August 7, 2020 by Rob Cook
In doing this blog, I have always drawn heavily on the best sources I could find. In the case of Edward S. Curtis, it is Timothy Egan and Laurie Lawlor. Egan is the author of the book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of EDWARD CURTIS,” and Lawlor is the author of the wonderful book, “Shadow Catcher: The Life and Works of Edward S. Curtis.” Timothy Egan’s book was the most detailed biography I have ever read, and Laurie Lawlor’s writing style made this very complicated story much easier to understand. I based much of the structure of this paper off of these books. They made this mythical figure come alive for me, and I really connected to their work. If you get a chance to pick up either book, you won’t be disappointed.
The Early Days
“Edward S. Curtis was a true Renaissance man and an extraordinary American hero.” He stands equal with the greats of photography, but for almost one-hundred years, his work was largely unknown. I have wanted to write a paper on Curtis ever since I became acquainted with him while at Utah State University in the 1980s.
After decades of virtual obscurity, he was rediscovered in the early 1970s. Recently, he has been the focus of numerous studies and exhibitions all over the world. But, he was much more than a photographer; he was also a writer of considerable distinction, whose special interest lay in storytelling and mythology. Many Natives called him Shadow Catcher. But the images and stories he captured were far more powerful than mere shadows.
Edward Sherriff Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868 and grew up near Cordova, Minnesota. At that time, the area was still considered wild and untamed. His father, Asahel “Johnson” Curtis, had neither luck nor money most of his life. Edward never knew his father to be anything but ill or bedridden. He was permanently disabled and in a bad mood most of the time. He served as a private in the Union Army, never recovering his health or finding his way in life. “Among other things he brought home in his knapsack was a lens from a stereoscopic camera – something he had probably picked up from a fellow soldier. Neither Johnson nor any of his relatives could have guessed how this simple stereoscopic lens would one day change the Curtis family fortune.”
When his dad was able, he would travel the back roads of Minnesota, preaching the word of God. Young Edward would accompany his dad on these journeys:
They went by canoe, just as the Indians had done, plying the waterways of still wild Minnesota. Ed learned to make a fire and cook a meal out of whatever fish or salamander he could find or warm-blooded critter he could shoot. The gothic Christianity of the United Brethren Church was not for him; it was so joyless, so life-smothering with its rules and prohibitions. But the outdoors, the open country – there was a church Ed Curtis could feel at home in.
Having completed his formal education by age twelve, Curtis built his first camera, using the lens his father had brought back from the Civil War and $1.25 he had saved to purchase the remaining materials. “Curtis thus launched a photographic career that would later take him to the very highest echelons of American society and power and to friendships with some of the greatest tribal leaders of the nineteenth century:”
In his teens, Curtis spent a great deal of time studying and experimenting with photographic techniques and theory, and at the age of seventeen, he moved to St. Paul, where he briefly spent time as an apprentice photographer. He undoubtedly gained further proficiency in the technical fundamentals of the camera and the craft of producing fine prints and studied the principles of photographic portraiture while on his way to becoming a serious and dedicated practitioner.
When his oldest brother, Raphael, left home, young Edward had to step up and be a man:
The preacher grew more sickly and useless. At fourteen, Ed Curtis inherited a heavy burden: he would have to support the whole family, including both parents. He got a job working for the railroad, rising to become a supervisor. Because of his height, he looked much older than his actual age. He killed muskrat and turtle still, brought more fish to the family table, tilled a large garden, and used his earnings for cloth and sugar and tobacco. The winter of 1886-87 nearly finished off the Curtis family. The preacher was bedridden during the cold months, wailing and complaining. In the spring, the fledgling crops of the new season died in a seizure of frost. The money from the rail job dried up after one of the periodic panics that shut down the unregulated American economy. Broke, facing real hunger and no future, the Curtis family was left with no option but to look further west.
Immigration Further West
In the fall of 1887, Edward and his father arrived in the Puget Sound area of the upper North West. The land had recently been colonized after treaties with the Indians had opened the door to a land grab. To Edward, it was paradise. “Here was Eden in the mist.” A reporter for the Atlantic Monthly described it as “perhaps the most primeval patch of temperate zone then under the American flag. Bays within bays, inlets on inlets, seas linking seas, over 12,000 square miles of surface, the waters come and go past a splendid succession of islands, promontories, walls of forest and towering mountains.”
To survive, Curtis and his brother had to forage for what they could to keep the family alive. They raised fruits and vegetables, caught seafood, and found occasional menial work.” The trials that young Edward had to endure set him on the course for his future life. It made him the man he was to become:
Curtis had to be the clam digger, up to his knees in Puget Sound muck. Curtis had been the berry picker, his arms sliced with surface cuts from rummaging through thorny thickets above the shore. Curtis had scraped away at whatever he could find in the tidal flats, whatever could be felled or milled or monetized to keep a family fed. He’d lived a subsistence life, his hands a pair of blistered claws, his joints raw from the rock moving and logrolling . . . . Ed Curtis supplemented the meager offerings at the family table with snapping turtles and muskrat he caught in the creek; one made a bowl of soup, the other could be smoked and eaten as a snack. It was never enough.
That first winter in paradise, the temperatures were mild. The Curtis men settled a piece of land across from Seattle. “Their acreage was crowded with evergreens, alders, and maples, and sloped down to the water’s edge. In the clearing, Curtis could look out at the tall ships on the way to Seattle, and could see what would become a magnificent obsession — the 14,411-foot cone of Mount Rainier.” Everywhere Curtis turned, there were trees and mountains. “On one side were the Olympics and on the other side were the Cascades. Young Edward cut down spruce trees and built a cabin with the timber. Fruit trees were planted, and a big garden was established.”
In the spring of 1888, the rest of the Curtis family moved west. The family was complete for the first time in a year. It was not to last, though. Within three days after their arrival West, Pastor Curtis died having caught pneumonia.
At age 20, the responsibility for the family again fell on Edward’s shoulders, so he went fishing:
The salmon were huge – big Chinooks weighed thirty pounds or more – and millions of them flooded the waterways that emptied into Puget Sound; all a man had to do was be minimally alert and modestly competent with net or pole. He fixed things for hire, helping widows and disabled men with bent axles and faulty stoves and broken plows. He picked berries. The salmonberries, were the most exotic; huckleberries, the tastiest, though he had to hike into the foothills to get at them. He plucked oysters from the mud, dug clams, chipped mussels from half-submerged logs. He cut wood, splitting firs and spruce for house framing purposes, and alder and maple for stove fuel.
Things were beginning to look up for the Curtis family, but then life came crashing down for Edward. One day while out working, he fell off a log and severely injured his spine. At age 22, he was confined to his bed and could barely walk, let alone provide for the family. This was an awful time for Edward but also a time that proved pivotal to his future as a photographer:
It was awful not being able to get around, watching his mother put together a meal of boiled potatoes and bacon grease. Out the window, though, was a world that gave flight to his spirit. He became a close observer: how the color of the land would change subtly in shifting light, the moments in midmorning when the fog lifted, or breaks in the afternoon between rain showers, when he could see the spectrum of the rainbow in a single drop held by a rhododendron leaf.
During this time, another pivotal event happed in Edward’s life. Sixteen-year-old Clara Phillips started to visit the bedridden man. Clara was described as having long, thick dark hair and a feisty nature. Her family had immigrated to Puget Sound looking for a better life. “Clara was different from the other homesteader children; She used fancy words from books and was curious about things beyond their years. When she met Edward, Clara had not yet finished her schooling, and she fascinated him with all the things she knew that he did not.”
Edward and Clara would spend hours talking. “When Curtis talked of what he wanted to become when he regained his mobility, she alone seemed to believe him. There would be no more berry picking or clam digging, no more woodcutting or fence fixing. He would no longer put his back into his living.”
One day when Clara came to visit, she found Edward sitting up captivated by a strange device on the kitchen table: “a 14-by-17-inch view camera, capable of holding a slice of life on a large-format glass-plate negative with such clarity it made people gasp.” The camera didn’t come cheap. It had been purchased from a traveler looking to raise money for a trip to the gold fields. Edward’s mother thought it was a waste of money, but Edward had a plan, “he would borrow $150 against the property and use the cash for a move across the Sound to Seattle. He had heard about a picture studio in town that needed a new partner.”
Success in Seattle
The Seattle of 1891 was described as a bustling seaport with well over 50,000 residents. It had with hills all around it and a university in the center of town:
Newly mobile in 1891, Curtis went off to Seattle to make a go of it. What he knew about studio photography was laughable. And who would support the family? But in a new town, in a new land, he could fail almost without consequence. What he brought to the city was unbridled curiosity. In Seattle the $150 stake was enough to buy Edward a name on a storefront, “Rothi and Curtis, Photographers,” and an apprenticeship to a dominating partner. Clara joined Curtis in the city, scandalizing her family. She lived in a boarding house – the same one as Curtis. Their mind was made up, they married in 1892, she was eighteen, and he was twenty-four- years old.
Success came quickly. Curtis left Rothi and joined Thomas Guptill in a much bigger enterprise, a studio on Second Avenue with photoengraving facilities. The Curtis couple lived above the shop until a baby, Harold, born in 1893, prompted a move up the hill. By 1895, just four years after his prolonged convalescence, Curtis was a Seattle celebrity, his name known around the Pacific Northwest. He had money to stuff the house on Eighth Avenue with fine furniture. More importantly, it was big enough to bring the rest of the family over. His mother, his sister Eva, his brother Asahel, Clara’s sister Nellie, and two of her relatives – they all moved in.
Following his entrepreneurial instincts, Curtis was seldom at home:
He mastered the artistry of working with a box to capture light and shadow and the way a personality could change with a gaze one way or a tilt of the head the other, but was equally skilled at technical details. Curtis grew the beard that became his trademark, wore stylish clothes, and learned fast how to charm the leading citizens of the city. Photoengraving was laborious; each picture was finished by hand, with a honeyed sepia tone. But Curtis wanted nothing of shortcuts . . .. He preferred the quality and detailing he could get with glass-plate negatives, no matter how heavy, dangerous and expensive. There was more than enough work at the studio that Curtis could hire his brother Asahel, as an apprentice in 1895.
Curtis adopted Seattle, and Seattle had adopted Edward Curtis. Seattle now had over 100,000 citizens and on pace to double that in 10 year:
Yes, he owned the fancy studio downtown, with a portrait-filled parlor that alone was worth a visit. Yes, he was married to a gorgeous woman, dark-haired and intelligent, with one child and a second on the way, and they shared that house up the hill with his mother and other family members. And yes, the discerning Argus Newspaper, well read in the region by the well-fed, had pronounced Curtis and his partner the leading photographers of Puget Sound a mere five years after Curtis mortgaged the family homestead to buy into a picture shop. “One of the greatest examples of business energy and perseverance to be found in Seattle today,” the paper said. If you had any money and beauty or desired both, it was de rigueur to pose for the master who worked behind the standing lens at Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers. The things they could do: the shadows, the painterly effects, the daring nudes (not advertised)! It was portrait photography far ahead of the routine pictures that every family of means displayed in its drawing room. The finished picture could be printed on a gold or silver plaque, a method that was “original to Curtis and Guptill,” the Argus noted, “brilliant and beautiful beyond description.”
In 1895, Curtis probably made the most enduring image of his career. Princess Angeline the gnarled, old hag, the last surviving child of Sealth, Chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish sat for a portrait.
No one knew Angeline’s age. Some thought 100, but the best guess of the time was in her 80s. “She had a deep cough, from tobacco smoke and the ambient chill.” She was described as “The Old Crone.” She was nearly blind, her eyes a quarter-rise slit without noticeable lashes. Said to have a single tooth, she was famous for her ugliness. The living mummy of Princess Angeline was a tourist draw, lured out for the amusement of visiting dignitaries.”
Angeline lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of Seattle. The cabin had two rooms and was dank inside. “If you wanted to dump a bucket of cooking oil or a rusted stove or a body, this was the place to do it. It smelled of viscera, sewage, and raw industry.”
The Hooligans of Seattle took joy in bullying Angeline:
Angeline was prey. Great fun. They taunted the gnarled Indian, threw rocks at her. These ruffians would lurk around the waterfront after school, looking to catch Angeline by surprise, and then they would fire their stones at her and watch her squawk in befuddlement. “You old hag!” the boys shouted. But she gave as good as she got. Under those layers of filthy skirts, Angeline carried rocks for self-defense. She didn’t leave the shack without ammunition. She didn’t hide or retreat, but instead would sink an arthritic hand into one of her many pockets, find a stone and let it rip.
Of course, Curtis knew of Angeline, everybody did. She was the most famous resident in Seattle. Angeline was the perfect subject. He saw in Angeline a face frozen in time. Curtis decided he must take her picture before she was gone.
Curtis approached Angeline with a proposition. He tried a simple negotiation, laying out his idea. Angeline backed away, her hands deep in the pockets. Curtis opened his leather case and displayed a few portraits – He gestured to her and then to the pictures. At last he reached into his pocket and produced some coins. More hand gestures followed. A simple exchange did the trick: money for picture.
Up the hill they walked, Angeline pausing to rest every few steps. Once in the studio it took some time for her to get comfortable. Curtis had her sit and look around the room, daydream if she liked, gave her some tobacco for her pipe. After some time she loosened the bandanna and the scarf.
“No, no! Just as you are.” Curtis said.
She did not smile, not even an attempt, and he did not want her to smile. He was looking for the lethal glare she saved for the boys who threw rocks at her. He hoped to convey a face that had seen worlds change, forests leveled, tidelands filled, people crushed.
He gave Angeline a dollar for her time, equal to a week’s worth of work. What emerged was a face that could knock a door down with its slit-eyed stare. The lines of her face are so deep, so prominent; they look like scars from a knife fight. The portrait of the princess was magnificent, and Curtis knew it.
As good as the portrait was, Curtis was not content. He knew this wasn’t the image he had imagined when he first saw Angeline. He needed to photograph her in her element. Over the next few weeks, Curtis returned to the shack and observed Angeline at work. From this came the inspiration for two more pictures, The Clam Digger and The Muscle Digger. This was more like what he was looking for. “He gave her money to continue her grubbing and prying, as she had for decades. No face was visible, just the hunched-over silhouette. Through his camera, Curtis gave the backbreaking work, which was never considered anything but lowly, a noble patina.”
