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The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis

July 2024
16min read

The dignified portrait, opposite, of Bear’s Belly, an Arikara Indian warrior of the eastern plains, wrapped in a bearskin, the symbol of his personal medicine—and the photographs of the other native Americans on the following pages—are a sampling of a wondrous, but almost unknown, publishing project that took one dedicated photographer-author, Edward S. Curds—sometimes directing a staff of up to sixty assistants—thirty years to complete and that the spellbound New York Herald called in 1907, when Curds’ first illustrated volumes began to appear, “the most gigantic in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible. …”

The result of a singularly lucky stroke that brought together the odd combination of a talented photographer, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the financial giant J. Pierpont Morgan, and did it at the last possible moment when Indians could be photographed as they were before their lives were altered by white men, Curds’ huge work consisted of twenty sumptuous volumes of text and hand-printed, sepia-toned photogravures, each one accompanied by a portfolio of thirty-six or more large photogravures printed, also by hand, on 18” x 22” sheets. Titled collectively The North American Indian and containing a total of more than two thousand stunning photographs of some eighty different tribes, the forty volumes and portfolios were issued over a twenty-three-year period, from 1907 to 1930. They were sold to subscribers at a price that averaged $3,500 a set, depending upon the method of payment. Curds’ original plan was to publish five hundred sets, but he sold only two hundred fourteen of them and limited his printing to that number of sets. Today they are highly prized collector’s items, reposing principally in the rare-book rooms of libraries and little known to the general public. When occasionally they appear at auctions, they bring prices in the neighborhood of $35,000 a set, and even individual prints sometimes sell for several hundred dollars each if in good condition.


Curds, who was born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868, was something of a driven man, convinced early in life that the Indians were a vanishing people and determined that he would publish a set of books recording with text and pictures their customs in peace and war, their ceremonies, and their religious observances. His ambitious undertaking, requiring years of arduous field research and photographic trips, heavy costs for supplies, printing, and publishing—not to mention a livelihood for himself, his family, and his assistants—faced disaster many times; and in the end he collapsed with a mental and physical breakdown that put him in the hospital for two years. But by fanatic perseverence he accomplished his goal, taking some forty thousand pictures of almost every tribe in Alaska and the trans-Mississippi West between 1898 and 1930 and compiling a monumental record of the aboriginal people as they were before their own way of life disappeared or changed. Yet while the enormous ethnological importance of Curds’ work and the breathtaking quality of his photography place him in the first rank of those who captured the image of the unconquered Indian, he himself has remained as little known as his magnificent books. It is ironic that toward the end of his life, with his Indian volumes already published, he worked in relative obscurity in such jobs as still cameraman in Hollywood on the set of Cecil B. De Mule’s Ten Commandments .

A limited edition of the entire set of Curtis gravures, as well as individual copies taken from the original plates of those appearing in this portfolio, are available to AMERICAN HERITAGE subscribers. Information on either the sets or individual gravures may be obtained by writing to Mr. Martin Rapp, American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, New York 10020.

Curds’ photography of Indians began soon after he first arrived at Puget Sound from Wisconsin in 1887, when he was nineteen. In the Midwest he had already learned the photographer’s trade. Fascinated by a stereopticon given him when he was a boy by his father, a Civil War veteran and minister in the United Brethren Church, and inspired by a book on photography, he had built his own camera, using two wooden boxes and the stereo lenses. In time he landed a job in a St. Paul photographic gallery, working in a darkroom and taking commercial pictures. When his father fell ill and the family migrated to the milder climate of Washington Territory, Edward went along and helped build a log cabin in what was still sparsely settled country across Puget Sound from Seattle.

His father died soon after the move, and Edward, one of” four brothers and sisters, became the chief breadwinner, taking odd jobs like the others but also buying a good camera and bringing in money from his photography. There were many picturesque subjects in the area—the mountains and dense forests, still almost wilderness, the new settlements in the Washington valleys, and the shipping in Puget Sound. But there were also many Indians, survivors of numerous coastal tribes, and Curtis was drawn more and more to them as subjects, paying them a dollar or so to pose for portraits and photographing them as they fished, trapped, and hunted seals in the harbors. Less than forty years before, he recognized, these Indians had been the proud, free owners of the region. Then they were crushed, forced to cede their lands, and overrun and debauched by white society. As he photographed them he imagined what they had been like before the white man came. Although theirs was now a life of poverty, sickness, alcoholism, and helplessness—the demoralized plight of what most people of the time considered a vanishing race—Curtis increasingly tried to idealize them, to picture them as they might have looked in the past. Taking great pains with the poses, settings, expressive actions, and dress and ornamentation of his subjects and making sure, as he once explained, that no sign of white civilization crept into his shots, he strove for an evocative quality that would convey the original dignity and humanity of the tribesmen. In addition, to heighten the dramaticmood he frequently retouched his negatives, printing them with a soft and fuzzy tone that eliminated many background details. The net effect, of course, was a misrepresentation of reality, but this did not bother him.

