Posts Tagged ‘silent film’

Carlisle Indians in the Movies

January 9, 2020

5.4 Yellow fort

A photo of The Yellow Menace being shot

Sometimes something goes full circle when you least expect it. On a recent trip to St. Augustine, Florida, I looked into a few things I only had the vaguest understanding of. I was well aware that, around 1875, Richard Henry Pratt was assigned to confine captive plains Indians taken in combat at a place 2,000 miles from their homeland on the prairie. The place was Fort Marion. I knew it was located near St. Augustine but that was about it. A visit to Castillo de San Marcos, built by the Spanish between 1672 and 1695, informed me that this impenetrable fort was the place of incarceration. Old photographs taken during the 1875-1878 period of confinement supported this.

When the U. S. purchased Florida from Spain,  the Castillo was renamed Fort Marion. It was there that Pratt conceived the radical view that American Indians were educable and need not be eradicated. Prior to coming to Fort Marion, Pratt had led a troop of Buffalo Soldiers in the 10th Cavalry and had worked closely with Indian scouts (from tribes that were enemies of the ones he was fighting). At Fort Marion, he dressed the prisoners in cavalry uniforms and assigned trustees to guard their brethren. As a practical matter, escape was pointless with the Atlantic Ocean on the east and land that was foreign to plains Indians in all other directions.

Pratt allowed Quaker ladies who wintered nearby to teach the prisoners to read and write. The prisoners taught them archery and sold Sunday visitors their artwork. His experiences here led Pratt to open Carlisle Indian Industrial School at the former site of the army’s cavalry school at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

While researching the lives of Carlisle Indian School football players, I learned that three (possibly more) of them matriculated at Keewatin Academy in Wisconsin after leaving Carlisle. That the three were all Chippewa from Minnesota may have been coincidental but they appeared to be friends. Leon Boutwell and Joe Guyon joined the football team that was coached by their former schoolmate, Peter Jordan (sometimes spelled Jourdan). After the end of the regular season, the academy migrated to its winter campus in St. Augustine, where it extended its season by playing against southern football teams—until it was time to prepare for the baseball season.

Unknown to me, until I received a photograph of Boutwell and Guyon made up to look like Chinese men, was that St. Augustine had hosted a bustling movie colony years before film makers escaped to Hollywood, California to avoid enforcement of Thomas Edison’s patents. Thomas Graham, professor emeritus of history at Flagler College, has documented that colorful history in Silent Films in St. Augustine. He identified the location in the photo of Boutwell and Guyon was the doorway to the chapel at Fort Marion and that they were probably playing characters in the 1916 serial film The Yellow Menace.

Professor Graham has also graciously allowed me to use a photograph taken of the shooting of the film. He explained, “Most of the ‘Oriental’ men in the movie were local black St. Augustinians, although the local newspaper ran a want ad by the movie company for ‘short statured’ white men–evidently to play Asians. The uniformed soldiers are Florida National Guardsmen and the guns are Gatling machine guns.” Although their movie careers were short, Boutwell and Guyon were far from finished.

After serving in the 14th Field Artillery Band at Fort Sill during WWI, Leon Boutwell went on to play in the NFL for the Oorang Indians under the name Little Cyclone. After the team folded, he put his training from Carlisle as a printer to work, eventually owning and operating The Daily Telegram in Mechanicsburg, Ohio.

During WWI Joe Guyon played for the Georgia Tech “Golden Tornado” championship football team where an assistant coach said, “Tackling him was like grabbing an airplane propeller.” He played for several teams in the NFL, often alongside Jim Thorpe, and minor league baseball teams. He is enshrined in both College and Professional Football Halls of Fame.

Boutwell Guyon as Chinese

Joe Guyon (left) and Leon Boutwell (right) in costume