Less than a year later, Angeline was dead. She died at home on May 31, 1896. The
Newspaper headline blared,
ANGELINE IS NO MORE. AGED INDIAN PRINCESS PASSES INTO THE SPIRIT WORLD.
Her death was news from coast to coast.
From Angeline, Curtis learned about other Duwamish and Suquamish people who lived at the edges of the city, upriver, hidden from view. Curtis watched and waited along the riverbanks for them to return from the fields. When they saw his camera the Indians would shy away, or force an expression.
“No, no. Please. Just as you were,” he would say
From other Indians, he learned about the reservation to the north, the Tulalip, where he was told he could see native people living the old way. He went to that little patch of the Indian realm, became acquainted with the tribal policeman and his wife, and spent hours watching the unremarkable rituals of daily life. Curtis paid the Indians on the Tulalip reservation, just as he had paid Angeline, buying access.
Curtis never considered himself a historian, journalist, or even an ethnologist. Throughout his life, he always felt it was essential to “get it down and get it right.”An excellent example of Edward Curtis’s detailed work was the observations he made of the Northeast Tribes:
Agriculture was unknown” to the Coast Salish, he explained, not because Indians were too stupid to till the ground, but because “the ease with which food could be had from the sea left no incentive for development of agricultural life.
“As a witness, Curtis sensed the value of a diminishing world; it occurred to him in a stark epiphany that if he could capture these closing hours, he would have something of lasting value. This set off the largest, most comprehensive and ambitious photographic odyssey in American history
Edward Curtis not only became a photographer of the first order, he also became an accomplished outdoorsman. From his earliest days lying in bed recovering from his spinal injury, he would look out on Rainer in the distance and dream. Later in life, he actively studied the mountain and became an expert on its different moods. The mountain could be a moody beast. A few minutes were all it took to swing from pristine views to fierce storms and low visibility. Cliffs shrouded by silent, dense fog, meadows bursting with wildflowers and brilliant snowfields covered the mountain in magnificence. For Curtis to get close enough to study his subject, he had to become an avid mountaineer. “Curtis would find his way over ice and above the clouds; he would crawl over crumbling lava rock and slow-tread along shaky snow bridges, making his own path.” Curtis formed a love affair with Rainer.
In seven years, Edward Curtis went from a crippled child to an expert climber and the foremost authority on the area. Whatever it took to get it right, “If getting close to Rainier meant he had to warm himself in steam vents at the summit to keep from freezing, or duck into a snow cave that might smother him in a seismic shrug, he was game for it.”
One fortuitous experience on Mount Rainer helped set the course for Curtis’s future path in life.
One Day while almost two miles above Seattle on the cliffs of Rainier, Curtis was out photographing:
He had set up his camera on a platform overlooking two downward-thrusting fjords of ice, wrinkled with crevasses eighty feet deep or more.
In the fading light, he looked down across the Nisqually Glacier and saw what appeared to be a small party of hikers. As was common on Rainier this time of year, the clouds rushed in and enveloped the valley in a disorienting hazy mist. A few minutes were all it took for Curtis to lose sight of the climbers below, though their voices remained. “Hellooooooooo,” came a cry through the gray mist below. Curtis yelled back. He sealed his camera and tucked it in his knapsack. Using his six-foot-long alpenstock, with a metallic pick at one end, he stabilized himself as he took small, quick steps downward toward the human sound. After some back and forth, silhouettes appeared in the soup. They were half a dozen men, adrift and confused on one of Rainier’s most treacherous glaciers.
“Over here, we’re lost!”
The climbers were middle-aged, well outfitted, and robust for their age. They were shivering, clothes soaked, mist collecting on their mustaches. Curtis knew that dusk could be disorienting and deadly on the mountain. In Curtis, the lost men had stumbled upon a climber known as much for his ascents on the high, unknown terra of the Pacific Northwest as for his leadership. They could not have been luckier.
He guided them slowly upward to shelter and safety at Camp Muir. The climbers were on a mission: studying the mountain as part of a crusade to gain formal protection,
which would happen the following year when it became the nation’s fifth national park:
Curtis tried to explain the quirks of the volcano to the men from the East he had rescued. The mountain has its own weather system, he said. In the summer, the radiant glow of the sun off the snow is so intense it burns the skin even inside the nostrils. In the winter, up to ninety feet of snow can fall in a single season . . .. The Indians, who had called the peak Takhoma, never climbed it beyond the snowfields above the timberline. Only a fool or a Boston Man would try such a thing.”
It was a fortunate meeting for both the hikers and their savior. Because of this chance encounter, Curtis met the two men who possibly had the most significant influence on his future path in life. In a letter to Librarian Harriet Leitch, Curtis tells the story:
First, I will tell you how come I was on the expedition. For two seasons prior to the Expedition, I spent some weeks on Rainier making pictures. On the second season, a party of Scientifics came to study the mountain. A couple of times they got lost, I managed to get them to my camp, where I thawed them out and bedded them down. Following that, I acted as their guide in giving the mountain the once over.
The first man introduced himself as George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was an
anthropologist, historian, naturalist, writer, and founder of the Audubon Society. Hewas considered the foremost expert on the Plains Indians. He counted among his best friends, people of great influence, and an ambitious young politician, Theodor Roosevelt. Grinnell, in time, became Curtis’s mentor and, more than anyone influenced his photographic destiny. Curtis could call him Bird.
The other man warming himself by the fire at Camp Muir was Clint Merriam. C. Hart Merriam was a zoologist, entomologist, ethnographer, naturalist, and cofounder of the National Geographic Society. He was also an influencer of public opinion and counted among his friends many great and influential people. Curtis could call him Clint.
This man who’d suddenly appeared out of the fog to save them fascinated Grinnell and Merriam:
Just before Curtis “thawed them out and bedded them down,” he mentioned a few more details about the tribes of the North West. This business of the potlatch, the Indian ritual of giving away worldly goods, was an extraordinary event. There was nothing more honorable. And yet government agents were trying to ban the potlatch. Canada had made it a crime for the Coast Salish people to participate in their most esteemed ceremony. The two men leaned into their rescuer, tell us more, they pleaded.
A few days later, Curtis hosted his new friends at his Seattle studio. His Indian pictures enchanted the easterners. The major part of his business now came from selling his pictures of Indians. His search for native people had taken him well beyond the Puget Sound area. He had traveled east of the Cascades, where he found a band of the Nez Perce living off the Columbia River. His explorations took him further east into Montana, where he’d gone for glimpses of the Plaines Tribes. “His Indians were a shocking departure from the usual stereotypes of these people. There were, in the faces, distinct human beings, not character types.” Curtis said:
Good pictures are not a product of chance but come from long hours of study. Though he’d gone many times to Rainier, much of the mountain had eluded him as a subject. Curtis learned it could take years to get it right, years when he might return from his exploits empty-handed. “You had to understand the essence of a thing before you could ever hope to capture its true self . . .. Curtis believed that no two people could point a camera at the same subject and come away with the same image.”
Curtis also understood that photography had a technical side that could be a powerful tool in shaping the final image to match a vision.
Curtis didn’t have an off switch. He never took time to play or let his mind wander, even at night, at home, “He studied pictures.” He had boundless energy his whole life. This energy drove him to accomplish some of the greatest achievements in photographic history:
Curtis often slept in his studio, working until first light. In the early morning, when his wife arrived to open the shop for business, she would find him slumped against a wall, fresh-printed pictures spread all over the floor, his clothes wrinkled, cigarette stubs in a pile. And then he would snap to, rub his face and resume his work as if he’d never taken a break. His tank was always full.
As Curtis sat and listened to his new friends speak names he had only seen in the newspapers, he couldn’t help but be as impressed with them as they were with him. He was a nobody compared to them. He didn’t come from a background of wealth or influence; he came from poverty, observation, and hard work. His reputation was built from his exploits on Mt Rainier, his photography, and his time in the goldfields of Alaska. He knew a little about Indians as well.
The rush to gold had started the previous year, bringing great wealth to Seattle. Ever the opportunist, Curtis sent his brother Asahel to the frozen tundra of the Klondike. Curtis followed him north shortly thereafter.
After returning home, Curtis wrote a letter to Century Magazine, detailing his exploits. “I have just returned from a trip over different trails to the Alaskan goldfields, and have secured the most complete and the latest series of photos,” he wrote.
He had witnessed the raw side of the scramble—dead horses in piles, flimsy tent villages, and ramshackle towns. “In fact, these views depict every phase of the mad rush to the goldfields and portray the situation and the difficulties to be encountered more clearly and truthfully than can any mere pen picture.” 
The article was a professional triumph for Curtis but was a personal tragedy to his personal life:
His brother Asahel, who’d established the contacts in Alaska, taken most of the pictures and hauled thousands of glass-plate negatives and developing chemicals all through the Klondike in service of Curtis Inc., received no credit. He was furious. He said Edward had no right taking his photographs – the product of many frozen days in the wretched gold camps – and claiming them as his own. On the contrary, Edward said, those pictures belonged to the Curtis studio; his brother was an employee. After an explosive spat, Asahel quit. He took all his belongings from Edward’s home and promised to go out on his own and compete with the other Curtis. From then on, the brothers would not speak to each other. At chance encounters around town, they turned away, as to a stranger.
The fortuitous encounter on Mount Rainier proved to be a boon to Grinnell and Merriam. They said, “This Curtis man seemed like quite the resourceful fellow. He knew Alaska, mountains, and Indians. He was fast on his feet, quick with a joke, full of practical knowledge, physically heroic.”
Over the next few months, Grinnell and Merriam stayed in touch with Curtis. In the spring of 1899, Merriam made a proposal to Curtis: how would he like to be the official photographer for the largest scientific exploration of Alaska ever undertaken?
The Harriman Expedition
The idea had come from Edward Henry Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads. He tasked Merriam with organizing the expedition and selecting the scientists. Merriam planned to stock a large ship with a team that encompassed arctic experts, botanists, biologists, zoologists, geologists, geographers, artists, photographers, and writers and go forth in search of the unknown. Harriman would pay for it all. Edward Curtis was the perfect choice as Lead Photographer.
On May 31, 1899, the steamship SS George W. Elder loaded down with milk cows and chickens, a well-stocked library and bar, and 126 people set sail. The ship made stops at Vancouver Island, Metlakatla, Skagway and Sitka, Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island, the Shumagin Islands, and Plover Bay in Siberia. The expedition would last three months and cover 9000 miles.
Among those sailing north were the celebrated writer John Burroughs, naturalist John Muir, geologists Benjamin Emerson and Grove Karl Gilbert, artists Frederick Dellenbaugh and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the writer, naturalist, and authority on Native American culture, George Bird Grinnell, zoologist C. Hart Merriam, and photographer Edward S Curtis. Curtis was the youngest and least credentialed member of the expedition.
The renowned men immediately liked Curtis. He was self-deprecating, determined, and able to handle the huge egos on board. He was confident in his ability without being annoying. He was also sincerely interested in learning from them. “Curtis’ participation in the Harriman Alaska Expedition gave him his first real grounding in the discipline and rigors of the scientific method. As the official expedition photographer, he was intimately involved in many aspects of the voyage, and his intellectual horizons were greatly broadened by the scholarly company.” One example of this is E. H. Harriman taught him how to operate an audio-recording device that could preserve sound. Curtis realized the wax cylinder recorder could be useful in preserving the songs and words of the people they observed along the way.
Two events from the Harriman Expedition give us the greatest insight to Curtis’s experience and role within the group:
Once In his canoe on Glacier Bay, he tried to get close to a heaving ice field that was calving big chunks. Crewmen on board the Elder watched in amusement as Curtis paddled toward an enormous, berg-shedding glacier. He took several glass-plate impressions, and then moved in closer. And then – horror! A calf of ice nearly ten times the size of the steamship broke away with a thunderous crack and splash, sending a wall of waves toward Curtis’s tiny canoe. “About half a mile of the front fell at once,” Burroughs wrote. The photographer paddled directly into a wave, a suicide impulse, it seemed. But instead of being crushed and drowned, Curtis rode the high waters to their crests — to the amazement of those watching from the deck of the ship. He lost some plates and equipment, but returned alive, his sense of invincibility hardened.
The second event occurred near the end of the long summer and drove a wedge deep within the group. On July 26, during the return leg of the voyage, the Elder stopped at what appeared to be an abandoned Tlingit village at Cape Fox in Southern Alaska. The scientists took hundreds of valuable artifacts from the village, to the disgust of several party members who felt their shipmates were no better than common looters. The men thought they were preserving culture. They insisted, plundering a native community was justified as a rescue for the sake of science; the artifacts were bound for museums in the United States. Many of the Tlingit objects were repatriated in 2001 during a maritime scientific expedition that retraced the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition.
To Bird Grinnell, whose relationship with Curtis had grown even deeper during the voyage, the experience at Cape Fox was all the proof he needed. “The native way of life was doomed. Every collision with modern culture was a hopeless mismatch against the natives. He confided these concerns to Curtis, who also was appalled that educated and celebrated men, would steal so many priceless objects.”
Next year, Grinnell said, he planned to journey to the high plains of Montana, a place that had yet to be plundered. He planned to witness what proved to be one of the last enactments of the Sun Dance ceremony and to do so in a respectful manner. The Sun Dance had been celebrated for centuries but would soon be outlawed like the potlatch:
Grinnell had spent twenty seasons in the field with the Blackfoot and Piegan, earning an extraordinary depth of trust, acquiring intimate knowledge of their history, culture, personal lives, and establishing many close friendships. This introduction to closely held Native rituals and spiritual beliefs, their personal narratives, combined with the knowledge that much of their culture was disappearing and might be lost forever, was undoubtedly the watershed experience in Curtis’ career.