His Indian pictures, displayed and sold in a Seattle photograph store, soon became very popular, and several of them, entered in contests and photographic exhibitions that toured the United States and Europe, won prizes and medals. In 1892 he married and, with a hundred fifty dollars of borrowed money, bought a partnership in a Seattle studio. Two years later he became sole owner, continuing to photograph local Indians but also catering to the market for scenic views of the Northwest. Becoming a skilled mountaineer in the process, he photographed the peaks of the Cascades, particularly Mount Rainier. There, in 1898, he came upon a lost party and guided it to safety. It proved to be a turning point in his life. Among the group he rescued were several nationally prominent persons, including Gifford Pinchot, chief of the United States Forest Service, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the United States Biological Survey, and George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine and a well-known naturalist and writer on the Blackfoot Indians.

Grinnell and Curtis became good friends, and the following year Grinnell, who was greatly impressed by Curtis’ Indian photographs, invited him to accompany a twomonth exploring expedition by ship along the Alaskan coast, organized and financed by E. H. Harriman, the railroad tycoon. It was a boatload of famous men. Among the passengers were John Muir, who was then studying glaciers, John Burroughs, the ornithologist and author, and Henry Gannett of the United States Geological Survey. Curtis, the chief photographer, had an opportunity to widen his circle of influential friends and with an assistant, D. G. Inverarity of Seattle, took more than five thousand photographs.

When it was over, Grinnell invited him on another excursion the next year, this time on a visit for two weeks to the Piegan Indians, one of the Blackfoot tribes, in northern Montana. Grinnell’s friendship with the Indians permitted the two men to observe the sacred ceremony of the sun dance, as well as intimate details of tribal daily life. The experience made an enormous impact on Curtis and inspired the project that was to occupy him for the next thirty years. Unlike the crushed and dispossessed Indians around Puget Sound, the Piegans, he noted, still retained a large measure of their original culture. What he and Grinnell had been privileged to view, he felt, was known to few white men and would soon be gone.

He broached his idea to Grinnell—to visit every tribe in the West, studying and photographing them and publishing their histories with pictures and text that he would write. The project, he estimated, would take five or six years of his own and an assistant’s time, might cost as much as $25,000, and could be financed by sales of his pictures and of the finished sets of perhaps several volumes. When he was done, he told Grinnell, he would have a lasting record of the “Indian as he was in his normal, noble life so people will know he was no debauched vagabond but a man of proud stature and noble heritage.” Grinnell responded enthusiastically to the proposal, gave Curtis a short course in the kinds of questions to ask and information to gather among the tribes, and assured him of his support in making his work known to others.

Curtis was off almost immediately, like a man possessed. Within ten days, after a brief stop in Seattle, where he put his studio affairs in the hands of associates, he was on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, commencing to photograph as if he feared that the other tribes would disappear before he could get to them. After the Hopis he moved through the Arizona desert and along the Gila and Colorado rivers, photographing the Navahos, Apaches, Mohaves, and other southwestern tribes. From time to time, between 1900 and 1904, he returned to Seattle with his glass-plate negatives, making and selling prints to keep himself going, then hurrying off to photograph more tribes.

It was a grueling, committed life, full of frustrations, difficulties, and hardships in the field; but, as Curds later said, he thought of himself as a man with a mission whose time was running out. Tall, rugged, and husky, still in his thirties, he was generally able to maintain good health as he drove his rattling photographic wagon across the reservations, through all kinds of terrain and climate, visiting remote villages, hunting camps, fishing stations, and sacred sites. He lived in the deserts, the mountains, the open plains, and the deep forests. Sometimes there were no roads, and he had to travel by packhorse. He started with a 14” x 17” box camera with a fine German lens, but it was big and cumbersome, and he switched eventually to an 11 X 14, and finally to a 6 X 8, reflex camera. He used a tripod and natural lighting for all of his pictures and took most of his portraits of Indians in his tent, which was lined with a maroon-colored drape and had a skylight on one side, with a curtain to control the light. Almost all of his pictures were taken on glass plates that were heavy, fragile, and hard to handle in the field; he carried them in trunks and changed them into their holders in a changing bag or in his tent at night.

