Historical Markers
Indian Paint Hill Historical Marker
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Indian Paint Hill

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
US 62, 3 miles NE of Tidioute

Dedication Date:
October 23, 1947

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas of one native painted black with red spots on his head and face and one painted with the symbols that express life.
Life and Death, by Robert Griffing, 1997.
In 1742, German nobleman Count Zinzendorf, who was visiting fellow members of the Moravian Church in Pennsylvania, encountered Andrew Montour, an important figure in colonial Indian affairs who had both European and Indian ancestry. Zinzendorf thought Montour's features were "decidedly European," except for "the broad band of paint, applied with bear's fat" that encircled his face.

Like many Europeans, Zinzendorf was struck by the ways in which Indians used paint and other substances such as bear's grease to decorate their bodies. All sorts of physical markers separated natives from newcomers in colonial America -complexion, hairstyles, jewelry, and dress - but paint was one of the most striking ways in which Indian methods of bodily decoration differed from European.

Indian Paint Hill is in a region of Pennsylvania famous for its petroleum deposits.
Image of Native American putting on war paint.
Adornment, by John Buxton
In the 1900s, petroleum would become the world's great fuel, but Indians found other uses for this natural resource long before Europeans arrived. Indians mixed petroleum with crushed minerals to make paint for adorning their bodies.

The most common mineral used by Indians in this process was ochre, an ore that produced a red or yellow pigment. Archaeologists have found it on tools and decorative artifacts dating from the late Archaic Period (8,000-1,000 B.C.) through the nineteenth century.

European observers commented on the time and effort marker Indian men and women put into painting themselves. Women used red to paint on their cheeks and around their eyelids, ears, and hairline. Warriors used tomahawks and bundles of sticks painted red to send messages along war paths.

European observers such as Count Zinzendorf often interpreted the Indians' use of paint as symbolic of barbarism. Early colonists likened the painted Indians they met to the pagan Celtic warriors of ancient Britain, who painted their bodies blue. For this reason, missionaries believed that an important part of their project to "civilize" the Indians was convincing their converts to cease their customs of bodily decoration.
Gustavus Hesselius, Portrait of <i>Lapowinsa,</i> 1735.
Gustavus Hesselius, Portrait of Lapowinsa, 1735.
Indians, however, resisted such attempts because these practices fulfilled a variety of purposes within their own culture. Bear's grease (referred to as bear's fat by Zinzendorf) was a natural insect repellent. Body paint could also reflect its wearer's spiritual state of mind, such as mourning or aggression.

Body paint was also a means of distinguishing one's self at public councils, in the same manner that Europeans wore special clothing or jewelry as markers of their status when in public. Some Indian men and women also practiced tattooing, using natural dyes to create linear designs on their faces, limbs, and torsos.

All human cultures have their own systems of color symbolism, and the Indians of colonial Pennsylvania were no different in this regard. Colonial traders and diplomatic agents learned quickly that Indians associated certain colors with certain ideas or emotions. In general, bright colors and reflective objects, such as white shell beads and silver jewelry, represented peace and spiritual power. On the other hand, black was a color of mourning and grief, and red was often used to convey messages of war.

Europeans overwhelmingly associated an Indian in body paint with warfare, but it is important to remember that Indians followed this custom for a variety of other reasons that had little to do with violence or conflict.
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