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APACHE OLLA PRESENTED BY GENERAL OF THE ARMY PHILIP H. SHERIDAN TO CONGRESSMAN CHARLES H. ALLEN ca. 1886 – INTERESTING IDENTIFIED HISTORICAL ARTIFACT IN EXCELLENT CONDITION:  A very unusual Apache basket woven olla /o-ya/ in that it is of a very diminutive scale, bearing a handwritten card identifying this vessel as having been presented by General of the Army Philip Sheridan to Congressman Charles H. Allen of Massachusetts. 

In addition to being an excellent example of the Apache basketry art, as will be explored below, this olla passed as a gift between two prominent figures in the US Government in what could only have been a very narrow window of time.   

General Sheridan is a well known historical figure, familiar to any serious student of the Civil War and the Indian Wars which followed, but there are some specific events in the later years of his career which reflect directly on this presentation piece. 

Sheridan, as so many officers who were on active duty at the beginning of the war, rose dramatically in rank, entering the war as a captain and having attained the regular army rank of major general by the cessation of hostilities.  Remaining in the army, he was appointed as the commander of the Department of the Missouri in 1867, and promoted to lieutenant general in1869, making him one of the most senior officers in the army.   

Of no surprise to anyone at the time, in 1883 Sheridan was appointed by President Cleveland to succeed William T. Sherman as the Commanding General of the Army upon Sherman’s retirement.  As he assumed command, the primary focus of the army’s efforts was centered on the Arizona Territory and the unrest among the Apaches.  In May of 1885, for a number of different reasons and grievances, Nana, Geronimo, and other Apache notables led their followers off their reservations and began an extended campaign of attacks against ranches and settlements throughout far western Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and down into Mexico.  The resulting depredations held the attention of the nation, and the army was expected to bring the hostiles to bay.   

As the events unfolded on the reservations, Sheridan and his wife were on a train borne tour of the southwest United States, and although I have found no record of the trip, I do not believe the general’s presence in that area was coincidental.  No doubt the Apache situation had drawn the general’s full and undivided attention and the trip provided him ample opportunity to review the situation for himself.  While in California the couple was aboard a train that was involved in a serious accident which nearly proved fatal for both.  Sheridan suffered a serious head injury, and the decision was made to begin the return trip back to Washington.  In May of 1885, as the Apaches were beginning to leave the reservations, Sheridan was passing east bound through the Arizona Territory and northern New Mexico, and it is known he halted in Lordsburg, NM for a meeting.  No doubt the Apache troubles were the topic of these meetings, as they were everywhere across the region, and the general would have availed himself of the opportunity to gather information from as many of his field commanders as possible during this trip.  

This olla was likely gifted to Sheridan by one of the officers serving in Apacheria when he met with the general.  Whether the officer purchased or traded for the olla from an Apache on one of the reservations, or if he acquired it in the course of a campaign in the field, he had an eye for quality and he recognized the unique nature of this piece, and it was an appropriate piece to present to a senior officer of Sheridan’s stature.  By the early spring of 1886, Sheridan was back in Washington, and so it happens, so was Charles H. Allen. 

A native of Massachusetts, Allen was only thirteen at the beginning of the Civil War and his war years were spent as a student, graduating from Amherst College in 1869.  He joined his father’s successful lumber business and by the early 1880’s he had entered politics, joining the Republican Party and serving two terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and one term in the Massachusetts Senate.  His political career continued when he was elected (R-Mass 8TH District) to the U.S. 49TH and 50TH Congresses, serving from March of 1885 through March of 1889 – specifically, at the same time of the Apache troubles described above.          

While both men were in Washington at the same time, and their respective duties certainly encompassed interlocking circles of oversight, budgeting, personnel appointments, and constituent concerns, once I began researching the lives of the two men I was hopeful of finding a commonality which would have predicated Sheridan presenting this Apache Olla to Allen.  I believe I have discovered two possibilities.   

Following several summers of camping in Dartmouth, MA farm fields, in 1872 a group of investors formed a corporation, Nonquitt Beach and Wharf Association, which purchased five of the farms, divided the land into house lots and began building individual residences.  The Sheridans first summered in Nonquitt in 1887 in a rental cottage, and enjoying the area they built their own cottage and first occupied it in the summer of 1888.  Unfortunately, early in 1888 the General suffered a series of severe heart attacks and his health failed.  Recognizing that his time was short, Congress acted swiftly to introduce and pass legislation to promote Sheridan to General of the Army on June 1, 1888.  While the chronology of these events is not entirely clear, what is known is that Sheridan’s family moved the General out of the oppressive Washington heat that summer to the newly built cottage in Nonquitt.  Upon passage of his promotion, the historical record relates that a congressional delegation traveled to the stricken general in order that they could deliver the news of his promotion in person. Whether the delegation traveled to his home in Washington before he was moved, or if they traveled to Nonquitt is not known.  The General remained in Nonquitt for the balance of the summer until he died on August 5 of that same year.  His body was returned to Washington for the funeral and he was interred at Arlington Cemetery.    