Curtis started with relatively little knowledge of Indian history or culture, and his early attitudes reflected the white man’s conventional point of view about them. He referred to the Hopis’ religious beliefs as “superstitious” and their sacred rites and ceremonies as “esoteric.” He was sometimes frustrated by headmen in getting the pictures he wanted and said there was no use arguing with them, for “Indian logic is apart from the American’s.” But he was becoming a good student of human nature and developing increasing patience, diplomacy, and, above all, a growing understanding of the Indian’s point of view about himself and about all white men. They recognized his genuine sympathy and helped him secure the pictures and historic and cultural information he wanted.

It was rarely easy to tell Indians what to wear and where and how to pose and, in addition, to ply them with questions about their religious beliefs and other secret and personal details. But by trial and error Curtis learned how to win over most of his subjects. Sometimes he gained acceptance through the help of a paid interpreter or a missionary or a government agent. At other times he got what he wanted by simply paying the Indians or buying them a meal. He learned to practice guile and go through long periods of patient waiting, during which he did his best to seem uninterested and “innocent,” until gradually he won friendship and confidence. Seemingly idle conversation about nature, he found, would attract an Indian’s curiosity and lead him to talk about other things. Once, to get Apache shamans to reveal the secrets of their religious life, he spent days assuming a “nonchalant indifference.” In time he found himself being accepted. Presently he paid some of the Apaches to take trips with him in the mountains. More and more people—men, women, and children, and finally shamans—came along. “Had the medicine men dreamed,” he said, “that I possessed a real questioning thought, nothing could have induced them to join the party. But no—I was just a sucker furnishing the food and paying for the privilege.” At last, totally trusting him, the shamans “went on with their devotions,” oblivious to the white man who was carefully watching. The final step, taking the pictures, required only a bit more time.

Late in the fall of 1904 Curds took stock of his situation and realized that he was far from achieving his goal. There were still many more tribes unvisited than visited, and he had not started on his books. He was running out of money. He returned to Seattle and placed some of his best pictures on public exhibition, but the acclaim they received in the newspapers and from the public did not solve his problem. With the aid of some of his influential friends in the East, including E. H. Harriman, Pinchot, and Grinnell, who published a flattering article about his work, he arranged for a series of exhibits and lectures on Indians in Washington, D.C. There Curtis came to the White House to photograph Geronimo, who had been brought to the national capital to participate in Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration, and the photographer was then presented to the President. Roosevelt admired his work greatly and urged him to continue with it. But still there was no money, and Curtis spent most of the rest of the year lecturing at exhibits of his photographs in a half dozen cities from Boston to Portland, Oregon, and selling prints merely to pay his expenses.

By November he realized that without the help of a wealthy patron he could not go on with his project. Roosevelt’s interest in his pictures gave him an idea, and rather desperately Curtis wrote to him seeking advice and a testimonial that might help him raise funds. The President replied on December 18, 1905, providing Curtis with a laudatory letter that he could use “in talking with any man who has any interest in the subject.” The President’s response, praising Curtis for engaging in “one of the most valuable works which any American could now do,” gave him a lift and encouraged him toward his next step. On January 24, 1906, undoubtedly as a result of his use of Roosevelt’s letter, he received an appointment on Wall Street with the nation’s most powerful financier, J. Pierpont Morgan the Elder.

The meeting was a success. After showing Morgan a portfolio of his prints Curtis won from him a grant of $15,000 a year for five years to be used for his field expenses. The two men agreed that the first of the books would be published as soon as possible in a limited, finely printed and bound edition of five hundred copies, that each book would be accompanied by a large-sized portfolio of Curds’ prints, and that Morgan would receive twenty-five sets for himself. The high subscription price of three thousand dollars a set, Morgan estimated, would more than meet the publishing costs.

