The man reclining in this 1864 Matthew Brady carte de visite (a form of photography) is Seth Kinman. As one of the first Anglo settlers of Northern California’s Humboldt region, Kinman was a leader in the Indigenous genocide and untempered environmental destruction that defined the ruthless colonization of California in the wake of the Gold Rush, which peaked between 1848 and 1855. Seth Kinman quickly established a regional reputation as a California Indian Killer, grizzly bear hunter and trapper, and showstopping entertainer. Yet once or twice per decade, Kinman also traveled by foot across the country to present grotesque chairs made from the body parts of grizzly bears and elkhorns to Presidents James Buchannan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Rutheford B. Hayes. In the process, Kinman garnered the awe, confusion, and money of the entire nation, often by selling photos of himself to passersby on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C, just outside the gates of the White House.

The exaggerated “yarns” Kinman loved to tell about himself give us a window in the life and ego of a lesser-known frontiersman who capitalized on mass entertainment and the print industry, but it’s the hundreds of photographs he commissioned and distributed over decades that can help us understand his appeal, subsequent mythologization, and his role in the history of the American West, its mythology, and environmental history. Upon close examination, these photographs reveal more comprehensive lessons and beg more complex questions about the fluctuating meanings of race, class, gender, and culture in the Civil War era. Through Kinman’s CDVs, he was able to prove that his adventures were not refashioned and perhaps corrupted in the form of a dime novel, play, or illustration in newspapers, like other frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett had been, but that his image was quite literally self-made. Buyers of CDVs such as the one above, with the common Civil War-era faith in the power of photography to expose a person’s most authentic self, did not have to doubt Kinman’s stories or newspaper accounts of his thirst for blood because they could see the bear paws, horns, and scalps with their very eyes.

A Magnified View of Kinman’s 1864 Carte De Visite

In the photo above, Kinman is surrounded by mismatched objects strewn around him. They are not random knickknacks. The left corner features two severed bear paws out of the alleged 800 bears which Kinman claimed to have personally killed. One of the paws wraps around a fur-covered quiver full of arrows and a bow. Next to the other bear paw lays a lifeless decapitated head, likely of a Wiyot person indigenous to Humboldt County, where Kinman established his home, museum, and most brutally, his reputation as an infamous “Indian Killer” who often used Indigenous people as bear bait. Notably, the head is turned squarely away from the camera. This deliberate decision on Kinman and Brady’s part eliminates the possibility of recognizing the scared or resistant expression this person may have had and in the process, hides the literal face of the violence and trauma inflicted by white settlers. In this way, Kinman firmly establishes the Indigenous scalp in his photo as an object, one whose presence matters more than its face, and one that should evoke feelings of white racial victory, not human pity. In fact, many white settlers during the era of ongoing Indian Wars in the Great Plains (1854-1890) and the genocide of Indigenous Californians (1846-1871) possessed such a dehumanized view of Indigenous people that they would have viewed the long-haired head in Kinman’s CDV as a trophy to the victory of white people and culture over an inferior race. A vivid photograph of an Indigenous person’s skull may also have been even more enthralling to white Americans than illustrations in newspapers and magazines, which were the main visual depictions of the major Indian Wars of the era.

Next to the severed human head are two large elk antlers, perhaps a nod to Kinman’s recent presentation of an elkhorn chair to President Abraham Lincoln. Kinman himself, dressed in buckskins and a fur hat, carries a small ax in his hand, leans a long rifle across his body (which, he would later claim, “gave many an Englishman a Belly ake” during the Battle of New Orleans), and sprawls himself luxuriously over a simple rug on the recognizable floor of Matthew Brady’s studio. Though it’s hard to make out his expression under his long beard, in which another bone is entangled, Kinman generally seems focused, content, and relaxed.

Notably, this photograph’s composition is not as neat as many of Matthew Brady’s other photos of more well-known figures like President Lincoln. The foreground is slightly blurry, the rug (which could also be a stolen cultural object from one of the many tribes Kinman interacted with) pokes out from the back of the shot when it easily could have been flattened to the ground, some sort of small platform is visible behind Kinman’s lower elbow, and Kinman’s “curiosities” are packed together so tightly together that it’s difficult to decipher what they all are. Still, the photographer’s lack of precision is far less significant when compared to the sheer number of strange objects one could continue to pick out after looking at the photograph multiple times.

