How Indians came to live at the Cincinnati Zoo

Nov 21, 2014

In the late 1800's Cincinnatians loved Indians and Indians loved Cincinnati.

Wild West shows at the end of the 19th century were big because the frontier had disappeared and people were enamored with all things Indian. So when a Wild West show in Bellevue, Kentucky closed up, and Cree Indians from Montana were stranded, the Cincinnati Zoo came to the rescue, as far as the Native Americans were concerned.

The Indians signed contracts to work and live at the zoo in the summer of 1895. Zoo Director Thane Maynard looks back. "They were not at all an exhibit, like you would imagine zoo animals on exhibit. It was a cultural exhibit as much as we might bring drummers from a far away place to show culture."

The shows were popular and the zoo made $25,000 in just three months. That led them to hire another group in 1896. The Sicangu Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota brought 89 people to live and perform here. The zoo had to first get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Cincinnati Museum Center's curator of archeology Bob Genheimer says the Indians liked living in Cincinnati. It was such a contrast to their impoverished life on reservation where buffalo were almost extinct. He said in Cincinnati they lived an urban life, saw all the sights and went shopping. They may have even ridden the streetcar.

Queen City Heritage explains the 1895 and 1896 Native Americans in a detailed article.
Credit Cincinnati Museum Center

The Museum Center has quite a collection of artifacts from the Native Americans at the zoo. Besides pictures, there is a beaded blanket band. Twenty years ago the executor of an estate gave it to the museum. According to Genheimer, "So here's this guy, the executor. We're looking at it and lo and behold we found a picture of a Native American woman wearing that blanket with that band, in fact there's another photograph of a man wearing the same blanket and it's clearly the exact same one. It put chills down everyone's spine."

The Indian Zoo story is not new. There has been plenty of research:

  • Susan Meyn, retired curator of archeology at the Museum Center, wrote the Queen City Heritage article and went to the Rosebud Reservation to try to identify people in the Museum's picture collection.
  • Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Rachel Richardson wrote her college thesis on the Cree and presented it to the Cincinnati Women's Club.