Allen was a native of Massachusetts and surely was aware of the growing vacation community in Nonquitt.  Sheridan’s public profile, his popularity throughout most of the country (understandably, not so much in the Southern states), his social rank as the Commanding General of the Army, and the Sheridans having established a summer residence in the fashionable Massachusetts seaside community, it would have been natural for Allen to have been drawn to Sheridan.  Likewise, as Allen was a serving member of the very Congress which promoted Sheridan to the highest rank, as well as holding the purse strings upon which the army heavily depended, and being a representative from the very state where Sheridan had established a residence, Allen was the sort of person the General would have been wise to curry as a friend.   In the circles of Washington and the Massachusetts social world, the two men both stood to gain from a mutual friendship.  It is possible Sheridan presented the olla to Allen in the course of their official contacts in Washington, or perhaps, as it would have been natural for Allen to have been part of the delegation that traveled to Massachusetts to present the general with his promotion, the presentation was made at the Nonquitt cottage.  Either way, the gift from such a notable personality must have been well received.   

Allen enjoyed a long and varied career in public service.  In addition to his terms of office in the Massachusetts House and Senate, and the US Congress, Allen served as the Massachusetts Commissioners of Prisons, and in 1898 he was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy when Teddy Roosevelt vacated the position to lead the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War.  After the war, President McKinley appointed Allen as the first civilian US Governor of Puerto Rico where he served from 1900-1901.  After resigning as governor, Allen entered Wall Street, joining the House of Morgan.  Through those connections he created a sugar syndicate in Puerto Rico, which eventually controlled in excess of 90% of the sugar capacity of the United States and today is known as Domino Sugar.  Allen passed away in 1934 in Lowell, Massachusetts at the age of 86.  His wife, Harriet Coleman Dean, preceded him in death, passing in 1925.   

While being fashioned in the same weave and style as the larger, more commonly encountered examples, this olla only measures 5” high and 4” in diameter at the widest point of the swell.  The weave is completely intact with no separation, no breaks, and no wear to the rim of the mouth, and the vessel still retains its full form with no misshaping.  This small olla is fitted with a native tanned buckskin carrying strap which appears from age and feel to be original to the olla’s period of use.  The olla’s contents are secured with a hand carved wood plug which likewise appears to have been fashioned commensurate with the making of the olla.  The plug is secured to the strap with an extension of the buckskin strap.   

This Apache Olla is an interesting and unique specimen for several reasons. 

A number of these storage jars known as a “tus” /toos/, are found coated entirely on the exterior and interior surfaces with pinon pine pitch, which serves to seal the vessel for carrying water.  Those ollas intended to be used as dry storage such as for seeds and grain were not sealed with pitch at all, relying only on the tightness of the weave to protect the contents.  This olla is unusual in that only the bottom half of the exterior of the vessel is  coated with pitch, the majority of which is still present.  While there is no way of determining why the pitch was applied in this manner with any certainty, the combination of the small size and partial coating suggest that whatever this olla was intended to carry, the owner only carried small amounts of it and he was concerned that the contents were protected from moisture rather than containing it.  I say “he” because I suspect this olla was carried by a man traveling from his home on a hunt or as a member of a war party.  Had it been intended to use exclusively in the home, a larger size would be more practical and the carrying strap would not have been necessary.    

Tied to the buckskin strap is a handwritten card measuring 4 ˝” by 3”, and inscribed in ink with the legend: 

Apache Water Bottle

Presented to Chas. H. Allen

by General Sheridan 

Loaned by

   Mrs. Allen 

The card is also annotated “No. 8”, likely an inventory or accession number.  The ink used to inscribe the card has turned brown, a characteristic change experienced by old black ink as it exposed to ultraviolet light.  The style of the script is indicative of that used in the late 19TH and early 20TH Centuries and the card proper shows age appropriate to the script.  This olla was purchased from a very old collection which featured a number of 19TH Century Apache pieces, all exhibiting the same characteristics of age and patina such as appears on this piece.  The collector admired the Apache culture and was very selective in his acquisitions.  He acquired this piece with the card attached many years ago in the northeast United States, not far from the Allen family home.  From the text of the script, one can gather that Mrs. Allen loaned this olla to an area museum and from there it passed into the collector market at some point – not an unusual process as the older museums closed and their collections were sold.   

With so many attractive features, this special Apache artifact enjoys the added value of being identified to what is arguably the most influential general of the Indian Wars and a member of the US Congress who became well known in his own right during the emergence of the United States on the world stage.  A singularly unique collectible from a historically important era, this olla will be an impressive addition to your collection.  (0204) $1675



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