Buoyed by his good fortune, Curtis hurried back to the field with plans to have his first two volumes in the hands of the printer within a year. Aided by a number of assistants, including a skilled stenographer who took down in rapid shorthand an interpreter’s version of the Indians’ replies to his questions, Curtis travelled rapidly from one reservation to the next in the Southwest, completing his research. In the winter of 1906-7 he and his assistants settled down in a hideaway for three months to prepare the text for publication. “Our regular working hours during these months were from eight in the morning until one the next morning, seven days a week,” he later wrote. Even his family did not know where he was, and there were no interruptions.

The text, a mixture of ethnological material, Indian history, reminiscences, biography, and lore, as well as Curds’ accounts of his photographic adventures, was not, as might be expected, the work of a trained scientist. But it was filled with informative material gathered by no one else, and much of it, particularly the narratives of older Indians, would have a lasting value. Finished in the spring of 1907, it was taken to the printer in Boston by one of Curds’ assistants, who remained in the East to oversee publication while Curtis returned to the field with an even larger party than before, completing research among the Sioux and other Plains tribes for Volumes in and iv. The first two books and their portfolios, dealing with the Apaches, Navahos, and other tribes of the Southwest, came off the press in December, 1907, and were sent to those who had already subscribed for the set.

The books, printed by the University Press of Cambridge, with soft, sepia photogravures hand printed from copperplates by John Andrew and Son in Boston, were as luxurious as advertised. The volumes contained some three hundred fifty quarto pages,measuring 9½″ x 12½″, printed on two different handmade papers of the highest and most expensive quality, one an imported Japanese vellum and the other a special Dutch etching stock, called Van Gelder, that heightened the rich feeling of the photographs. The binding was three-quarter levant with gold tops. The work itself was enhanced by the editing of Frederick Webb Hodge of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington, one of the nation’s top recognized authorities on the Indian, who was then in the midst of his own monumental Handbook of American Indians, North of Mexico , and by a foreword written for the first volume by President Roosevelt, who by then had become quite friendly with Curds and had already employed him to take the photographs at the wedding of his daughter, Alice, to Nicholas Longworth.

The project, however, almost stopped there. Despite an appreciative reception from the subscribers and various newspapers that were apprised of the publication (the backing of the President and of Morgan, who donated nineteen of his twenty-five copies to libraries, made it a news event), Curtis still had only a small number of subscribers, not all of whom had yet paid him, and he could not meet publication costs for the next two volumes. Seattle banks had promised him loans, but the Panic of 1907 had occurred, and they had reneged. After spending another winter of uninterrupted work, this time in a log cabin in the Montana Rockies, preparing the text for Volumes III and IV, Curtis hurried to New York, desperate again. “Just how I pulled through, I do not know,” he said. But mostly by persuading some of his wealthier subscribers to pay him in full he was able to get the next two volumes to press.

Still, the project’s road was a bumpy one. Morgan’s money financed the field work, but there was no guarantee that publication costs could continue to be met. In 1909, recognizing the problem, Morgan helped Curtis set up a corporation, The North American Indian, Inc., to handle the business details and meet the expenses of publishing the books. Then, in January, 1912, the original five-year agreement with Morgan for field money came to an end, and Curtis could not ask the financier to extend the grant. Save for a few weeks in the West he spent more than a year trying to find new subscribers whose payments would underwrite the field costs. At the end of June, 1912, he gave up the effort, and with what little money he had raised (principally, he said, through a second mortgage on his house), he rejoined his assistants in the field, “inadequately outfitted and short of funds to do efficient work.”

The next year, with Volume ix on its way to press, the elder Morgan died in Europe, alarming Curtis that now his publication support would end. Fortunately the financier’s son, J. P. Morgan the Younger, assumed his father’s commitment, apparently even opening a line of credit for the publishing corporation at his bank. After that the project rolled more smoothly, with Curtis frequently able to hire large staffs to assist him with his photographic work, logistics, and research. Two volumes, with their portfolios, appeared in 1915 and 1916, and nine between 1922 and 1930, when Volume XX, the last one, was issued. Through the years Curtis continued to drive himself and his assistants, often working twenty hours a day for days at a Stretch. His last field trip, conducted principally in a forty-foot boat, was made in 1927 to Alaska, where he photographed Eskimo life for his final volume.

