LET ME GET THERE

Russian Cossacks [1905]

For whatever reason, Sherman appears to have photographed the distinctively dressed people he captioned "Russian Cossacks" more than any other ethnic group he ran across at Ellis Island.  Between 1905 and the early 1920s, Sherman made at least eleven separate portraits from several groups of arrivals.

In one sense, Sherman was correct in captioning the individuals as "Russian Cossacks", for that was indeed how they were referred to in the work they were about to take up, or return to, upon entering the United States. But in reality they were neither ethnic Russians, nor Cossacks: they were masterful trick riders from the Guria region of western Georgia who, in most cases, had been contracted to work with Buffalo Bill's and Pawnee Bill's Wild West shows. First performing at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, dozens of Georgian riders (mostly men but also some women) would continue traveling back and forth between Imperial Russia and the United States until the WWI era. Some stayed and went on to become naturalized U.S. citizens, including at least one of the individuals in the group photo above, but by far most went back to the Caucuses permanently after accumulating enough earnings to advance their position back home.Another of Sherman's "Russian Cossack" portraits features three individuals from the group photo. Here we see some of the individuals in close up, revealing the stark characteristics of a people seemingly ready for both defense and offense immediately after disembarking at Ellis Island. But it would be a mistake to take these, or any of Sherman's photos, at face value. These individuals are first and foremost performers and here we see them in a warm up for the Wild West Shows that awaited the group; several had already been to the U.S. and back, working for such shows. Like the Issa Somali, it's likely that the group made some serious wardrobe changes before posing for the photos—or they stayed in character during their journey precisely to attract attention.

Sherman's group photo of ten riders is not unlike many of his other photos. The individuals cast an exotic appearance and even though in this case they are quite literally caucasian, they're also simultaneously alien outsiders who bear little resemblance to the rapidly industrializing urban citizenry of early 20th century America.

Most have not removed their Papakha (high fur hat) and all are dressed in a traditional Adjarian chokha (thick woolen coat), replete with the imposing gazyr (cloth fold to hold a rifle charge) across their breasts. Half of the men clutch a khanjali (double-edged dagger). All of these elements have been part of the national Georgian men's traditional costume for centuries and though each would have seemed utterly alien to anything in the U.S. at the time, they are also somewhat reminiscent of the classic semi-nomadic outlaw cowboy. Exchange the dagger for a gun, the gazyr for a holster and belt, put them on a horse, and the space between the two types narrows dramatically. This was no coincidence.

Leaving the Caucasus for Buffalo Bill's Wild West

The group appears to have entered Ellis Island on 30 April 1905 without delay or detention.  They arrived on the S.S. La Lorraine from Le Havre, France; each was listed as an artist, stating a last place of residence as Batoum, Russia (i.e. Batumi, Georgia) and had $20 to their name. The final destination of the individuals was split between two locations: seven were bound for New York and three for Chicago. The ones headed to Chicago listed their local contact as "Captain Dimitri, Manager, Russian Cossacks", who most likely was to be the group's organizer. It's unclear what became of the group, except for at least one (Noi Tsilosani) who appears to have gone on to become a U.S. citizen, decades after his arrival in 1905.  

By the early 1900s, some Georgian riders were traveling with Pawnee Bill's Ethnological Congress, where "Prince Lucas' [i.e. Luka Chkhartishvili] Famous Cavalry from the Steppes of Russia" would perform in a show dedicated to the Great Far East.1  Besides Buffalo Bill's movable spectacles, other smaller circuses and sideshows regularly featured Russian Cossacks, but left fewer traces in archival material. I've not been able to uncover any further movements of the group; this might be because they were engaged with smaller enterprises or because they simply returned back home.

Like the other group photos by Sherman discussed in this chapter, the story behind the "Russian Cossack" image takes the reader/viewer in unexpected directions and lesser known territory.2  Not so well known is the fact that the decades of public performances across the U.S. and interaction among Georgians and Buffalo Bill's show cowboys actually ended up significantly influencing the latter and spread to real-life cowboys, mostly with regard to horsemanship and possibly attire.
Dee Brown writes:

Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo. Colorful costumes seem to be a necessary part of trick riding, and it is quite possible that the outlandish western garb which has invaded rodeo area can be blamed directly on Cossacks and trick riders.3

Several contemporary artists have reworked Sherman's Cossack riders: some painstakingly colorizing them, while others, such as Julia Soboleva, have transformed them into stylized but extremely sensitive works of art.

Contemporary Georgians are quite proud of the little known story of how some of their countrymen made a mark in America more than a century ago.  In 2018, Tbilisi’s Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art featured an exhibit titled "Georgian Horsemen in America" that tells their story visually.

Perhaps it's an odd legacy to leave, but besides the fact that a small number of other Georgian riders that emigrated and stayed in the U.S. became naturalized citizens, it's one that has left a lasting mark on a subject once thought to be quintessentially American.

Notes

1 In conjunction with Pawnee Bill's national tour, dozens of newspapers ran advertisements that billed the Cossacks with some unusual company. For example, The Owosso Times ran a panel in 1905 that described a show "Resplendent in Oriental Splendor, with Arabs, Russian Cossacks, Cannibals, East Indians, Egyptians, Singalese, Hindoos, Filipinos, Boers and Strange People from every section of the Tropical Climates." This reflects a change in Bill's 1000 strong troupe and program that highlighted exotic spectacles over wild west themes. There's a link between that change and the fact that Colonial Expositions were steadily growing in size and popularity at the time—and that the U.S. was quietly (and violently) expanding its own empire, from the Philippines to the Caribbean. Under the guise of the terribly misguided applied science of eugenics and racist anthropology, ethnological expositions were a stark but sublime method of showing dominance over colonial possessions and to reinforce notions of white superiority over other racial types.

2 The only book-length examination of the broader subject is Irakli Makharadze's 2015 Georgian trick riders in American wild west shows, 1890s-1920s. Makharadze also created a dedicated website that's loaded with amazing photos and a concise summaries of the story. He's also has written a number of other books exploring the lives of 19th and early 20th century immigrant Georgians in the U.S. After matching the ship's manifest to Sherman's photo, I contacted Makharadze and he helped confirm some of the individual identities.

3 Brown, D., & Schmitt, M. F. (1994). The American West. New York: Scribner, 388.

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