“In the early summer of 1900, Edward Curtis boarded the Great Northern Railroad for a trip east to a land that existed only in the imagination of most Americans.” His train chugged up through the Rockies, over the Continental Divide , then “down, through a transition from forest green to prairie brown, his destination was the heart of the Blackfoot Nation, Browning, Montana.
The emptiness startled him, the wind nearly knocking him down. Curtis gathered his cameras and equipment and waited for Bird Grinnell to arrive.
After Grinnell arrived, the men packed their horses, and then took off back across the prairie toward the mountains, beginning a journey of some 20 miles. “They were crossing buffalo country, but there was not a bison in sight; few had been seen for two decades.” Grinnell told his friend, It had been with the Pawnee, in 1872, that he had witnessed their last great buffalo hunt, a compelling spectacle on horseback.
Bird Grinnell was almost twenty years older than Curtis. He had half a lifetime’s experience from living with Plains Indians to impart to the younger man. The purpose of the journey was adventure, education, and the testing of an idea starting to take shape – that those “Curtis Indian” fragments sold by his studio could form part of a much bigger picture story.” He wondered if Curtis had ever thought about putting
together a book or an exhibition at the Smithsonian, where Americans could see what was slipping away? Curtis could stir the nation to action. Grinnell encouraged Curtis to think about it. Curtis agreed:
I had thought about doing something grand and consequential. The idea dawned on me that here was a wide field as yet unworked, Here was a great country in which still live hundreds of tribes and remnants of tribes, some of which still retain many of their primitive customs and their ancient beliefs. Would it not be a worthy work, from the points of view of art and science and history, to represent them all by photography?
With Bird at his side, he had a passport to something an outsider could never see on his own. Curtis was no longer a tourist – he was in training.
As the late-afternoon winds swirled, the pair pushed their horses higher. It was in the early evening of one of the longest days of the year when Grinnell signaled a slowing. Dismount, he ordered. The exhausted men “stepped up to the rim of a high precipice. Down below was an encampment, a mile or so in diameter.” The Piegan camp was small, but to Curtis, it was magnificent. He had never seen so many Indian people together in one place. “The Indians had brought horses, wagons, carts, food, and the painted buffalo skins that stretched around pine poles to form their lodges.”
Take it all in, Grinnell told him. Take a long, long look.
“Throughout the early evening, Curtis took pictures from above: He worked without pause, reacting to the changing light, slipping the heavy plates from his camera into a sealed container, then reloading.” Grinnell was impressed by his passion. Grinnell wrote, “Here was “a professional, equipped with all the skill required in the technical part of photography, but he is also an artist, seeing and loving the beautiful and longing to reproduce it.”
If Curtis expected to understand the mystery of these people, he needed to go down below and get to know them.
As they descended to the camp, Grinnell urged Curtis to be friendly. “It was important, he cautioned, not to come on too strong, too eager, just relax. Soak it all in. Smile, They are human beings, no more complicated or simplistic than others, no more heroic for their survival or tragic for their loss. Laugh at yourself. Don’t be afraid to appear stupid.”
To the approval of his mentor, Curtis decided he would not take a picture without offering to pay, or without the subject’s permission. A worthy guiding principle to Grinnell, but he urged the young man not to start in right away with cash and exchanges. Take time to get acquainted with them.
As they approached the camp, Bird Grinnell explained, there is White Calf, chief of the
Blackfeet – a friend, nearly sixty years old. Over there is Tearing Lodge, another revered elder, seventy years old. And that hard-eyed man on horseback, scowling as he circles the edge of the camp, is Small Leggins. He doesn’t like you.
The white man had written many things about the Indians, commenting on their rituals, their sweat lodges, and most terrifying, the way they treated their enemies. Little of what had been written was accurate, Grinnell told Curtis.
If anything could be said about Edward Curtis is that he was eminently teachable. He wanted to absorb all that he could. Just like on the Harriman Expedition, he listened, learned then followed what he was taught.
Edward Curtis’s education began immediately after arriving at the camp. Bird Grinnell advised him: “If the stories are contradictory, put two or more sources together and try to settle on the truth. Ask the same question repeatedly – but ask it of the people themselves, not outsiders.”
Taking Grinnell’s advice, Curtis established another plank for the grand plan he was forming in his mind, “Information at all times must be drawn from the Indians.” Over the days, Curtis listened and learned.
The Piegan were extremely skeptical, but they gradually began to open up, all except Small Leggins, of course. From the people, Curtis heard stories of their origins, their hopes, and the significant losses they had suffered from the disease and hunger that followed the demise of the buffalo herds. Curtis tried his best to absorb it all:
He smoked a ceremonial pipe. He learned that a person should never look his mother-in-law in the face or talk to her directly. He was invited into a sweat lodge. He stripped naked and sat as the water poured out of him, until he nearly passed out, delirious and hallucinating, but he remained Edward S. Curtis of Seattle, the portrait photographer. He would not try to fake or play at being an Indian.
Curtis found the Indians extremely “likable,” and among the most courteous people he had met, of any race:
White Calf began to warm to him. A trust was developing between the two, but it took a great deal of time, much of it spent in quiet silence. His questions often went unanswered. “To ask the Piegan . . . any direct question bearing on the subject of religion yields scant light,” said Curtis. “It is necessary to observe and learn from the everyday life of the people.” When the stories came, the breakthrough was thrilling to Curtis.
Curtis could shoot the encampment, the lodges, the gathering of wood for fires, the horses taking a long drink in the afternoon, everything but the Sun Dance itself. He was allowed to witness it, but this ritual could never be stolen by an outsider’s camera, it is the highest of religious ceremonies. He was allowed, somewhat to his surprise, to record the songs, using the “magic machine,” as the Indians called his wax cylinder.
The formal Sun Dance lasted five days. Curtis described it as “Wild, terrifying, and elaborately mystifying.” He was intensely moved by the experience. It was all he had hoped for and more when he began his journey East.
Curtis eventually began to have success on the photography front as well:
He coaxed a handsome young brave to pose inside a tent, with a full peacock sprout of erect hair, bedecked in necklaces and shells, cloaked in a light rawhide coat of symmetrical designs. A Piegan Dandy, Curtis labeled the picture. The portrait was eventually processed as an albumen print, in which paper was coated in an emulsion of whipped egg white and salt, then dipped in silver nitrate before a negative was exposed onto it—the rarest kind of finish for Curtis.
He set up his 14-by-17 camera close to the village for ground-level images of natives collecting logs for the ceremony. One experience typifies what Curtis had to endure to get his pictures:
As he worked, Curtis spotted Small Leggins riding his horse at a quick clip, coming right at him. The closer he got, the faster he rode, charging directly at Curtis. He intended to trample Curtis and smash his camera. At the last second, White Calf appeared, steering Small Leggins away. The chief “saved my life,” Curtis said.
Several photographs Curtis took during this period are some of his most iconic images, these included: Piegan Encampment, The Three Chiefs, and he even got Small Leggins to hold still long enough on his horse for Curtis to immortalize him.
It was not Curtis’s intent to photograph an Indian subject exactly as he or she looked or dressed on a particular day, but rather, it was to reveal how he or she would have looked before any “white contact.” It was a sometimes a constant battle between old and new, photographer and subject. Curtis would always side with the old world because the fast-disappearing past, he felt, needed to be preserved. This required, by necessity, a willing subject. American Indians, certainly by the end of Curtis’s career, were very much aware of Curtis’s goals. “Tribes that I won’t reach for four or five years,” he once mentioned at a lecture, “have sent me word to come and see them.” He well understood why they would petition him, for they, better than anyone, fully understood that their history was an oral and not a written one:
Curtis talked White Calf into posing. He was drawn to the chief’s head, which stood out because he was bald. At the appointed hour, the chief showed up – but he had donned a blond wig and was dressed in a faded blue army uniform, with a soldier’s hat on top. Curtis got a laugh out of that, but nothing that was worth bringing to light later in the studio.
Near the end of his time with the Blackfoot, “Curtis told Grinnell his mind was set. He would embark on a massive undertaking, even bigger than Bird had suggested: a plan to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared. Curtis said the record must be accurate in every possible measure.”
As outlined by Curtis, The Grand Idea was impossibly bold, however “he was vague on the specifics of how to pay for it, how inclusive it would be, how long it would take and how he would present the finished product.” Even more incredible was Curtis decided to include recorded songs and languages of the tribes he encountered. He would not just be just a photographer, but a keeper of secrets.
Did Edward Curtis, with his limited education, really expect to accomplish his bold idea, He did! “What Curtis lacked in credentials, he made up for in confidence – the personality trait that had led him to Angeline’s shack and Rainier’s summit. Bird loved the Big Idea.”
When Curtis left the Piegan camp, he knew he was bringing home photographic gold. These images would open the door to more Indian lands and more trips, and he planned to begin right away.
He was thirty-two years old, with a family to support and a business to maintain, but he was willing to put everything on the line to pursue his “big dream.”
“On his return to Seattle, he stayed only a few weeks before embarking on his first self-financed, self-directed trip into the field, a journey to the Southwest to meet, study, and photograph the Navajo, Apache, and Hopi peoples of Arizona.” This trip rivaled in importance the earlier trip that summer. This time he didn’t have his friend to rely on; he had to do it on his own. “Curtis had to establish relationships with Native people and learn firsthand the Indian ways of establishing trust and friendship and gaining access to closely guarded personal and spiritual information.” In a letter to Bird Grinnell, Curtis explained his strategy: “But I can start – and sell my prints of my pictures as I go along. I’m a poor man, but I’ve got my health, plenty of steam, and something to work for.”
Before he could leave home again, Curtis needed to carefully consider his personal life. He first and foremost needed to reconnect with his family and catch up with the studio work that had piled up. Money needed to be earned, and bills paid. “The [grand] project would require so much time away from home, away from the studio, from his growing family. How would he pay for it? What role would Clara play in all this? All these questions had to be addressed:”
Clara had always encouraged Edward in his various exploits, but with three children, she knew the family had to balance the pragmatic with the idealistic. How would the family live? Time in the field, deep in Indian country, would cost thousands of dollars, with the payoff well down the road, if at all. Who would tend to the prosperous and pink-faced merchants who were willing to make a special trip from out of town, waiting months to have Curtis take their picture?
As always, supremely confident in his own abilities Curtis insisted that he could handle it all, the studio, the family, and the Indian Project:
Curtis suggested, on some trips, Clara and the children could come with him to the field. Clara’s cousin William Phillips, who lived with them in the big house, would be Curtis’s first assistant for the Indian project. To help with the studio work, they would hire a few more people and expand the reach of his name. Clara agreed, plenty of the city’s newly rich would pay handsomely to have the name Curtis etched below their hagiographic mugs. Those people would indirectly finance the Indian work. Not to worry, the money will come.
Unveiling the plan to the world, Bird Grinnell said. “Curtis had a living to earn, a family to support. To do what he planned meant much travel, great expense, and unending toil. But the idea refused to be rejected. It overpowered him.”
He was home for only a few days that summer of 1900. His family and friends were perplexed: why the big hurry to get back into the field? Because Curtis explained, the subject was dying. “His project would be a marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” Little did he know the immense cost this simple commitment would exact upon his family and personal life?
Edward Curtis left home for the second time in the summer of 1900. This time he was to pursue his dreams in the land of the Deseret Southwest. He began with the Hopis of Northern Arizona. “The Hopi are one of the very few Indian groups who live the way they did a hundred years ago. They call themselves Hopitu, “the peaceable people and peace-loving they have always been.” As with the Blackfeet, he began the journey by train. Deeper and deeper, he traveled to a land so far remote. It was a shock to his system, he was thrilled, and he loved it. After arriving in Arizona, he then made a bumpy sixty-mile trip by horse-drawn wagon, to the land of the Hopi. The heat was oppressive. Since they were “discovered” in the sixteenth century, the Hopi have occupied their present habitat in northeastern Arizona. For nearly two centuries, the Hopi remained practically out of contact with the white race and practically independent of governmental authority. 
He found a native translator and put him on the payroll. Mindful of Bird Grinnell’s
advice, he traveled from village to village, asking questions, trying to make himself known, but also blend in. It was a complicated task, as Curtis soon found out. Affability and sunny disposition are one’s first impression of the Hopi character. However, this affability can turn to cold reserve or outspoken resentment when ill treatment or a breach of manners occurs. The Hopis had a cordial disdain for white people based on years of abuse at their hands.
Hopi communities were built atop high mesas that provided them with protection from enemies. There were no teepees here; it was a land of earthen villages. The homes were constructed of clay, rock, and mortar with sleeping quarters reached by ladders. The Hopi lived near the Painted Desert, southeast of the Grand Canyon. Hopi land was the earth turned inside out.”
The Hopis fascinated Curtis, “He was captivated by the way the unmarried women wore their hair in squash-blossom coils, and by the ‘remarkable stories of Hopi distance running.’ Tales of men who ran twenty miles a day to work their fields riveted him.”
Hopi land was desolate but beautiful. The Hopi were farmers, dependent on what little water fell in the area each year. If the water didn’t come, the people starved. To ensure the crucial annual rainfall, the Hopi prayed intensely during their biggest religious occasion of the year, the Snake Dance. As with the Sun Dance, this was the most important ritual of the year for the Hopi. Only members of the Snake Society who gathered rattlesnakes could perform the ceremony. Like the Sun Dance, Curtis was only allowed to watch the dance, but he wanted so much more.
After witnessing the Snake Dance ceremony, Curtis wrote:
I was profoundly moved, and realized if I was to fully understand its significance, I must participate, if permission could be obtained. He asked the chief of the Hopi Snake Society if he might learn the ways of the fraternity and participate — with the goal of shooting pictures. Curtis stressed that he was not trying to become an Indian. He just wanted inside, to try on the metaphorical clothes of the natives. The answer—forget it. Impossible, the chief said; no one outside the society could participate. The Chief told him that if he really wished to learn about the Hopi, he should come back next year, and the year after, and the year after that. Curtis promised he would do just that.
Before Curtis left the Hopi territory, he made one of his most potent portraits. The picture, called Snake Dancer in Costume, stood out. Not just because of the detail, but also its intense nature. “It showed a full-length, shirtless man, nearly naked but clothed in mystery, his body painted, shells and jewels hanging from his hair, ears, and neck. The look on the man’s face fascinated Curtis, at once defiant and self-confident, reflecting the mood of Curtis himself.”