Like all carte de visites (French for “calling card,” often abbreviated as CDV), an inexpensive kind of portraiture that was wildly popular during the Civil War era, this one would have been mounted on a small, thick card, and printed using the albumen process, as indicated by its wear and faded color. This type of light, flimsy photo may not have been meant to dangle singularly from the walls of a house or a museum but was nonetheless small enough to be placed in a pocket or drawer. CDVs were mailed to dear friends, used as business cards, or, as in the case of celebrities like Kinman, used to promote one’s public image and fame. Most commonly, CDVs were preserved in family photo albums. Indeed, at least since 1970, scholars who study Kinman have suspected that many surviving photos of him come in the form of rediscovered CDVs tucked away as heirlooms in family photo albums, speculation which seems likely even today, as many of Kinman’s CDVs are donated to historic auction sites by individual families. In this sense, this Seth Kinman CDV would have been similar to a mass-produced, sold, and circulated lynching photograph, in all its animalized, racist spectacle and souveniring of white supremacy, than a daguerreotype, which was more often praised by the likes of Matthew Brady over CDVs for its authenticity, individuality, and long-lasting quality.

Kinman, his Audience, and the Various Purposes of his CDV

Despite the extremely diverse situations and people represented in the millions of CDVs circulated in the 1860s, this CDV was made for the Kinman-specific purpose of advertising himself and his eccentricity to visitors outside the White House, likely earning him 25 cents for every picture distributed. Having already secured a place for one of his CDVs in the official Lincoln family album, Kinman stayed on in Washington, D.C., for months selling his CDVs, “attracting much attention on the avenue” and in Ford’s Theatre in his buckskins and beard, immortalizing his image and story in the minds of D.C. residents and tourists. The fact that this CDV was shot in Matthew Brady’s D.C. studio (perhaps not by Brady, whose camera spent most of 1864 on the Civil War battlefield, but by Brady’s employee, Alexander Gardner, who photographed Kinman and his chairs multiple times), indicates the effort and money that Kinman put into his self-image. On one hand, the careful curation of shocking objects and body parts in Kinman’s CDV would have added more intrigue to a medium that was otherwise considered fairly cheap and common across American cities. At the same time, Kinman’s odd poses, staging, and personality could have immediately marked him as a representative of everyday white westerners who were completely foreign (perhaps proudly) to the snobbery and social mores of Washington D.C. and the East Coast.

Waud of Kinman
Waud, Alfred R. “Seth Kinman, the California hunter presenting the president an Elkhorn chair.” 1863, Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed December 11, 2020. Waud’s 1864 drawing of hunter, entertainer, and frontiersman Seth Kinman presenting his elkhorn chair to Abraham Lincoln.

In addition to boosting Kinman’s legend and reputation, this specific CDV served multiple purposes for the many people who purchased it. The items in the photo perfectly capture Kinman’s appeal and his white contemporaries’ cultural needs and desires. The image of a buck-skinned, furry frontiersman and mountain man in the style of Natty Bumppo, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson would have particularly resonated in an era of rapid industrialization and urbanization, during which the supposedly rugged, individualistic, and wildlife of the frontier seemed distant or dying in the imaginations of white settlers. The CDV satisfied the desire for a simpler, pre-industrial world in which white men, unencumbered by strict work schedules, corrupted city life, and dehumanizing machines, hunted bears and Indigenous people (the only group which is notably excluded from this CDV’s intended audience) freely. Now, their bodies eroded under long hours of mindless factory labor, disciplined by wages and clocks.

While Kinman’s CDV evokes nostalgia for the closing frontier, it also invites viewers to imagine a divergent vision of a new frontier on the western edge of America. Though the U.S. military was the main agent of westward colonization and Indigenous killing in the 1860s, multiple newspapers identified Kinman not as a heroic soldier, but as the “Pacific Coast Nimrod,” implying that he was more akin to a folk hero such as Davy Crockett (who was the model for a popular 19th-century fictional character called Nimrod Wildfire) than a general such as Ulysses Grant. Yet Kinman’s appeal was not just that he was another Davy Crockett. Instead, his exploits took place on the furthest continental frontier possible, reflecting a vision of never-ending manifest destiny that may have instilled hope in Kinman’s CDV purchasers while also keeping the excesses of wild California at a comfortable distance.

Centuries later, the families and individuals who preserved Kinman’s CDV could simultaneously reinforce national origin stories of the frontier, and Californians could draw a clear, if brutal and ridiculous, connection between their own histories and the Civil War battlefield. Nonetheless, in 1864, amidst a shocking industrial and urban boom, and the turmoil and mass death of the Civil War, when the most common CDVs featured regular soldiers, Union heroes, and enslaved people, this photo may have been a relief for white Americans from the ever-present storm cloud of war – a confirmation of victory, glory, humor, and frontier spirit in the face of unstoppable societal change and threats of a multiracial democracy. The celebration of Kinman’s visit to Lincoln’s White House in mainstream newspapers like The New York Times, as well as in expressly abolitionist newspapers like The Liberator, signals a sense of unity provided by celebrating westward expansion and Indigenous genocide, even in a moment of sharp ideological division over slavery.

The Enduring Legacy of Seth Kinman

In California, only four years before this CDV was produced, and only a few miles from Kinman’s home, white vigilantes attacked Tuluwat Island and killed hundreds of members of the Wiyot tribe, whose population had already reduced exponentially from 1850-1860 due largely to the violence of white settlers. Kinman often boasted of being present for key historical moments (such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), but he never admitted to taking part in the Wiyot massacre, though many suspected that he had.

