Mist, including Irene’s sister and before them Daisy Norris. There is no royalty among the Blackfeet, so no such prince and princess titles are used in real life. The name Princess Dawn Mist was a fabrication of the Great Northern Railway’s advertising department, which would bequeath it to a comely maiden for publicity tours. She was naturally a magnet for reporters and photographers due to her beauty and ability to speak English.
      That was gracious of the ladies of Oxford to take sandwiches and drinks to the Blackfeet on the train. On some trips the Blackfeet had to fend for themselves, making their own beds and meals, plus sweeping out the train car in which they were riding to an event. Generally the Blackfeet hired for these trips were not allowed to mix with other riders on the trains, nor permitted to take meals in the dining car. I’m sure the refreshments would have been welcomed.

  12. Bernadette Cunningham says:

    I have the post card, photo that has shown up on the internet. It is # 9524-Chief Two Guns White
    Calf, Glacier National Park., small C in a circle and Hileman.

    On the back side, a John E. Curtiss from Lincoln, NE is attending a convention at the park.
    Content in message, it is to Mrs. John E. Curtiss, 1717 Jay St. Lincoln. It is postmarked from the
    park August 29, the mark has a flag and a 1 cent stamp. It says: “Dear Brownie-Wednesday noon
    and convention moving along on schedule, Very hot, too warm for a coat, but the nights sure
    do cool off.The Indian on the other side is the one picked by President Roosevelt to go on the
    Bull Moose Nickel. I got him to personally inscribe his signature in two sign language. Look
    closely and you will find the two guns and calf. Ha. Some artist, eh? Not much to write about
    except, hope it’s cool. Love, John E”

    The signature is two upside down guns with barrells down and a crude looking calf

  13. Ray Djuff says:

    Hello Bernadette Cunningham:
    That’s a wonderful postcard you’ve obtained. The image was taken by Kalispell photographer Tomer Hileman in late 1924 or early 1925 and issued as a postcard for about a decade.
    The author is mistaken is saying President Teddy Roosevelt picked Two Guns for the buffalo nickel, but that is typical of the mythology surrounding the old five-cent piece. Roosevelt was out of office when the coin came out.
    I’m intrigued by the signature, which you say has two “upside down guns with the barrels down” and a crude looking calf. I’m trying to figure out if the card was signed upside down, thus the signature is upside down to the photo. If the signature is right-side up but the guns point down, that’s possibly a very unusual signature and a variation I can say I’ve never seen before.
    If you would be willing to send me a scan of the card or signature, I’d appreciate the opportunity to study it. You can reach me at: rdjuff at shaw.ca.
    Best wishes.

    • GCulbertson says:

      Ray, did White Calf also go by White Buffalo? My great-great grandmother was Natawista from the Blood Tribe, Canada. She was married to Alexander Culbertson, whose first wife was from the White Buffalo family. I believe White Buffalo was Piegan. I could never find anything on him.

      • Ray Djuff says:

        Hello G Culbertson:
        To the best of may knowledge, neither Two Guns nor any of his relatives used the White Buffalo name. Both Two Guns, his brother James and their father all went by the family name of White Calf.
        I checked several census for the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, including the 1907-08 census as well as the 1897-98 census, and found no reference to a White Buffalo family on the reservation. White Dog, White Calf, White Grass, White Horse Rider, White Horses, White Man, White Quiver, White Tail and White Woman, but no White Buffalo.
        I’m told by Blackfeet speakers that White Calf is derived from Onistapoka, and one expert said the English translation would make more sense as Calf Child than White Calf, but that traditionally the name has always been White Calf on both sides of the border. There were White Calfs among both the Blackfeet (American Piegan) and Blood Tribe in Canada. Historian Hugh Dempsey has written about the Canadian White Calf.
        You own last name, Culbertson, is equally famous and I can understand your desire to learn more about your family history.
        I regret that I’ve no real information to offer in your search for information about Alexander Culbertson’s first wife and the White Buffalo family. An earlier search of Blackfeet census records may turn up something.
        Best wishes.

    • Bernadette Cunningham says:

      On the post card I have from a posting awhile back, everything I stated is so. I even
      checked on the residents that lived at the address at that time, Mrs. John E Curtiss and
      that’s who owned the house in Lincoln, NE. Her husband was at the convention and sent her the card. However, the barrels of the two guns are pointed up and not down.
      I have been a post card collector for many years and know that this is not a reproduction. It’s been fun reading all of the postings on this site. Bernadette

  14. GCulbertson says:

    Thank you, Ray, for your response. Good luck on all your endeavors.

    • Ray Djuff says:

      Hello G Culbertson:
      I was looking through some books that I have about the Blackfeet and came across a couple of references to White Buffalo that might be helpful.
      In Andrew Graybill’s book The Red and the White, about the Clarke family, there’s a reference on pages 44-45 to a Piegan warrior called White Buffalo, dating back to the visit of German aristocrat Prince Maximilian to the west. That might be one route for more information about White Buffalo, as that would seem to be a relative (possibly the father) of Alexander Culbertson’s first wife..
      I notice that in several books, Culbertson’s second wife is referred to variously as from the Piegan and/or Blood tribes. I don’t think some early writers were careful or knowledgeable about the distinctions between various tribes of the Blackfoot confederacy. So while White Buffalo is referred to as a Piegan man, the name might be associated with the Blood or Kainai tribe. I’m not familiar with all the family names of the Kainai and have no census records to which to refer, but it may be worth checking out.
      Possibly another line of checking, in John Ewers’s book The Piikani Blackfeet, on page 165 there’s a reference to a Sarcee (Tsue T’ina) chief called White Buffalo. The Tsuu T’ina are often counted as part of the Blackfoot confederacy, and that may be another angle for you to pursue.
      I mention these possible leads as ideas to pursue in your quest. I hope something turns up for you.
      Best wishes.

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