After seeing Curtis’s Blackfoot and Hopi images, Bird Grinnell declared, “These photographs are unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. The result which Curtis gets with his camera moves people as with a great painting.” Grinnell added, “While Curtis is, first of all, an artist, he does not think solely of his art.”
For Curtis, the size and scope of his dream were coming into focus. It became clear that if he were to follow through on his plan, he would have to journey far and wide to the most distant and secluded parts of the continent. In some respects, it was becoming easier. The nation was changing; rail lines and roads were making the most remote areas more accessible. “At the same time, the Indians who wished to continue living the old ways had to take refuge – to hide, essentially – from the dominant culture.” It was already too late for the tribes in the East:
The Indians of the East, save for a few pockets, had been pushed out long ago. A few Cherokee still lived in Appalachian Mountains, and a handful of Seminoles were down in the Everglades of Florida. You could find a Choctaw or Chickasaw who had refused the forced march to Oklahoma, and in New England, a Pequot or Penobscot still pulled fish from the sea while living at the edge of a Yankee village.
The tribes of the desert southwest alone were a daunting task. “Of all the material that Edward S. Curtis gathered on North American Indian culture, perhaps the hardest won came from the people of the southwestern desert region. They were spread across three territories in some of the harshest and most remote areas of North America. The Hopi were north of the Grand Canyon; the larger Navajo were spread throughout the northern part of Arizona, Southern Utah, and down into New Mexico. “The Havasupai lived literally out of sight: in a deep hole at the western edge of the Grand Canyon.”The Mojave were even further south in some of the harshest deserts in the world. To find the nomadic Apache, Curtis would have to journey deep into mountains and pine forests. He would have to follow the Rio Grande above Santa Fe to encounter Pueblo people. “If Curtis were going to do something definitive, he would also have to spend much time on the plains, in the Rockies, in the fjords of British Columbia and Washington State, in the northern California Mountains and the southern California desert, and in the Arctic of Alaska.”
Curtis was confident he could do it all. He may not have had the resources, but he was strong and in robust health. He fought through sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. He must have had doubts, but only on rare occasions did he express any concern he wouldn’t complete his dream. Personally, I find it very difficult to believe he didn’t secretly have concerns the project would ultimately fail. This was a daunting task he had set for himself, but he also had supreme confidence. For Curtis, failure was not an option. In a letter to Bird, Curtis laid out his vision:
I don’t know how many tribes there are west of the Missouri, Bird maybe a hundred. But I want to make them live forever in a sort of history by photographs. No, I mean in both photography and words, if I can write them, and if I live long enough. You and I know the Indians of North America are vanishing. They’ve crumbled from their pride and power into pitifully small numbers, painful poverty and sorry weakness. There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations and it’s a tragedy – a national tragedy. Thinking people must realize this. So, I want to produce an irrefutable record of a race doomed to extinction – to show this Indian as he was in the normal, noble life, so people will know he was no debauched vagabond but a man of proud stature and noble heritage. Bird I believe I can do something about it. I have some ability. I can live with these people, get their confidence, understand them and photograph them in all their natural attitudes.
It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all, so many tribes to visit, so many strange people. But I can start —and sell prints of my pictures as I go along. I’m a poor man but I’ve got my health, plenty of steam and something to work for.
When the results of the 1900 census were published, the government counted only 237,000 Indians in a country of 76 million.
Gathering Hopi myths was something that Curtis did over a number of years, perhaps twenty in all, during which time he saw the erosion of the old ways, the constant entrenchment of the new, yet his reportage bears the stamp of authority and an intimate identification with his subject. The Other tribes were also recorded faithfully, and as Curtis says, he often corroborated his material by repeated sessions where his stories were told and retold for veracity and tribal consensus.
For Edward Curtis, the beginning of the 20th century was a rough time. Money was tight, and he was hemorrhaging funds. He was trying to finance his immense project with only the earnings from his portrait business. He also had a family of five and a staff of a half dozen employees at the studio to support. About this time he joined the Rainier Club, a prestigious men’s club in the Seattle area. Membership gave him access to gentlemen who would pay a premium to have their picture taken, and also, it provided him a place to sleep nights when Clara was angry, which was more frequent these days. He needed to sell more Curtis Indian prints, and at higher prices to increase revenue. About this time his first major exhibition was held in Seattle, people flocked to buy framed photogravures of his Indians, just as he’d hoped. He also started a line of Indian postcards aimed at the common man.
In the summer of 1903, Curtis again visited the Southwest tribes. He first journeyed to the rim of the Grand Canyon. His goal was to find the Havasupai. They had lived in the most remote area of the United States for almost seven hundred years. Few whites had visited them over the centuries, so they were relatively undisturbed. “From the canyon edge, he hired a mule, which was loaded with his gear, and hiked with a translator down the narrow trail, dropping more than nine miles into the canyon below, at last reaching the village of Supai, home of the Havasupai.” Curtis called it “The strangest dwelling place of any tribe in America.”
What Curtis saw in the Havasupai was not good. They were not healthy people, “Measles had ravaged the tribe, especially the young. Curtis counted only 250 tribal members in total.” He recorded their language, wrote down their songs, and took pictures of families living in an extraordinary setting.
During the same trip, Curtis again visited the Hopi and the Navajo. He tried again to get permission to participate in the Snake Dance; again, the answer was a respectful, “no.” But this time, the priest was comfortable enough with Curtis that he let him take his picture.
After more than a year’s absence, Curtis noticed the natives of the Southwest had changed. The tribes had broken down into factions, and in those villages that had given over entirely to missionaries, it was forbidden to speak the native language, and their ceremonies were banned. “Feeling the sand slipping through the hourglass of his project, Curtis picked up the pace.”
He hurried off to Walpi, one of his favorite places in the Hopi Nation. “In Walpi, Curtis found a Hopi man with feminine good looks, wearing hoop earrings, hair cut just at the shoulders, deep-set black eyes. Curtis had him sit with a simple army blanket around his shoulders; the austerity of the cloth brought out the attractive features of the face.” The resulting picture, titled A Walpi Man, was developed as a platinum print, a rare and costly process with superb resolution.
As pleased as he was with his Southwest photographs, Curtis sometimes slipped into periods of insecurity and panic. Perhaps he had taken on too much, he asked himself. Was it already too late? “Next year, he wondered how difficult it would be to find a young Hopi who could speak the language? “There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations, and it’s a tragedy,” he wrote Bird Grinnell.
After leaving the Hopi, Curtis raced east, in search of the Apache. The Apache were not farmers. “They preyed on sedentary Indians, feckless whites, and unwary Mexicans.” The Apache were epic wanderers and proved difficult to locate, eating up precious time that Curtis couldn’t afford. Once among the Apache, Curtis found that Indian lips were sealed. “I asked no questions and indicated no special interest in more than casual externals.” Every day in the field, he watched – from first light until late at night. “They were up at dawn, and bathed in pools and streams so that their bodies might be acceptable to the gods,” Curtis wrote. “Each man, in isolation, greeted the rising sun in fervent prayers.” After several weeks, he was allowed to follow Apache women as they harvested mescal, but that was the limit.
Tribal distrust of Curtis was widespread and aggressive. “The Apache threw dirt at his camera, charged him on horseback, misled him, threatened him, cursed him, ignored him, and laughed at him.” His time among the Apache was a failure in every sense, but he vowed to return and try again.
Back at home, Curtis was still bleeding funds, and Clara was becoming impatient with his long absences away from home. He needed to be at home focusing on his portraiture, but it hardly seemed to matter; the Indian project had taken over. He talked of nothing else, his mind always elsewhere. During this time, he seldom socialized, and he sunk deeper in obsession, “Most times he didn’t seem to hear the question, so preoccupied he was,” said his sister Eva.
One day Clara saw something in the Ladies’ Home Journal: it was a contest to discover the prettiest children in America. The contest was a perfect opportunity to expand the Curtis name. The picture of a Seattle girl named Marie Fischer was selected. This picture would open doors for Curtis in the future.
“OLD CHIEF LIKES CITY,
MEETS A FAMOUS INDIAN ARTIST,
THEN TAKES A BATH.”
It was all over the papers that autumn of 1903. One of the most famous Indians alive was coming to Seattle. Chief Joseph, a respected leader of the Nez Perce, would be giving a speech and attending a football game in the city. Joseph came by invitation of the Washington State Historical Society. “What better exhibition could they put on? A famous Indian! An exotic from the past! See him and hear him and touch him while he’s still alive!” Interest in the Nez Perce Chief was immense; the historical society promoted his talk by offering two tickets to the event for two dollars, which also paid for a year’s membership in the society.
In 1877, when he was thirty-seven years old, Joseph outwitted 2,000 U.S. soldiers with 250 warriors and 450 women and children. In eleven harrowing weeks, the Indians dodged soldiers for 1,700 miles – from Idaho to northern Montana – and won thirteen battles against incredible odds. Only forty miles from freedom in Canada, Chief Joseph and his followers were captured and forced to surrender. “I am tired of fighting,” he said. “The little children are freezing to death. My people some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Chief Joseph and his ragged, starving band were imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, until 1878 when they were exiled to reservations in Oklahoma and, later, in Washington state.
The centerpiece of the weekend was the sold-out speech. On the day of the speech,
Joseph showed up late. He arrived in street clothes, carrying carpetbags and blankets.When he finally stepped out on stage, he was dressed in traditional buckskin and a large feathered headdress. When the aged Chief started to speak, he spoke entirely in his own tongue and seemed fatigued. He did not engage the audience; He did not tell war stories or give details about his glorious battles with the white soldiers. Instead, he told the narrative of a people who were always good to the Americans and had been betrayed for their friendliness. His life was full of broken promises. He wanted his homeland back:
I feel very well on account of meeting my white friends. I am glad to meet all the men, all the women, and all the children. I am glad to be here today. I had lots of pleasure, lots of fun. Today, my heart is way off from here, far away. Today I would like to be back in my old home in Wallowa Valley. All my friends are there. My father is buried there. Some of my children are buried there. I like the white people, but they have driven me out of my home. I have friendly feelings for the for all that. My blood is the same that flows in the veins of the white men. We will all die just the same, but I have one grievance, that is because I am not allowed to go back to my old home. My only hope of my declining years is that I may go home and die among my friends.
The next day, Professor Edmond S. Meany of the University of Washington introduced his guests to the only other man in Seattle who knew as much about native people as he did, and in Curtis, the old chief found a motivated listener:
They were the same height, well over six feet, though separated by thirty years.
Curtis asked Joseph about his distinctive hairstyle, a combed-back upsweep rising several inches above his forehead, with long braids on his chest. In Nez Perce culture, Joseph explained, a man who had fought the enemy many times, or had scalped a living man, was entitled to this kind of proud, showy display. Joseph talked about how much he and his fellow native north westerners hated their exile in barren Oklahoma. His people had starved there, and longed to see the green forests of Oregon.
But the most revealing thing the chief told Curtis was about the Nez Perce War of 1877. Contrary to what had been accepted by most historians, Joseph was not the Indian Napoleon. He was not a crafty general, or even a particularly good warrior. Other Nez Perce planned the attacks. Joseph simply tried to hold his people together, to speak for them and argue for a resolution that would prevent total annihilation. The fact that they had eluded the cavalry for so long was due to luck and guile, not good generalship.
Curtis was shocked, angered, and moved by the tale. Who could hear of the last hundred years of the Nez Perce and not feel that a tremendous injustice had been done?
The next day, Meany accompanied Chief Joseph and his nephew Red Thunder back to Edward Curtis’s studio to have their portraits taken. Curtis had watched Joseph’s speech on Saturday, and he was impressed by the chief’s quiet charisma, on his insistence on returning to the Wallowas, and he was convinced that the tribe had been robbed. He made plans to visit his new friend at the Colville reservation, to study Nez Perce ways, record their language and shoot pictures of the tribe:
In a studio stuffed with Navajo rugs and Hopi baskets, Curtis tried to find the man in the face, experimenting with the light, studying the angles. The chief looked worn, older than his years, gloomy, and it seemed to Curtis that much of the life was drained from him. Curtis took a few shots of Joseph and his nephew sitting down, shrunken in their seats, Meany standing over them in the middle. All three men are glowering. Then Curtis had the chief sit by himself, and he tried a number of poses. One was with feathered headdress, looking directly into the camera, a shot later finished as a photogravure titled Joseph – Nez Perce. This portrait shows him with a dozen rows of shell necklaces, the traditional bonnet tied beneath his chin, no hair visible. The chief is frowning. His gaze is distant. Then Curtis took a second portrait, this one with the full upsweep of Joseph’s hair, no headdress. The light is less gauzy, more harsh, the stare intense, the frown still there but somewhat empathetic. The picture shows even more of the topography of Joseph’s extraordinary face: scars and nicks, prominent lines formed from habitual sorrow. He’s wearing two large shell earrings, each bigger than a silver dollar. This photogravure was also titled Joseph – Nez Perce. It has multiple dimensions and conveys multiple emotions: that stare, those eyes, that hair, that mouth. It is unforgiving, without a hint of artifice, full of life even as Joseph neared his death.
After returning home, Joseph told his family that his bones ached, and he had trouble sleeping.” He said, “I shall live to see one more snow.” Chief Joseph would journey no more; he died the following year, never having returned to his homeland. He was buried under a mound of stones. It was widely reported that Joseph, in the estimation of the reservation doctor, had died of a broken heart.
After Joseph’s death, Curtis interviewed more than a dozen Nez Perce and felt that he understood their place in history. Edward Curtis summed up his friend, “Perhaps he was not quite what we in our minds had pictured him, but I still think he was one of the greatest men that has ever lived.” It was significant that Curtis did not qualify his last statement with “Indian” – Joseph was a great man, regardless of his race:
During the summer following the death of Chief Joseph, Meany was troubled that his friend had not been given a proper memorial. Meany, Curtis, Joseph’s widow, about forty members of the Nez Perce community and a crowd of cowboys and their wives in Sunday clothes gathered on for the event. The ritual would involve uprooting the chief’s remains and placing them in a new spot. The digging of the tough lava till was difficult; the cemetery was on a slope above the village of Nespelem, treeless, the grass brown and matted, with a view toward the mountains.