Nevertheless, the massacre gave national attention to the extreme brutality of these white settlers, which Kinman’s creeping smile seems to capture. Yet despite this brief national acknowledgment, Kinman’s legacy has hardly been confronted today. Aside from the pond that is still named after him in Humboldt County, the land Kinman stole from Wiyot people, on which he subsequently opened a bar full of scalps similar to the one in this CDV, has still not been returned to the Wiyot tribe, despite other steps toward decolonization which Humboldt County has undertaken, such as the repatriation of Tuluwat Island in 2004 to the Wiyot people. Kinman is still celebrated by many as a Humboldt County legend whose adventurism outweighs the destruction and devastation he brought to the region.

It’s easy to focus on analyzing the “what” of Kinman’s CDV. What objects are in the photo? What does Kinman hope to accomplish by making and distributing such a photo? What cultural and historical developments can explain the undeniable bizarreness of this photo? But satisfying such curiosities about a time, place, and man who seems foreign or outlandish to us is not enough. We must also ask the more blood-soaked questions of “how” and “who.” How exactly did Kinman obtain the head of an Indigenous man? How does he embody and define the vicious longings of his white contemporaries? Who benefits and suffers when Kinman continues to be remembered as an eccentric frontiersman rather than a grisly murderer? Who exactly profits off of the sale of Kinman memorabilia (including the gun featured in this CDV, which was appraised publicly on Antiques Roadshow ) worth thousands of dollars?

This CDV of Kinman may have been shot and distributed toward the end of the Civil War, but it illuminates many of the wider gendered, racial, social norms of the day that are immortalized even today. Kinman displaying the head of an Indigenous person was not just normalized, but celebrated in photo-form, pasted into personal albums, and etched deeply in America’s national memory.


Additional Reading:

Primary Sources:
Secondary Sources:
  • For more on Kinman’s chairs, see: Bateman, Vanessa. “Ursus Horribilis: Seth Kinman’s Grizzly Chair.” Canadian Art Review 43, no. 1 (2018): 99-108.
  • For more on the mid-late 19th-century obsession with CDVs, see: Berkin, Nicole. Cartomania and the Scriptive Album: Cartes-de-Visite as Objects of Social Practice. (United Kingdom: Pallgrave Macmillan, 2014.) For a shorter article about the cultural significance of CDVs, see Volpe, Andrea L. The Cartes de Visite Craze. New York Times, August 6, 2013.
  • For more on the Wiyot massacre and the genocide of California Indians, see: Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. United Kingdom: Yale University Press, 2016.
  • For a shorter article by a Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk scholar about Seth Kinman, his glorification, and his connection to the genocide of California Indian people, see: Risling Baldy, Cutcha. “Genocide and Fugly Chairs.” North Coast Journal (Eureka, California), April 11, 2019.
  1. Wood, Amy L. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009): 376.
  2. Coward, John M. Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press. (United States: University of Illinois Press, 2016) : 109.
  3. “Seth Kinman,” San Francisco Examiner. October 14, 1885.
  4. For an example of another Kinman CDV, see Brady’s National Photographic Gallery, “Seth Kinman, California hunter and trapper, who presented President Lincoln with the Elk-Horn Chair,” 1864, Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress,
  5. Nicole Berkin,“Cartomania and the Scriptive Album” in Schweitzer, Performing Objects and Theatrical Things. (United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
  6. Lloyd Ostendorf, “Lincoln and the Grizzly Hunter,” Dayton Daily News, February 8th, 1970, Ostendorf, who wrote five books about Lincoln, claims that CDVs of Kinman’s 1864 visit to Washington D.C. are most likely to be found “in the old picture albums.”
  7. Nicole Berkin,“Cartomania and the Scriptive Album” in Schweitzer, Performing Objects and Theatrical Things. (United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
  8. Lloyd Ostendorf, “Lincoln and the Grizzly Hunter,” Dayton Daily News, February 8th, 1970.
  9. “Presentation of a Chair to President Lincoln”, Washington Star, January 19th, 1865; Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection,“Seth Kinman,” Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, digitized at
  10. “Seth Kinman, the Pacific Coast Nimrod Who gives Chairs to Presidents,” New York Times, December 9th, 1865, Issues of the Petaluma Argus and other national newspapers also refer to Kinman by this moniker.
  11. Andrea L. Volpe, “the Cartes de Visite Craze,” New York Times, August 6th, 2013,
  12. The Liberator, December 2nd, 1864,
  13. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, United Kingdom: Yale University Press, 2016, 282-283
Zahra Hasanain is a 4th year student at UC Berkeley majoring in History with a focus on 19th century U.S. history. In her spare time, she enjoys browsing Wikipedia and baking.