History Nebraska Blog

Ledger Art

This month’s object is a small leather-bound diary owned by the Nebraska History Museum. It contains diary entries of a U.S. Cavalry soldier and was subsequently illustrated by a Native American. The diary includes what appears to be a handwritten glossary of Native American words as well as charts and drawings. The drawings are in the style known as “ledger art” depicting fighting between U.S. soldiers and Native Americans. They were likely created by a Native American that had seen combat between Native American tribes and the US Army.

Ledger drawings of Native Americans, horses and soldiers

Ledger drawing illustrations from the diary.

According to the original notes taken when the diary was donated to the museum, late History Nebraska Historian James Potter wrote:


“The diary contains brief entries documenting the Fourth Cavalry's movement from Fort Sill, [Indian Territory], beginning in August 1876. Although not included in the entries, the Fourth Cavalry arrived at Camp Robinson, Nebraska, on or about August 13. While at Camp Robinson, the regiment captured, disarmed, and dismounted the followers of Red Cloud and Red Leaf on Chadron Creek and forced the Indians to return to Red Cloud Agency. There is no reference in the diary to this episode. Entries resume Nov. 1, as the regiment left Camp Robinson en route to Fort Laramie, where it would join Gen. George Crook's winter campaign against the Sioux and Cheyennes. The diary notes the location of the Fourth Cavalry's camps from Camp Robinson to Fort Laramie, from Fort Laramie to Fort Fetterman, and from Fort Fetterman to Fort Reno, where the regiment arrived about Nov. 18. That date is the last entry in the diary. 

Subsequent to the dates recorded in the diary, the Fourth Cavalry marched to the Red Fork of the Powder River, where on Nov. 25 it surprised and defeated Dull Knife's village of Cheyennes. This is a well-known episode of the Sioux War of 1876-77, and is recorded in numerous sources. In addition to the Fourth U.S. Cavalry, the force that attacked the Cheyenne village included Sioux, Arapaho, Shoshone, and Pawnee Indian scouts.”


According to the donation notes, the diary had been purchased in early 1877 from a man returning from the Black Hills who had found it on the body of a dead Native American who had been killed by soldiers.  If that story is true, the Native American artist likely would have obtained the diary between November 18, 1876 and the end of the year.

Ledger drawings of a Native American on a yellow horse, and soldiers

Additional ledger illustrations from the diary.

When the diary came to the Ford Center, it was in poor condition. The paper of the text block was brittle from use and natural aging. The paper had discolored over time and was visibly soiled with fingerprints and smudges from years of handling. There were small tears found throughout, some of the pages were loose, and the text block was fully detached from the leather binding.

Technician repairs tears to diary pages

Conservation Technician Megan Griffiths repairs tears in the diary pages.

The goal of treatment was to clean the leather cover and pages, repair tears, and stabilize the text block. The outside of the cover and each of the pages were gently cleaned with cosmetic sponges and a small vinyl eraser, being very careful not to disturb any loose media in the writing and drawings.  The tears were repaired with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.  Loose pages will be reattached and the text block resewn.  A custom acid-free, lignin-free box will be made to ensure the diary’s long-term preservation. 

Read Part 2 to see the completed treatment on this fascinating object!

Up close photo of tear repairs with tissue

Tears were repaired with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.


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