Curtis was surprised that no prayers or songs were offered at the occasion. “Last year we buried him,” explained a Nez Perce Warrior “This time, we just move him.”
Suddenly the Indians stopped working and dropped their shovels saying nothing. Meany asked about the delay: they couldn’t just squat there in the heat of the midday sun? The Indians shrugged but kept silent. After a long pause, one native pointed back at the grave and gestured at the professor and the photographer. “Let the white men do the digging,” he said. “They know how.”
Curtis rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He chipped away at the gravel and hard dirt, putting up piles all around the grave. “It was no small task,” With Meany’s help he lifted the simple coffin from the ground and dragged it to the new hole. It was not yet deep enough, so Curtis went back at it, shoveling into the afternoon. At last, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was slid into a divot in the earth, and Curtis buried him under several feet of Columbia Plateau soil. A white marble shaft was planted atop the grave and cemented to rock. On one side was a carved image of the chief. On the other was his real name: Hin-mah-too-yah– la-kekt.
The next day, Joseph’s widow held a potlatch, giving away her late husband’s possessions. Over two days, she handed out blankets and baskets, carvings and bedding, beadwork and utensils, fishing gear and hunting rifles – all his earthly goods. She cried loudly when she came upon an item that was dear to their marriage or prompted a particular memory. But nothing must be kept back – all was gifted. At the end of the potlatch, the Indians tore down Joseph’s tipi, so that nothing remained to remind the living of the dead man. Curtis left the reservation feeling drained, but also relieved. “No more will he beg of the Great White Father and say: ‘All I ask is to go back to the old home in the Wallowa Valley; my father’s home, and the home of my father’s father,”’ Curtis wrote in an article for Scribner’s Magazine. “His troubled life has run its course.”
His Life Plan
By early 1904, Edward Curtis had finally settled on what he wanted in life. Using the field techniques he had learned from the Harriman expedition, he would create something “that was beautiful and informative, haunting and invaluable for both experts and the public. His ultimate goal was that through his work it would guarantee the Indian would not be forgotten or misunderstood in history.”
Edward Curtis was not afraid of the risk. It wasn’t in his nature. The next few years would be an enormous challenge, but the reward would be worth it. Through the next few years, Curtis spent less time in the Seattle studio than he did taking pictures of Indians. The family portrait business was critical in funding his lengthy trips, but the priority was the Indians.
Muhr was a talented photographer’s assistant, who, along with an assistant, processed and printed all of the negatives Curtis sent from the field. His technical expertise was often critical in handling negatives that needed retouching or appeared too dark. Curtis did not exaggerate when he called Muhr “the genius in the darkroom.” Like the other studio employees, Muhr often worked long hours for uncertain pay.
Over the years, Edward Curtis had the good fortune of making friends in high places. In 1905, Curtis took his Indian photos on tour, giving speeches and holding shows in Washington D.C. and New York City. Encouraged by his success, “Curtis rented a large room at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and invited wealthy members of society to view and purchase his work. Among those who made purchases was Louisa Satterlee, daughter-in-law of Wall Street financier J. Pierpont Morgan.”
Among the plethora of his wealthy and influential friends, it was an invitation from President Teddy Roosevelt that thrilled Curtis the most. Roosevelt invited Curtis to come to his summer home in New York and photograph his family. Roosevelt had seen Curtis’s winning photograph in The Prettiest Children in America contest published in Ladies’ Home Journal. Roosevelt’s children were not easy subjects to photograph. The Family consisted of The President, his wife Edith, four boys, and two girls ranging in age from seven to twenty. Roosevelt immediately liked Curtis and was impressed by his Indian pictures. “I will support you in any way I can,” he said.
Thanks to Roosevelt, Curtis was invited to photograph another famous Indian. Geronimo, legendary Chief of the Apache, would sit for Curtis. Curtis described Geronimo as tired
and quiet, nothing like the infamous warrior who had so terrified his enemies. “For twenty-five years, Geronimo led a revenge-filled resistance against the Mexican and U. S. armies until he was captured and forced to surrender in 1886:”
In the life of Geronimo, Curtis saw much of Chief Joseph. The stories of clinging to the last bit of independence, of elusive escapes and long, dreary imprisonments in a strange land were not unlike those of the Nez Perce leader. Still, Curtis was in Washington to take pictures, not to redress old wrongs. His outrage would have to be conveyed through his camera. In fashioning Geronimo’s portrait, Curtis resolved to transmit the truth of a hard man who would give up nothing for sympathy. He photographed him staring into the lens, bonnet on his head, clutching a spear. In that picture he looks shrunken, lost. Then he captured another man: Geronimo in profile, his entire upper body wrapped in a rough woolen blanket. This Geronimo is without a single bit of jewelry or ornamentation, and with only a simple cloth headband, as he used to wear in his youth. This Geronimo is a face — barely half of one — that is deeply lined, just like old Angeline. His brow is furrowed, his chin clenched. He looks away from the camera in a defiant snub for all time. Go to hell!
Curtis insisted, there was not a moment to lose. “The passing of every old man or woman
Curtis was so dedicated to his project that for six years, every penny of the cost came out of his own pocket. As a former engraver, he had high standards, and his work had to be printed in a large, magnificent format using expensive acid-etched copperplates. Only the finest paper would do.
The project had placed tremendous financial strain on his family. Even after he managed to borrow $20,000 from friends, he was going to have to find outside funding to continue the project. In a doubt-filled letter, Edward Curtis said. “The longer I work at this project, the more certain I feel of its great value. The only question now is, will I be able to keep at the thing long enough to finish it?”
Bleeding cash and desperate, Curtis wrote to President Roosevelt in December 1906. Did he know anyone who might help back his project? Roosevelt replied, “There is no man of great wealth with whom I am on sufficient close terms to warrant my giving a special letter to him, but you are most welcome to use this letter in talking with any man who has any interest in the subject.”
Armed now with a letter of recommendation, Curtis decided to take a daring gamble and approach J. Pierpont Morgan, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country. His favorite daughter-in-law had already purchased one of Curtis’s photos for his immense collection. Perhaps she might be willing to help Curtis set up a meeting.
On January 24, 1906, an appointment was scheduled. When the appointed time came, Curtis had an overwhelming attack of the jitters. Morgan was a big, intense man, who had hard piercing eyes; one description likened them to “the headlights of an express train bearing down on you:”
Curtis told Morgan of his plan to create “a broad, luminous picture” chronicling in words and photographs the “vanishing” way of life of more than eighty tribes west of the Mississippi. He explained how he planned twenty volumes containing 1,500 full-page plates. The accompanying text would include information about the Indians’ history, life and manners, ceremony, legends, mythology.
Morgan cut him off, “Thank you very much, he said, but he was a very busy man.” Curtis had no intention of leaving, not when he had come this far. He reached into his portfolio and spread some photographs on Morgan’s desk. Morgan looked them over. Morgan was not a man known to change his mind often, but something about the portraits grabbed his attention. He told Curtis that he wanted to see these photographs in “the most beautiful set of books ever published.”
Morgan’s words electrified Curtis:
Morgan promised to give Curtis $15,000 a year for five years. The money wasn’t a gift. It was a loan to cover the cost of fieldwork: three assistants’ salaries, transportation costs, hotels, and fees for interpreters. This money was to be repaid in sets of finished publications and in royalties—a share of the proceeds from sales of the books.
In return, Curtis promised that in just five years he would create twenty volumes of text, each illustrated with about seventy-five small prints. Accompanying every volume would be an oversized “portfolio” of thirty-five photogravures created using the finest methods available and printed on imported paper with covers bound with Moroccan leather.
They had a deal! His project was saved! When Curtis enquired who would research and write the text, Morgan replied that Curtis should do the job.
Curtis was exuberant; he felt the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. However, almost immediately, the project was beset by an old problem, no commercial publisher was interested in publishing it, even with Morgan’s partial backing.
Curtis went back to Morgan to explain the situation. Morgan did not seem fazed. He convinced Curtis to publish the project himself. “Become a salesman,” Morgan said. Sell the twenty-volume set for $3,000, payable in advance as a “subscription.” Use that money to pay back the loan.
Curtis hesitated, the weight returning a little as he considered the deal. By accepting Morgan’s plan, he would become not only photographer and writer, but salesman and producer, too – without any guaranteed salary. Curtis shook Morgan’s hand in agreement. Exuberantly, he hurried back to Seattle, not knowing just how heavily this burden would weigh on him the rest of his life.
Canyon de Chelly and The Navajo
With great excitement, Curtis began organizing his summer season of 1906. This trip would be different because Clara and all the children were coming along. Firstly, Curtis needed to hire competent staff.
Curtis hired Frederick Webb Hodge to work as his editor on the project. Hodge was a respected expert with ties to the Smithsonian Institution and experience in the field of working with Indians. Hodge was paid seven dollars for every 1,000 words. Another new key employee was William Myers, a young man with an English degree who had an excellent shorthand and typing skills and an uncanny ability to take down rapidly, sound for sound, any language spoken to him.
Among the long list of gear required for the trip was a “motion picture machine,” several cameras, and wax cylinders to record speech and music. He also brought along an air mattress, which would later astound Hopi children so much that Curtis was named The Man Who Sleeps on His Breath.
Their destination was Canyon de Chelly, a thirty-mile-long canyon in northern Arizona, home to a band of Navajo. As the train traveled south to New Mexico Territory, and then by covered wagon to Arizona, the children became more excited as time went by.
There were problems from the beginning:
When the family stopped at a local trading post for supplies, they suddenly found themselves in a flash flood caused by a storm in the mountains. Water crashed through their camp. To keep from being swept away, Harold, Beth, and Florence scrambled to high ground with their mother. Curtis waded waist-high in swirling water to save the equipment, which fortunately had been packed in waterproof containers.
Another crucial part of the team was a good interpreter. On this trip, this decision proved critical for Curtis. The group traveled deeper into the canyon, “The Navajo lived in hogans made of earth and wood. To farm, the Indians climbed down into the canyon, where they grew corn and vegetables:”
One day the canyon became strangely silent. “We were given strict orders not to leave camp,” Florence remembered. “The quiet was broken only by the chanting of the medicine men, which echoed and reverberated until it became a ceaseless sound in the canyon.” Curtis did not tell his family how dangerous the situation had become. An Indian woman was having difficulty giving birth. The medicine men blamed the problem on the presence of white people in the canyon. “Pray that the baby will live,” the interpreter told Curtis, “for there is no power on earth that will save you and your family if it should die.” 
Curtis didn’t intend to wait around. He and Myers threw their equipment into the wagon, loaded the family, and hurried out of the canyon. Years later, Curtis revealed how frightened and helpless he had felt. “I vowed then that never again would I include all the family on a trip into Indian country.”
With the family safely on their way home, Curtis and his assistants hurried to finish their work among the Apache, Navajo, and Hopi. However, their troubles were only beginning.
While unloading the wagon onto a pack train, one of the mules slipped and hurtled down a canyon wall. Curtis’s best camera lay smashed and scattered. But Curtis did not give up. He collected the pieces and spent the next twelve hours fitting them together. Although the camera was held together with only a rope, it was operable the rest of the journey.
Work in the field could be extreme and dangerous at times. Temperatures could be frigid one day and stifling the next. Several times he felt the whiz of bullets zipping past, shot by hidden gunmen. “He knew what it was like to be suddenly surrounded by a menacing crowd. Once, when a charging Indian on horseback acted as if he would grab his camera, Curtis refused to budge. When an Indian pitched dirt at his lens, Curtis pulled a knife.”
Throughout his career, Curtis’s success depended on his ability to gain the Indians’ trust and respect, he said:
“Tact, diplomacy, and courage combined with a good stock of patience and perseverance” were absolutely essential. Without these, Curtis would have failed. Word spread quickly about the “Shadow Catcher.” “Many of them are not only willing but anxious to help,” he later said.
The Indians sensed that Curtis genuinely admired them and was trying to help them. Curtis said, “The only way to participate in Indian ceremonies is to be invited.” To that end, he was always a gracious guest.
Of course, Curtis made his share of mistakes. But he was also a quick learner and determined to find the most accurate, authentic information available.
The Quiet Apache
Curtis approached the Apache, as he did all Indians, by being as genuine as possible. However, He quickly discovered that he needed more patience and courage to deal with the Apache. The Apache had historically been relentless in their approach towards other tribes. They collected much of their food and supplies by raiding their Indian neighbors. Because of this, over the years, many stereotypes had developed about the Apache people. White people generally believed they had no religion. Curtis quickly saw that wasn’t true. He wrote:
Curtis believed, if he could somehow convince the Apache to discuss their spiritual views, he would have little trouble in making other discoveries. But they refused to talk. Weeks passed with no luck until finally, he managed to convince a medicine man to tell him the Apache creation story. Later, another medicine man showed Curtis a buckskin prayer chart never before seen by a white person. The chart was a document “beyond price … a miracle,” Curtis wrote. “
Pleased with his success among the Apache, Hopi, and Navajo, Curtis moved on to the Walapai. To get to Walapai territory, Curtis and his crew had to take a five-day journey up the Colorado River in a crude steamship.
During this time, William Myers proved to be invaluable to the team, Curtis explained:
To the Indians, Myers skill seemed like “awesome magic.” “An old informant would pronounce a seven-syllable word and Myers would repeat it without a second’s hesitation, which to the old Indian was magic—and so it was to me,” Curtis wrote. “At most times while extracting information, Myers sat on my left and the interpreter on my right. I led in asking questions, Myers and the interpreter prompted me if I overlooked any important points. By writing all information in shorthand we speeded the work to the utmost.”
Workdays were long; sixteen-hour days were standard. Every night Myers would neatly type all his notes.
