President Ulysses S. Grant received an enthusiastic reception as he officially opened the 1876 Centennial Exposition on May 10, 1876. The first world's fair held in the United States, the Expo celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It also celebrated the emergence of the United States as a world power.
The Expo was the product of 10 years of planning and hard work, and the results were astonishing. Some 30,000 exhibits from the "Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine" filled massive exhibit halls spread over 450 acres in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. While nearly every nation in the world exhibited at the Expo, it showcased the rapidly developing industrial power and abundant natural resources of the United States.
A massive Corliss steam engine anchored the exhibition. The largest such engine ever built, it weighed 650 tons, stood nearly 70 feet in height, and provided the power for all the machines in the exhibition's Machinery Hall. Among the other technologies on display was a new device patented by a Scottish immigrant named Alexander Graham Bell. It allowed people to speak at a distance, connected by a wire.
With help from the Smithsonian Institution, the United States assembled remarkable displays of American wildlife and mineral resources. A 15-foot walrus, a polar bear, and other mammals were displayed along with the weapons used to hunt them. Sharks, a stingray, and other exotic fish appeared in preserved form, while fresh commercial fish were displayed in gigantic refrigerated display cases. Curious visitors peered at displays of rock and minerals that included gold and silver, coal and marble, and even meteorites.
The Smithsonian also worked with the Department of the Interior to create an exhibit on the land's original occupants. One of the Expo's most popular displays, and the largest in the U.S. Government Building at the Expo, the exhibit of the Indian Office featured clothing, tools and works of art from a number of tribes, including the Pauite, Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Tlingit, and Haida.
Over 300 Native Americans from 53 tribes were brought to the Expo, and they camped on the Centennial grounds. According to James McCabe's 1876 description of the Expo, "the object of the encampment is to show, in as perfect a degree as is now possible, the original inhabitants of this country and their mode of life." Further, McCabe explained, the Native Americans at the Expo were "the very aristocracy of the Indian nation," including famous chiefs and their families.
Westward expansion had been bringing white settlers inexorably into conflict with the land's original occupants, and eradicating the Native Americans' way of life. Immediately after the Civil War, the Federal government initiated a series of surveys of the West, with an eye toward aiding western settlement and development by European immigrants. Some Native Americans, like the Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud, pursued diplomacy with the U.S. government, but a pattern of white domination was established.
On an 1868 Western trip with William Tecumseh Sherman and his two older sons, Fred and Buck, Ulysses Grant had written about Native Americans in a letter to his wife Julia. "It will be something for Buck ... to know that he had traveled on the plains whilst still occupied by the Buffalo and the Indian, both rapidly disappearing now."
They may have been disappearing, but not without a struggle. McCabe's account of the Native American weapons on display at the Expo described them in terms of their threat to whites. The variety of weapons at the Expo included "bows and arrows of sizes differing to suit all, from the little, naked, prospective warrior, who is made to practice against a target, to the veteran over the door of whose tent hang the scalps of four-score pale faces." In McCabe's view, barbarism and savagery were the main attributes of the native people settlers encountered on the way west.
Yet the underlying message was one of white domination; while the Expo showed off Native Americans and their culture as a museum relic, soldiers in the West were fighting to exterminate them. News of General George Custer's disastrous battle with Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn reached the East during the Expo. The news made Custer a martyr and solidified the resolve of white settlers and the Federal government to fight. The might of the United States, so grandly displayed at the Expo, was turned on conquering the Indian nations and claiming their lands.
After a six month run, the Expo closed its doors, having played host to some 10 million visitors. By then, Spencer Fullerton Baird, Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian, had acquired the exhibits of 34 countries and a number of U.S. states -- which were shipped to Washington, D.C., in more than 40 freight cars. Baird -- and the Smithsonian -- had plans for reusing the exhibits after the Expo ended, but the huge number of artifacts posed a big storage problem for the Smithsonian.
President Grant himself had suggested the Smithsonian's involvement in the Expo, and with his encouragement, Congress provided a new home for the exhibits. First, it approved the transfer of the Washington Armory to the Smithsonian, which used the huge building to store the Expo exhibits temporarily. Next, Congress provided money for the construction of a National Museum, to be directed by Baird, and the collection of exhibits found a permanent home. A hundred years later, on the occasion of the 1976 Bicentennial, items from the 1876 Expo were placed on view once again, in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building.
But not all the Expo's exhibits were destined for preservation. The huge Corliss engine found a home in Chicago after 1876, where for 30 years, it powered George Pullman's train-car factory. Once retired, the giant machine was sold as scrap for $8 a ton.
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