CINCINNATI – The personal papers of General Thomas Ruger, American Indian War general and commandant of West Point Military Academy were the big sellers at Cowan’s Western Art and Americana auction on June 24 in Cincinnati that saw some surprises and disappointments. Nevertheless, Wes Cowan was more than satisfied.
“We were extremely pleased, considering the current economic climate,” Cowan said. “Once again, this auction shows that great items will continue to bring great prices.”
The Ruger archives offered a treasure trove for military historians. The lots included his Civil War correspondence, papers dealing with dissolving the 1868 state government of Georgia, and records of the 1876 South Carolina election. But the highest price was paid for his Dakota and Montana Indian Wars archive, which topped at 47,000 with the buyer’s premium of 17.5 percent, well above the estimated value of $20-30,000 (all sale prices listed hereafter include the buyer’s premium).
This archive was a voluminous collection of papers dealing with his years overseeing military and Indian affairs in Montana and the Dakotas from 1878-to-1891. They included detailed documentation of the Ghost Dance and Messiah hysteria that had consumed the last great Indian tribes in the West. It also included a copy of the first report of the Battle at Wounded Knee and a copy of a report that detailed the killing of Sitting Bull.
The auction was an interesting view of American history, mainly from the period of the Civil War until the turn of the 19th century, though there were some items from the 18th and 20th centuries. One of the surprises of the auction was the sale of a half plate ruby ambrotype of four Kentucky confederate cavalrymen. The photo, an extremely clear and finely detailed image, showed the soldiers seated, holding their sabers in their scabbards. All four were original members of Captain Thomas G. Woodward’s Company of Tennessee Cavalry known as the Oak Grove Rangers. With an estimated maximum value of $6,000, the image sold for $15,275.
Another feature of the auction were nine lots related to the Confederate war criminal, Champ Ferguson, who was one of only two Confederates formally tried and executed for war crimes after the war. A hero to some, Ferguson had a history of violence before the Civil War, having been charged with the murder of a Tennessee sheriff prior to entering the army as a private. His violent nature was suited to warfare, and before long he was leading his own company. He ignored rules of proper military conduct and indiscriminately murdered Union soldiers and civilians without remorse. In one incident in which he was involved, the Saltville Massacre, he captured and murdered a number of black soldiers from Fifth United States Colored Calvary (some sources say as many as 50). His conduct was so egregious that he was imprisoned by Confederate authorities near the end of the war on suspicion of murder.
After the war, Ferguson was tried before a military tribunal for the murder of 53 men. He did not deny the killings and admitted that he had actually killed more than 100. The trial drew national attention and he was quoted as saying that, “If I hadn’t killed my neighbor he would have killed me … and it was regarded as legitimate to kill them at any time, at any place, under any circumstances, even if they were wounded or on a sick-bed.”
In addition to seven autographed images of Ferguson offered, there were his last letter to his wife before his execution and the iron rings that held the rope at the gallows where Ferguson was hung. Both the letter and the rings sold for $3,525, below their estimated maximum values of $5,000 and $6,000.
A couple antebellum memorabilia also yielded surprisingly good sales. A rare ambrotype of an Abraham Lincoln Wide Awake Marcher brought $10,759, far above the estimated maximum value of $4,000, and a Stephen Douglas Little Giant Club ambrotype brought $8,812, far above its estimated maximum value of $3,000.
Of the Native American offerings, the best seller was the S.J. Morrow stereoview of six images from the series “The Great North-West,” all of them showing images of Sioux Indians. They sold for $5,581, well above the maximum estimated value of $1,500. But overall, sales for Native American offerings were below par. For example, a signed Edward Curtis orotone, “Before the Storm,” sold for $4,700, with buyer’s premium equal to its minimum estimated value of $4,000, and a collection of 22 platinum photographs by F.A. Rinehart of Native Americans from various locations and tribes, sold for $6424.50, well below its estimated minimum value of $8,000.
Other items of interest were a large number of images that provided a kaleidoscopic view of the vanishing old West from the Thomas Minckler Collection. It included 259 lots with images of Western towns, buffalo hunts, stagecoaches, Indians, Indian agents, Indian traders, cowboys, Western books, and other ephemera. There also were 24 lots from the Thomas Saltz Lincoln collection that included a series of Lincoln portraits and other Lincolnalia, including images of John Wilkes Booth and a pair of glasses found in Ford Theatre, the night of the assassination. The glasses sold for $763.75, slightly below its minimum estimated value of $800.
From various other collectors, there were images of Jesse James, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Sitting Bull, and Wild Bill Hickok. One rare CDV of Wild Bill, taken circa 1875, a year before his death, fetched a sum of $18,800, slightly above its estimated maximum value of $15,000.
There were some disappointments. A rare albumen photograph of George Custer with a grizzly bear that he killed in the Black Hills in 1874, with an estimated maximum value of $40,000, went unsold. And, a half plate ambrotype attributed to George McKnown of a Pony Express stop in Vacaville, Calif., circa 1857, with an estimated maximum value of $30,000, also went unsold.
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