Another method used by Curtis to capture the speech and songs of the Indians was the wax cylinder recorder invented by Thomas Edison. The Indian singers were awestruck when they heard themselves; they called the recorder “the magic box.” In the course of his project during the next thirty years, Curtis would record a total of seventy-five languages and more than 10,000 songs.
With the end of the field season of 1906, it was time to write the first two volumes.
Curtis and his assistants gathered all their information and disappeared into parts unknown to work on the text. Not even the Curtis family knew where they were as they worked for the next three months, seventeen hours a day. Curtis polished the text for the first volume on the Navajo and Apache, which had been written that September. For every hour given to photography, he estimated, “two must be given to the written word picture part of this record.” Once the first volume was finished, they began work on the second, which focused on nine tribes in Arizona, including the Pima, Papago, Mojave, and Walapai.
Selling The North American Indian
In 1907, Curtis traveled the nation, soliciting subscriptions for The North American Indian. “When he wasn’t photographing or interviewing Indians, he was writing, editing, selling subscriptions, or placating creditors while continually urging his staff to move faster!”
Unfortunately, subscriptions were hard to come by; the financial meltdown of 1907 was making it difficult for wealthy people and museums to spend that much money in advance.
One typical experience Curtis faced during this period was the very wealthy Edward Ayers. Ayers was the founder of the prestigious Field Museum of Chicago and manager of the well-respected library there. Ayers considered himself an expert on the subject, so The North American Indian should have been a logical fit. When Curtis approached Ayers, he declined, saying, He doubted that Curtis could break any new ground with the text; the pictures might be diverting, but Curtis had bitten off more than he could chew. Curtis had heard this complaint before. Ayers told Curtis, he was attempting too big a task for one man to complete. “It looks to me as though you are trying to do the work of 50 men.” Ayers continued. “After 30 years of studying this question, I am still in doubt of the value of the historical part of your work.” Ayers and other high placed academics doubted Curtis’s credentials.
Curtis weathered this storm by presenting his field notes and interviews to a panel of experts, who examined the material and approved his work. But the experience haunted him the rest of his life. Now added to the money problems was his personal nagging doubts about his life’s obsession. How could he ever hope to please every academic, every important, learned person in every high place?
That summer Curtis and his crew headed for the Great Plains to visit the Sioux, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, Apsaroke, and Atsina. Joining Curtis in the field that summer was Clara and their son, Hal.
The Sioux and The Crow
When Curtis arrived at the Pine Ridge Reservation, his old friend, Chief Red Hawk, warmly welcomed him. Curtis had promised his Indian friends a lavish feast if they would set up rituals and battle scenes for his camera. Curtis had expected about twenty Indians but was shocked when more than 100 were waiting to be fed. The hungry crowd quickly became impatient, “No beef, no pictures,” they said. The ever-stubborn Curtis packed up his camera, “No pictures, no feast,” he replied. Wait! Red Hawk pleaded. After much discussion, the old chief persuaded the warriors to ride with him into camp in two picturesque columns. Curtis took out his camera again.
That night the tribe feasted on beef and told stories of the massacre at Wounded Knee and the days when the buffalo roamed the plains.
As the Indians became more comfortable with Curtis, they often visited his tent. Hal loved hearing the old stories as much as his father did. Several Sioux who had witnessed the battle of the Little Bighorn offered to take Curtis to tour the battlefield. “The battle of the Little Bighorn, which had left 265 U.S. soldiers dead, became a turning point in the Indian Wars of the 1800s.” After the battle, the newspapers glorified the flamboyant General George Armstrong Custer into an ill-fated but courageous, “American hero.” The Indians had a different story to tell.
As Curtis roamed the battlefield, he questioned the three Crow scouts that assisted Custer that day. Chief Red Hawk and other Indians recalled vivid details from the battle. The story Curtis was now piecing together was far different from the one popularized in print:
No army account had ever placed blame for the heavy loss of life on Custer’s impatience, his lack of judgment, or his hunger for glory. Custer ordered the 7th Cavalry straight into the encampment of 12,000 Sioux and Cheyenne. The battle lasted only an hour. Every single trooper was killed.
The Indians admired Custer for his daring and courage but considered him foolish. As Curtis listened to the old Indians recalling their way of life, he was enthralled by one eighty-five-year-old Crow named Bull Chief. He considered Bull Chief to be one of the best storytellers he had ever heard. Bull Chief told Crow history going back ten chiefs and fondly recalled his days as young brave killing buffalo with a bow and arrow.
After documenting the many stories and photographs of the Sioux and Crow, Curtis was eager to be on his way to photograph the Mandan of South Dakota. But before they arrived at the Mandan camp, Hal came down with typhoid fever. “For days, the boy had tried to hide his condition. Only when he almost fell from his saddle did his father realize how sick he really was. What should they do? The nearest doctor was hundreds of miles away. To move Hal might be fatal.”
Curtis ordered the crew to North Dakota while he and Clara stayed behind with their son. Hal was made as comfortable as possible on an air mattress beneath a tree. He was sponged with water around the clock, but his fever would not break:
Desperately, Curtis sent an Indian in a wagon twenty miles to the nearest railroad tracks to try to flag down the next eastbound train. The Indian waited. He watched. In his pocket were money and a note asking the conductor to fill a prescription in Chicago. The medicine was to be dropped off at the same spot on the train’s return run. After the Indian stopped the train, he waited for another week. Finally, Hal’s medicine arrived.
By late August, Hal was strong enough to ride the twenty miles to the railroad tracks. “Curtis said good-bye to his family. He would not see them again until Christmas. There was so much work to finish; he had no choice but to stay in the field. As Curtis worked harder than ever, he was too busy to notice the fracture growing slowly between himself and Clara.
Curtis rushed to catch up with his crew already in North Dakota, home of the Mandan. By the end of 1905, only 150 Mandan were left alive, smallpox and subjugation having decimated the tribe for over 100 years. Since 1870 they shared Fort Berthold Reservation with the Hidatsa and Arikara.
When Curtis arrived on the reservation, he discovered many abandoned earth lodges. As with other tribes, Curtis interviewed the Elders first to try and learn the early Mandan way of life and religion. A “renegade” medicine man named Packs Wolf, offered to secretly show Curtis the sacred turtle drums of the Mandan if he would pay $500 and undergo a purification ceremony in a sweat lodge.” It would severely upset the Mandan, the translator told Curtis. “The Mandan asserted that no white man had ever had more than a possible glimpse of them,” Curtis wrote in his notes of the visit. “Naturally, this intrigued me.”
On a chilly morning, Curtis and his crew went to Packs Wolf’s cabin. “It was made clear to me this business was being done without permission of the tribe,” Curtis wrote, and if others found out, “dire things could happen to all of us:”
Curtis was nervous as he entered the dimly lit room where the sacred turtle drums were kept on a table covered with many offerings: strips of calico beads, pouches, plants, feathers. “Packs Wolf, in a hushed voice rendered a short prayer to the Turtles, begging them not to be offended,” Curtis wrote. “He next removed the mass of offerings under which the Turtles were buried so that I had my first glimpse of these mysterious objects.
Curtis was allowed to photograph the sacred turtle drums. “The fear of interruption before the pictures could be made was a nerve-wracking experience,” he later wrote.
Several weeks after viewing the sacred artifacts, Curtis and his crew left the Mandan and hurried to a secluded cabin in Montana to begin writing the next volumes of The North American Indian. During this time, Curtis was receiving dire financial reports on his progress. He knew that subscriptions alone would not even cover the printer bills. Curtis stretched Morgan’s loan as far as it could go, and still, it only paid for a third of the necessary field costs. The future of The North American Indian looked bleak, but Curtis refused to give up.
Volumes One and Two
The first two volumes of The North American Indian were finally published in late 1907 and early 1908. President Roosevelt, who contributed the foreword for volume one, wrote: “The Indian as he has hitherto been is on the point of passing away. … It would be a veritable calamity if a vivid and truthful record of these conditions were not kept.”
Curtis was ecstatic with the initial reactions. One magazine called him “a poet as well as an artist.” Another reviewer compared the beauty and completeness of the first two volumes of The North American Indian with the masterpiece of John James Audubon, The Birds of America. Curtis’s family was elated to finally see the first two volumes in print. But his long absences and the endless financial strain were taking their toll.
Clara was getting fed up; most of all, she was tired of having to continually defend her husband’s “unreliability” to her family. During the early years of the project, she tried to keep up a cheerful, bright outlook, at least in front of the children. Years later, Florence and Beth remembered how as little girls, they used to excitedly wait for the sight of their tall, handsome father walking up Queen Anne’s Hill. But more often than not, he never appeared.
On those rare occasions when Curtis did come home, he displayed great affection towards the children. “These were always such very special times,” Florence remembered, but there was tension building within the Curtis household. Clara’s frustrations boiled over in the summer of 1909; what little home life that remained began to crumble. Shortly after the birth of his fourth child, Edward Curtis moved out of the family home for good. Although he visited his children whenever he returned to Seattle, he always gave his address as the Rainier Club. Edward and Clara were now legally separated.
This was a Hopeless and dark time for Edward, but he still managed to continue taking beautiful photographs. Through sheer determination, volumes three, four, and five were published in late 1908 and 1909. Even with the success of volumes 1 and 2, sales remained slow.” Even though many readers admired The North American Indian, few could afford it. Curtis owed everyone money.
That summer, Curtis visited his old friends, the Blackfoot, who had invited him to participate in a feast and traditional Medicine Pipe ceremony. This year would be unique though, in an attempt to raise money in Great Britain, Curtis invited respected Cambridge anthropologist Alfred Cort Hadden to join him in the field.
After undergoing the required sweat bath, Curtis and his crew were ushered into the painted lodge of a man named Wild Gun. The ceremony gave individuals a chance to give thanks to the Great Spirit for helping them recover from illnesses and other misfortunes. The lodge where the ceremony took place was painted black and buff and adorned with a blue buffalo head and a blue elk head and feet. Men, women, and children wearing their finest dress took up every space in the lodge, Hadden remembered. As the ceremony began, the air rang with the sounds of praying, chanting, and the rhythmic shaking of gourd rattles.  After the ceremony was completed, the Indians took part in a Medicine Pipe dance. The sacred pipe was gently removed from its bundle and passed from dancer to dancer. Curtis and Hadden were very impressed by the Blackfoot’s “intense religious feeling.”
In the end, the relationship with Hadden proved disappointing. Curtis couldn’t convince Morgan to give one of his copies of The North American Indian to his friend. No review ever came.
In the spring of 1910, Curtis had a plan. He would travel up the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, then travel northwest along the coast of Washington and Canada to the Southern tip of Alaska. “I wanted to see and study the region from the water, as had Lewis and Clark more than a hundred years ago,” Curtis wrote, “I wanted to camp where they camped and approach the Pacific through the eyes of those intrepid explorers.”
For the second part of the journey, a sleek vessel built by Skokomish Indians for salmon fishing was purchased cheaply:
The vessel was the Elsie Allen, forty feet long, with both a gas engine and sails. Curtis had purchased the boat, cheap, at the end of the Columbia River expedition. The new boat proved tough and seaworthy plying the high surf off the Washington coast in that year, where Curtis got to know the continent’s western whaling people, the Makah. And it was just the right size for sailing in and out of the fjords of British Columbia.
After some dangerous encounters with strong ocean currents, Curtis and his crew finally reached the Kwakiutl people of Southern Alaska. The Kwakiutl were hunters and fishermen with a reputation for carving beautiful painted wooden masks, drums, and totem poles. Kwakiutl mythology was something that fascinated Curtis his whole life. Through the course of producing The North American Indian, he visited the Kwakiutl five times.
The Nootka, the Makah, and Kwakiutl hunted whales to survive. Whaling fascinated
Curtis. Preparations for a whale hunt were sacred and handed down from generation to generation for a century. The harpooner was one of the most respected men in the village who went through intense purification ceremonies before the hunt. A year later, on another visit to the Kwakiutl, Curtis had a close brush with death that changed his life forever:
The whale had been harpooned and was trying to escape. “I urged the paddlers to move closer. In retrospect I wonder that they obeyed my wish. I wanted a close-up looking into his huge throat. Suddenly I was hurled into the sea and fighting for my life beside that thrashing leviathan.” Curtis gulped for breath. He swam as fast as he could, away from the whale’s enormous thrashing tail. “It was a miracle no one had been killed,” he said. The canoe was smashed and sank. The camera and priceless film floated to the bottom of the ocean.
A group of Kwakiutl rescued the injured Curtis, who had broken his hip. Even after the
injury healed, he would suffer from a limp for the rest of his life. Whatever the reason, Curtis did not reveal the story of his “bum leg” or his brush with a whale’s tail until nearly forty years later.
When Curtis returned from the nerve-racking season of 1910, the future of The North American Indian was in serious doubt. Expenses had skyrocketed, creditors pestered Curtis for money, and Noone on the staff had been paid in months.
To make matters worse, Curtis’s five-year agreement with J. P. Morgan was about to end, and only 200 subscribers had purchased subscriptions. In order to generate more cash, he needed to produce more volumes, but another book wouldn’t be ready for months.
The ever-creative Curtis decided to go into show business.
In the Land of the Headhunters
In the winter of 1911, Curtis went on the road with a “picture musical” called The Curtis Indian Picture Opera. Curtis hired an agent to set up nine performances a week. Enthusiastic audiences from Los Angeles to New York clamored to see and hear his “sophisticated evening entertainment.” The tour was a financial disaster. Nine performances a week were too many, the rebellious orchestra refused to play, and road expenses had skyrocketed. The show was losing $300 a day. In the end, he was forced to close down the show, having lost thousands of dollars in desperately needed cash.
Again, Edward Curtis had to re-invent himself, this time he was going into moviemaking! Not just any movie, but a full-length motion picture called In the Land of the Headhunters. The film was a dramatization of the Kwakiutl way of life. Audiences would love it, Curtis said. “Indian-themed pictures were at the peak of their popularity. He would generate some much-needed cash, he was certain. As usual, no expense would be spared. In the Land of the Headhunters must be as true to life as possible.”Work ended on the film in 1914. The debut was set for the Casino Theater in New York City. One reviewer called the black-and-white film “a gem of the motion picture art.”