With the set finally completed, Curds suffered a nervous breakdown and physical collapse. By 1932, however, he was recovered and lived another twenty years, turning his interest to other things, including an expedition to some mines in South America, occasional photographic projects, and the writing of several books. His great Indian volumes, stowed away in rare-book rooms, were almost entirely forgotten, and their magnificent photographs remained generally unknown. On October 21, 1952, at the age of eightyfour, Curtis died in Los Angeles, where he and his family had moved from Seattle.

In 1935, after a total of two hundred fourteen sets had been sold, a representative of the Morgan interests had meanwhile sold the assets of The North American Indian, Inc., to the Boston bookdealer and publisher Charles E. Lauriat for a thousand dollars plus royalties. Included were a small number of unsold sets, several thousand individual prints, unbound sheets, and the handmade copperplates from which the books and portfolios had been made. For some reason all of Curtis’ original glass-plate negatives, which had been stored in a basement of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, were never shipped to Lauriat, and during World War n they were unwittingly dispersed. Some of them were destroyed, but many of them, sold as junk, ended up in the hands of collectors. In Boston, Lauriat found purchasers for the few sets he had acquired and then, from the unbound material, supplemented by material printed from the original plates, he assembled and sold fourteen more sets, bringing the total number of them marketed by Curtis and himself to two hundred seventy-two. From time to time private collectors and others showed an interest in buying the copperplates from Lauriat and bringing out a new, cheaper edition of Curtis’ set. But always the costs proved too high, and potential purchasers of such a set would turn out to be scarce.

In the late 1950’s, however, public interest in Indians began to revive, and researchers began to come on Curtis’ books. Republication of several of his photographs in The American Heritage Book of Indians in 1961 was followed by the printing of more of his pictures in other publications and, finally, by the issuing of illustrated books devoted entirely to Curtis and his Indian photographs.

Today a new and exciting chapter in Curtis’ saga is under way. Two years ago a group of investors in Santa Fe finally purchased all of Lauriat’s remaining Curtis materials. Soon afterward they were joined by a group in Boston, headed by John A. Sodergren, a graduate student in anthropology at Harvard, and David Napior, who with Sodergren owns a small social-research firm in Cambridge. The two groups combined into a Massachusetts corporation of eleven individuals, using the old name, North American Indian, Inc., to take up the publishing of Curds’ books and prints where Curtis and Lauriat had left off.

Doing business as Curtis Gravures, the group has already sold a few complete sets, several individual volumes, and a number of the prints that came to them from Lauriat. But following the high standards set by Curtis—making prints by hand from the original copperplates on a flat-bed press and using the best paper, printing, and binding available—they plan to produce and sell two hundred twenty-eight new sets, matching those made by Curtis, and thus complete the 5oo-set edition originally planned.

In one of his interviews, when he was still busy with his project, Curtis was asked what Americans had made of the Indian—a question that he answered, ironically, in terms of what he had seen and come to feel but had taken great pains not to photograph. “We made of him,” he replied, “a race totally discouraged. … Forced to the wall, with no escape, he has accepted his dull fate with the grim stoicism of his race, and has ceased to try to combat or avert it. Our efforts to extend assistance to him have been insincere and he has known it; linked, unwillingly, with cupidity and stupid lack of understanding, even the work of those few honest men who really tried to help him has been wasted- has been worse than wasted, for it has been harmful. We have always wronged the Indian but the greatest wrongs we are doing him today are born of our misunderstanding of him. The hardest of his manifold misfortunes came through the ever-changing policies by which we managed him after he had been fully conquered. We have ever been and still are vacillating and uncertain in our dealings with him. …”

Curds’ photographs have sometimes been criticized for showing none of the wrongs he saw. Although he photographed Indians when the authoritarian hand of government agents, of missionaries, and of soldiers lay heavily on the reservations and when the tribal peoples were enduring the period of their greatest suffering—many of them shorn of their leadership and traditional organizations, subjected to harsh punishments, denied freedoms, and often maintained at near-starvation levels—Curds’ idealized pictures give no hint of any of it. That, however, was not his goal as he originally expressed it to Grinnell in 1900 and as he carried it through to completion thirty years later.

Are they perversions of the truth or, at best, the fictional works of a romantic who paid Indians to show tfiemselves, not as they were, but as he wanted them to be? Look closely into those faces. Even as they bore the oppression and misery that Curtis did not picture, they show the dignity and pride that defied and endured it. This, if anything, is the greatness of Curtis’ Indian photographs. For all Americans, now and in the future, this is the way Curtis wanted us to remember them.


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