Unfortunately for Curtis, In the Land of the Headhunters was a financial disaster. No other theater ever booked it. The $75,000 spent to make it was a complete loss.
During this time, Curtis continued research and photography for The North American Indian. Without telling Clara, he took out another loan, using their house as collateral. He planned on using the money for field expenses.
These were desperate times for Edward Curtis; the blows came one after another. The strain of worry and debt was intense and wore on him both mentally and physically. Curtis wrote Morgan: “I assure you that I have made about every sacrifice a human being can for the sake of the work, and the work is worth it . . ..” Curtis must have had nagging doubts that he would ever finish the project.
Ten days later, Curtis was shocked and saddened to learn that the seventy-six-year-old Morgan had died while in Egypt. What would happen to The North American Indian now? Curtis admitted that he was “literally numb with apprehension.” In a rare piece of good news, a letter soon arrived from Morgan’s son, Jack, informing Curtis that the project would be finished as his father had wished. Curtis was immensely relieved.
The relief didn’t last long. Before he could begin work on the remaining nine volumes of The North American Indian, he received more devastating news. Adolph Muhr, his darkroom genius and studio manager, had died. Curtis hurried to Seattle; he had to make some critical decisions before he could get back in the field. He decided that responsibility for managing the business would fall to two women: Ella McBride, who had been with his operation for many years, and seventeen-year-old Beth Curtis. Beth had grown up in the studio, taking photos and learning how to process and retouch negatives.
To help alleviate the money problems, Curtis lectured, exhibited his work at the American Museum of Natural History, and wrote a children’s book called, Indian Days of Long Ago. However, his struggles were far from over. Clara filed for divorce on October 16, 1916. Three years later, following a series of bitter court fights, the breakup was finalized.
Clara got it all, the courts awarded her the studio and all of the negatives – in short, everything Curtis owned. Bitterly, Beth helped carry all of her father’s glass negatives to a building across the street. Whether by accident or on orders from Curtis – no one knows for sure – all the plates were broken. In retaliation, before taking over the studio, Clara burned up a trunk filled with letters from her husband.
The family had finally dissolved. The ever-loyal Beth sided with Her father. They moved to Los Angeles, where they opened a new studio. Beth managed the studio with her father’s occasional help. Together they continued to print photographs of Indians made from copies of the original glass plates that had been destroyed.
Even though he had begun a new life in Los Angeles, the world around Edward Curtis seemed to be closing in on him. Along with the nasty family situation, The North American Indian had ground to a halt. Americans were no longer interested in Indians. Teddy Roosevelt was now sickly and partially blind. Many other Curtis patrons had lost their fortunes or died. During these dark years, from 1916 to 1922, no new volumes of The North American Indian were printed.
Curtis remained determined to finish the project. To raise some money, Curtis sold the uncut master print and negatives of In the Land of the Headhunters to the American Museum of Natural History. He lost all rights and received only $1,500 for his labors.
Whenever he could scrape together enough money, Curtis was out in the field taking pictures. Throughout this period, Curtis was fortunate to still have the devoted support of William Myers and Frederick Hodge. Myers and Hodge worked for years without a salary, traveling the country interviewing, recording, and editing. Their loyalty kept the project going.
In spite of all the doubt, endless setbacks, and creative solutions, the completion of The North American Indian seemed further away than ever.
The Tribes of Northern California
Curtis was relieved to be out photographing Indians again. For the summer season of 1923, Curtis invited his married daughter, Florence, to accompany him as he photographed the Hupa, Yurok, and Karok Indians of Northern California. She had been only seven-years-old when the family visited Canyon de Chelly, but this journey would be made by automobile.
Finding the tribes would be a challenge as they avoided the White Man as much as possible. After arriving at camp, he began to photograph and interview the Elders. These Indians spoke several different languages, making communication a challenge. As he listened to their stories, he relished in their culture and history. Curtis wrote, “He delighted in the details he’d discovered: how the scarlet scalp of a pileated woodpecker was used as a piece atop the heads of Hupa dancers, or the explanation of why Yurok people would not talk to dogs, they were afraid that they would talk back.”Building trust would be difficult, but Curtis was up to the challenge. For more than seventy-five years, white settlers had brutally killed and raped these tribes for sport. Curtis wrote, “There is nothing else in the history of the United States which approaches the brutal treatment of the California tribes.”
That summer gave Curtis the opportunity to become reacquainted with Florence, who had seldom seen her father while she was growing up. “For all his brawn and bravery, he was a gentle, sensitive man,” wrote Florence. “[Father] had vast knowledge and kinship with the outdoors. He knew the trees, the animals, the birds, and flowers. Camping with him was an unforgettable experience.”
Florence was amazed when she saw her father working among the Indians:
When they came upon a new group, Curtis did not waste any time. He worked fast. He was deft and sure, He knew what he wanted, and he knew when he had it. He would make two or three exposures and it was all over, maybe in ten minutes. And he was at it all day long. If he didn’t have sun, he took pictures anyway.
During the summer of 1925, Curtis returned to the Southwest for the last time; what he found there shocked him. He noticed that his old Indian friends no longer welcomed him the way they once had. He felt fortunate to have taken so many photos and collected so much information on previous trips.
In 1922, the twelfth volume of The North American Indian was published with money provided by the Morgan family. Subscribers were beginning to grumble, adding even more pressure on Curtis to finish the project. For the next four years, he worked feverishly to complete five more volumes.
William Myers Quits
With the finish line in sight, Curtis was dealt possibly the biggest blow of his career. After nearly twenty-five years working on The North American Indian, William Myers quit. The years of long days and unpaid work had taken their toll on Myers. Curtis couldn’t understand how his valuable right-hand man could desert him now?Their long-standing friendship came to a bitter end. In May 1926, Curtis hired Stewart C. Eastwood to replace Myers.
Eastwood, a recent anthropology graduate from The University of Pennsylvania, was excited to get going on the project. As the summer progressed, it quickly became apparent that while he had a good ear for phonetics and vocabulary work, Eastwood was inexperienced in the field.” Also, frustrating the work that summer was the realization that things had indeed changed on the reservations. Years of poverty, hopelessness, and forced assimilation had taken a tragic toll. Many of the old ways had been forgotten.
In spite of the difficulty of gathering information that summer, Curtis and his new assistant began the writing and editing process for volume 19 in early 1927. When the text on the Oklahoma tribes was complete, Curtis sent it to Hodge for editing. Hodge returned it with a critical letter regarding Eastwood’s work. Angry, Eastwood threatened to quit. A frustrated Curtis wrote back to Hodge: “You’re a good editor but certainly a bum diplomat. It may seem necessary to wield a club—even so, one might to advantage . . . pad the club.”
There wasn’t time to make corrections; Curtis had already made plans to sail in June on the first steamer bound for Alaska. Volume 19 would have to wait until they returned from the Arctic. As Curtis prepared for the trip North, there was no way to know that this would be his last and most dangerous trip yet.
The Nunivak Inuit
Three decades earlier, Curtis had taken almost the same route with the Harriman expedition. Now he was returning – older, wiser, and just as enthusiastic. On June 28, 1927, Curtis, his assistant, and a boat pilot named Harry the Fish set sail in the Jewel Guard. Joining them on the trip was Curtis’s daughter Beth. The Jewel Guard was ill equipped for an Arctic voyage. From the beginning, the trip was a race against time. The ship would be no match for the unpredictable ice floes that could easily trap the companions if they were delayed. Curtis wrote in his journal:
As the Jewel Guard began the journey to Nunivak Island, rough weather hit almost immediately “Ice thick, headway slow,” off the western coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea. “Fog closed down so cannot see two boat lengths. Danger of collision with ice.” Curtis remained on watch listening nervously to the howling wind and groaning, shifting ice, while everyone slept. 
After a week at sea, a brutal storm began to lash the boat. Curtis wrote, “the sea was wild and getting worse. It was a sparring match with one big swell after another. With full power, we could make a mile an hour, and each breaker looked as though it might be our finish.” Finally, they were able to find a safe harbor behind a sand spit where they waited out the storm. When the Jewel Guard edged back out to sea, waves again pummeled the craft. Curtis wrote:
As she climbed a big swell, I eased her off slightly, and as she came to the crest, threw her hard over. Being flat-bottomed, she spun on the crest of the swell like a tin pan, and in a flash we were about and running before the wind like a scared Jackrabbit.
Battered and blinded, the boat hit a sand bar, and then the engine gave out. As the tide fell, the Jewel Guard became firmly stuck. Curtis knew they were in serious trouble; their chance of survival was not good. Waves battered the beached craft. Curtis secretly worried about his crippled hip. He wrote in his journal, “The condition of my lame hip is causing me a lot of anxiety as I can only go as far as we can get in a boat. I could not walk a mile if all our lives depended on it.” At dawn, the tide began to rise, lifting the boat slowly. Finally, after almost a day, they were free. Curtis wrote in his journal, “Oh, Boy! What a relief it was to feel her floating free!”
On July 10, the Jewel Guard arrived at Nunivak Island. Because of the harsh conditions, the trip took nearly four times longer than it should have. Curtis was surprised and delighted at how unspoiled the Nunivak Inuit were. “At last, and for the first time in all my thirty years work with the natives, I have found a place where no missionary has worked,” he wrote. Over the next few days, Curtis eagerly took pictures of hunters in kayaks, family groups, and smiling children.
The Inuit of Nunivak and the other tribes in the Bering Sea had survived for centuries by adapting to the hostile environment in the area. “Few natural resources were available; warm clothing was fashioned from the skins, fur, or feathers of whale, caribou, seal, polar bear, fox, duck, and even dog.”
After leaving Nunivak, Curtis set sail for Nome, where Beth was to depart the group and return home. As they said their tearful goodbyes, Beth recalled: “I was so fearful I would never see [my father] again.”
Back in Nome, Curtis’s health was not good. His bad leg caused him so much pain that he could not stand. He creatively adapted and learned to live sitting down. Secretly he was concerned, “I suspect it is fortunate that this is the last volume as I have a feeling that this thing may be permanent. Let us hope not,” he wrote.
Ignoring the pain they pushed on, time was short, and there was so much more to do.
On August 7, 1927, the Jewel Guard set sail for King Island, located at the south end of the Bering Strait. When the Jewel Guard finally reached the Island, “It was nothing more than a sheer rock pinnacle.” The place was eerily silent. Where were the inhabitants? As soon as the crew stepped ashore, an enormous pack of wild dogs descended on them. The dogs belonged to the local Inuit, who were off hunting elsewhere. Fortunately, the “large wolf-like beasts” were friendly: “They were so glad to see a human that they almost crushed the crew with their affection,” Curtis wrote. “Every dog in the pack tried to get close enough to touch us. Half a dozen at a time would jump up and try to get their paws on our shoulders, and countless dog fights resulted from this rivalry to be our pals.” The dogs joyfully leaped and rolled underfoot, knocking Curtis’s camera off its tripod; nevertheless, he managed to take pictures of the deserted village.
In spite of its barren appearance, King Island was located in an area rich with resources the Inuit needed to survive. Walrus was used for everything. The meat and tusks were carved into tools, and the thick skins were used to make coverings for umiaks and kayaks. The skins of young walruses were cut into soles for mukluks or were de-haired and dried to create coverings for summerhouses.
With a stiff wind in her sails, the Jewel Guard next headed north to The Diomede Islands. For once, the weather seemed to cooperate. The crew located Little Diomede, and by early morning, they were ashore taking pictures.
Curtis next sailed west to Big Diomede Island, where he wanted to document the Inuit of Kotzebue. The Kotzebue Inuit hunted seals for skin, oil, and meat, and relied heavily on fish for survival through the long winter.
Winter sea ice was already beginning to build. Curtis knew he had to get south as soon as possible. The journey home was a desperate race. Jewel Guard managed to survive the punishing wind and a broken engine and made it safely back to Nome.
Once again, Curtis seemed to have beaten the odds, but his luck would not last long. Worn and physically ill, Curtis arrived back in Seattle, where he was promptly arrested for “failure to pay alimony which has now accrued to the tune of $4,500.” Deputy sheriffs and officers from the Burns Detective Agency dragged Curtis to jail. Newspaper coverage of the ensuing court battle was deeply humiliating for Curtis. He tried to explain to the judge that he had no money to pay his former wife. The judge did not believe him; If Curtis wasn’t being paid for The North American Indian, why had he spent so much time doing it? At that point, Curtis broke down:
Your Honor . . . it was my job. The only thing I could do which was worth doing. [I] Was duty bound to finish The North American Indian, some of the subscribers had paid for the whole series in advance.
Eventually, the media got bored with the Curtis divorce squabble, and Edward Curtis returned to Los Angeles, totally depleted and feeling betrayed.
He and Eastwood immediately commenced work on the final two volumes of The North American Indian. Volume eighteen was published in 1929, and volumes nineteen and twenty the following year. The North American Indian was finally finished. In the introduction to the last volume, Curtis humbly acknowledged the help of the Morgan Family. They had graciously provided almost $400,000, about one-quarter the total cost of the entire project, far above the agreed amount. Curtis ended by writing, “Great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded,” It is finished.
The Finale Days
In 1930, The North American Indian was finally finished, and Edward Curtis was a spent man. The feeble Curtis was now sixty-two years old with health problems that would plague him the rest of his life. He was deep in debt. He spent the next two years in “a complete, physical breakdown.” He later wrote, “Ill health and uncertainty as to how I was to solve the problem of the future brought a period of depression which about crushed me.” Curtis never allowed himself to be down for long.
With determination and help, he pulled himself together. By 1932, he was planning a new life. “Yes, I am certainly broke,” he told Meany, “Other than that, I am not down and out.” His hands were gnarled and bent by arthritis, he could barely walk, and he was going blind. Despite all of that, he felt fairly spry.
Now recovered from his breakdown, Curtis was living close to his daughter, Beth, back in Los Angeles. Beth, now married, had opened a studio years earlier, where she did her own work and sold Curtis’ Indians. Her father lived not far from the studio, but he despised the place. It was confining and choked by yellow smog.
In October 1932, fifty-eight-year-old Clara Curtis climbed into a small boat near her sister’s home on Puget Sound. A sudden breeze whipped up, and she fell overboard and drowned.
With the death of her mother, Katherine, the last Curtis child, left Seattle for Southern California to be closer to the family.
Jim Graybill, the son of Florence, said, “The three oldest children had basically disowned their mother.” Katherine, like Beth, had been the victim of her mother’s fury and instability as the marriage fell apart.
Growing up, Katherine never knew her absentee father. Through all the years on the road, Curtis had written her, but she never saw those letters; her mother had hidden them from her. It wasn’t until much later, when the letters were discovered in an old suitcase that she read them. They were full of stories about life on the reservation and the Indians he had met. With Katherine’s move, Curtis now had two daughters and his son nearby and a fourth child in Oregon.
For the next few years, Curtis worked odd jobs. He worked on a movie with Cecil B. DeMille in South Dakota. He raised chickens, ducks, and avocados on a small farm in Whittier, California. “As I look back over my scrambled life,” he wrote in his seventies, “I realize that I have rarely taken a Sunday off and but one week’s vacation, it’s safe to say that in the past sixty years I have averaged sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.”
Although he was often so crippled by arthritis that he could “scarcely hold a pencil,” Curtis spent the last years of his life corresponding with anyone he could. Curtis was now coming to the period in his life were his friends and mentors were dying off. For fourteen years starting in 1939, Curtis suffered a series of blows.
On April 22, 1935, while preparing for his morning class at the University of Washington, Edmond S. Meany fell to the ground and gasped for breath. Curtis’s life long friend died in his office, age seventy-two of a massive stroke.
George Bird Grinnell died April 11, 1938, at eighty-nine-years old. He died in New York City near his family. Curtis’s mentor had suffered a series of heart attacks over the previous decade.
His younger brother Asahel died in 1941, of a heart attack, at the age of sixty-six. He carried his feud with Edward to the end: the brothers had not spoken to each other in over forty years. When a son, Asahel Curtis Jr., was asked in 1981 about the brothers’ estrangement, he said only that it was “ridiculous.”
C. Hart Merriam died near Berkeley, CA, on March 19, 1942, at the age of eighty-seven-years old.
In April of 1949, William Myers, the writing talent behind The North American Indian,died at seventy-five-years old near San Francisco. In his obituary, no mention of Curtis or the North American Indian was mentioned. He was described as a motel manager, retired, and childless.
In the summer of 1948, retired librarian, Harriet Leitch, was asked to assess a set of rare books that had been donated to the Seattle Historical Society. The acquisition was not a complete set, just eight volumes, but they were well-crafted, quality books that brought the subjects to life.
Leitch had heard of The North American Indian but had never seen any books in person. As Leitch ran her fingers over the leather binding and studied the photographs, she wondered what had become of Edward Curtis.
After a little research, she found an address for Beth in Los Angeles. Leitch wrote and explained her situation, and included a few questions: Is Edward S. Curtis still alive? If so, could he answer some questions by correspondence? What had become of The North American Indian?
A short time later, Leitch received a reply. “Mr. Curtis is elderly but very much alive. I know he would be delighted to give you any information you might like concerning his life.” Thus began a four-year correspondence between Leitch and The Shadow Catcher.
Curtis told Leitch, his editor Hodge had moved to Los Angeles, and Myers had been found living in the Bay Area. Curtis also gave his opinion on the current state of publishing. “Most books are not worth the paper they are printed on. So many writers, so many books, and yet what was the value of being published? The joy was in creation, in the act of doing, in discovery.”
Near the end of 1948, Curtis started sending memories to Leitch.
One day while rummaging through a trunk at his daughter’s home, Curtis came upon a seventy-four-page memoir he’d written decades before and never published. He sent a copy to Leitch, who was thrilled. Curtis also sent her the major reviews of The North American Indian, from all over the world.
Curtis suggested Leitch spend some time with a single book from the series, Curtis said:
Look at but one volume to see what a task it was to collect such a vast number of words of assorted dialects.” Along the West Coast alone, “we recorded more root languages than exist on the rest of the globe. In several cases we collected the vocabulary from the last living man knowing the words of a language. To me, that is a dramatic statement.
Leitch was impressed; she knew his reputation as a photographer, but the anthropological work was a revelation. Leitch enquired why he hadn’t written his personal memoirs? He had lived a fascinating life.
Curtis had started recording his personal history, sitting for days with his children so that they might have something for posterity.
By the spring of 1950, Curtis’s energy had returned. The letters flew back and forth, Curtis responding to any inquiry presented by Leitch. He answered questions on “the reburial of Chief Joseph, Princess Angeline, the good work of Professor Meany, and how they discovered the true story of the Nez Perce, a pattern that followed with the Custer revision.” Leitch queried Curtis, How did he do it? “I didn’t get my information from the white man,” Curtis replied.
Finally, the pace of memory collecting slowed, and the words refused to come. Curtis complained about his “scrambled life,” a blur of disconnected images and places, all at the frenzied behest of The Cause. At night, in his dreams, he revisited the Hopi and Apache, the Sky City of Acoma, the Grand Canyon cellar of the Havasupai, and the sublime isolation of Nunivak Island. 
Near the end of 1950, Curtis turned cranky. If it wasn’t “that damn television” blaring in a neighbor’s apartment, it was his eyesight, or arthritis, which on many days prevented him from writing; on those days, he said his “pen died a sudden death.”
Curtis limped into 1951, the burst of energy gone. “I am still housebound, living the life of a hermit,” Curtis told Leitch. He longed for the simple things – a stroll in the park or the taste of fresh strawberries. He started calling himself Old Man Curtis, and his handwriting became illegible. In July of 1951, he was forced by finances to move to an even smaller apartment. He called it “the most discouraging place I have ever tried to live in.”
Throughout 1951, Curtis deteriorated further; however, at times, he responded to Leitch’s questions with brief flashes of clarity. He told her stories of the Harriman expedition to Alaska, and of meeting J. P. Morgan for the first time. He told her of his friend Teddy Roosevelt, and Leitch even got an account of the Sun Dance with the Piegan and the Snake Dance with the Hopi.
On his eighty-third birthday, Curtis posed for a formal portrait. He still had the Vandyke beard and wore his hat at an angle.
“I am nearly blind,” he wrote on August 4, 1951. It was his last letter. He had written Leitch twenty-three times over nearly four years of correspondence.
On October 19, 1952, Edward Curtis died of a heart attack. Curtis took his final breath in a home not much larger than the tent he used in Canyon de Chelly. The next day, The New York Times printed a seventy-six-word obituary.
EDWARD S. CURTIS
Special to The New York Times
LOS ANGELES, October. 19– Edward S. Curtis, Internationally know authority on the history of the North American Indian, Died today at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Beth Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research done under the patronage of the late financer, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.
At the time of his death, only Frederick Webb Hodge, editor of The North American Indian was still alive. Hodge died September 28, 1956, at ninety-one years
Edward Curtis’ life’s work had been almost completely forgotten. The Morgan estate had been looking to dump its Curtis collection for years. Throughout the depression, the collection had been hidden away in the basement of the Morgan Library in New York. When an offer came to purchase the collection, the Library jumped at the opportunity. A rare-book dealer named Charles E. Lauriat Jr. offered to purchase the collection for $1,000. “The Morgans gave Lauriat the right to sell nineteen complete sets of The North American Indian, in addition to thousands of prints, gravures, the priceless glass-plate negatives and the copyright:”
It was a huge haul of material from the book that had been compared to the King James Bible. Each set contained more than 2,200 original pictures, almost 4,000 pages of text, including transcriptions of hundreds of songs and dozens of languages, plus additional portfolios of oversized photogravures printed on plates.
Included in the deal were the original photogravure plates used to make the images of the book. Lauriat sold the 19 sets, and eventually assembled 50 more into bound volumes. Fewer than 300 copies of The North American Indian were ever bound.
Every so often, a query would come from a curious admirer, “Are you still alive?”
Mrs. Gardner from Seattle wrote in 1937, wondering what had become of The North American Indian. “The negatives and copyrights as a whole passed completely from my hands,” Curtis told her:
“I devoted thirty-three years to gathering text material and pictures for the twenty volumes. I did this as a contribution; without salary, direct or indirect financial returns. When I was through with the last volume, I did not possess enough money to buy a ham sandwich; yet the books will remain the outstanding story of the Indian.” 
Twenty years after Edward Curtis died, Karl Kernberger, a photographer from New Mexico, traveled to Boston to inspect the rumored Curtis collection. Downstairs in Lauriat‘s bookstore, Kernberger picked through the enormous cache of Edward Curtis’s life work; he was shocked and amazed at what he found. Kernberger convinced a few investors to join him in purchasing the collection and moving it to Santa Fe. During this time, America was embracing Native Americans as never before. People eager to see Curtis’s work mobbed the gallery exhibitions in New Mexico. The times had finally caught up with Edward Curtis. “Eventually, Kernberger’s group sold the master copper gravure plates, which then passed through several more hands before settling in the current home of a pair of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.”
About the same time in Austin, Texas, a collector named Lois Flury saw her first Curtis prints, and they changed her life. Flury was so captivated by the images that her husband resettled to Seattle, where they opened a gallery specializing in Edward Curtis’s work. As the new gallery opened, the last Curtis studio assistant died. Ninety-three-year old Imogen Cunningham was introduced to photography as a student at the University of Washington. Early in her career, she worked as a photo technician for the Edward Curtis studio. Through her connections with Curtis, she became friendly with the greats of Photography. A decade earlier, another assistant, Ella McBride, had died two months shy of her 103rd birthday. In old age, Curtis had said, “She was my star.”
In the forty years following Kernberger’s discovery, the value of Curtis’s work has steadily risen. In 2010, a single photogravure of Chief Joseph sold for $169,000. Full sets of The North American Indian books are exceedingly rare; most are held by institutions, universities, and libraries worldwide. About every five years, a full set will surface. In 2005, a set sold at Christie’s for $1.4 million. In 2007 a partial set of sixteen volumes sold for more than $1 million. In 2009, a private collector paid $1.8 million for a complete set. I think this would have amused Curtis.
Over the years, “Lois Flury became acquainted with three of the surviving Curtis children, and found them full of fond memories of their father.” Florence Curtis Graybill, died in 1987, at the age of eighty-eight. The oldest child, Harold (Hal) Phillips Curtis passed away in 1988, at the age of ninety-five. Katherine (Billy) Curtis Ingram’s death is unknown.
The family told Flury of a secret set of The North American Indian that Curtis had kept in his apartment in Los Angeles. The books were hidden from creditors for decades and then passed on to Beth. After Beth died in 1973, the family set went to Beth’s husband, Manford Magnuson. Flury and Magnuson were concerned that the family set might be broken up after the children’s generation had passed. Just before Magnuson’s death in 1993, Flury found a buyer: the Rare Books Library at the University of Oregon.
Edward Curtis would probably be most pleased by the legacy of The North American Indian. It can be safely assumed that most, if not all, of the tribes Curtis photographed have benefited from his exhaustive documentation. Maybe, most significantly, the 2010 census counted 2.7 million Native Americans, up 18 percent in a decade.
After purchasing an original edition of Volume XII, devoted entirely to the Hopi, that tribe used the book to build and solidify its teachings, traditions, and language. The Hopi found the alphabet and the accompanying song lyrics crucial tools in teaching words that nearly disappeared. Nearly half of all members of the Hopi Nation in Arizona now speak some of the language.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma uses research done by Curtis to teach the language that is now widely known by young tribal members.
In Montana, the Blackfeet found that Curtis’ pictures were an excellent way to connect students to their ancestors.
At Canyon de Chelly, now a protected monument, Curtis’s photograph of the valley floor is on prominent display at the visitor center.
When the Makah set out to revive whale hunting in 1999, they had trouble finding anyone alive with the memory of the practice. They used Volume XI as a guide to reconstructing the ritual of the hunt.
In 1988, the Coast Salish tribes of the upper Northwest used Curtis’s images to replicate the original cedar war canoes of their ancestors.
The Navajo Nation now numbers more than a quarter-million people.
In the Land of the Headhunters vanished for thirty-three years. In the late 1940s, the Field Museum in Chicago came into possession of the scratched, corroded, and faded movie. When it was screened, the nitrate film caught fire, causing significant damage.
Some of the smaller tribes have not fared as well. The Duwamish, Princess Angeline’s people, were declared extinct in 1916. The surviving Duwamish have tried for decades to get back official recognition.
Edward Curtis always believed his words and pictures would come alive after he had passed away. Collectors were always asking if there was anything still to surface from the Curtis estate. No, the family insisted. Their father had left this world as he’d entered it, without a single possession to his name. “Though he was alone at death, not a single person in The North American Indian was a stranger to him.”
 Edward Curtis, Letter to Harriet Leitch 1951: University of Pittsburgh Library System [Online] Available. < https://pitt.libguides.com/edwardcurtis-allabouttheland/harrimanalaskaexpedition>.
 Alaska was purchased from the Russian Empire by the United States Government on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million dollars, was administered as a district beginning in 1884, and with a governor appointed by the President of the United States.
 Edward Henry Harriman, Harriman Alaska Expedition: The University of Pittsburgh Library System [Online] Available. New York, 1901-1902. <https://pitt.libguides.com/edwardcurtis-allabouttheland/harrimanalaskaexpedition.
 Alan J Stein. Chief Joseph Watches a University of Washington Football Game and Gives a speech in Seattle on November 20, 1903. Historylink.org [Online] Available. 2013 < https://www.historylink.org/File/10286>
 Edward S. Curtis, Obituary: The New York Times [Online] Available. October 20, 1952. < http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA02/daniels/curtis/obituary.html>.
 American Art and the Philips Collection, Imogene Cunningham (1883 – 1976): [Online] Available. <https://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/cunningham-bio.html >.
In the Land of the Head Hunters Movie (1914) Silent Movie
Shadow Catcher Documentary
Curtis Comes Back to Seattle: Rediscovering Edward S. Curtis & Native American Culture