- Historic Sites
The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
The dignified portrait, opposite, of Bear’s Belly, an Arikara Indian warrior of the eastern plains, wrapped in a bearskin, the symbol of his personal medicine—and the photographs of the other native Americans on the following pages—are a sampling of a wondrous, but almost unknown, publishing project that took one dedicated photographer-author, Edward S. Curds—sometimes directing a staff of up to sixty assistants—thirty years to complete and that the spellbound New York Herald called in 1907, when Curds’ first illustrated volumes began to appear, “the most gigantic in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible. …”
The result of a singularly lucky stroke that brought together the odd combination of a talented photographer, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the financial giant J. Pierpont Morgan, and did it at the last possible moment when Indians could be photographed as they were before their lives were altered by white men, Curds’ huge work consisted of twenty sumptuous volumes of text and hand-printed, sepia-toned photogravures, each one accompanied by a portfolio of thirty-six or more large photogravures printed, also by hand, on 18” x 22” sheets. Titled collectively The North American Indian and containing a total of more than two thousand stunning photographs of some eighty different tribes, the forty volumes and portfolios were issued over a twenty-three-year period, from 1907 to 1930. They were sold to subscribers at a price that averaged $3,500 a set, depending upon the method of payment. Curds’ original plan was to publish five hundred sets, but he sold only two hundred fourteen of them and limited his printing to that number of sets. Today they are highly prized collector’s items, reposing principally in the rare-book rooms of libraries and little known to the general public. When occasionally they appear at auctions, they bring prices in the neighborhood of $35,000 a set, and even individual prints sometimes sell for several hundred dollars each if in good condition.
Curds, who was born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868, was something of a driven man, convinced early in life that the Indians were a vanishing people and determined that he would publish a set of books recording with text and pictures their customs in peace and war, their ceremonies, and their religious observances. His ambitious undertaking, requiring years of arduous field research and photographic trips, heavy costs for supplies, printing, and publishing—not to mention a livelihood for himself, his family, and his assistants—faced disaster many times; and in the end he collapsed with a mental and physical breakdown that put him in the hospital for two years. But by fanatic perseverence he accomplished his goal, taking some forty thousand pictures of almost every tribe in Alaska and the trans-Mississippi West between 1898 and 1930 and compiling a monumental record of the aboriginal people as they were before their own way of life disappeared or changed. Yet while the enormous ethnological importance of Curds’ work and the breathtaking quality of his photography place him in the first rank of those who captured the image of the unconquered Indian, he himself has remained as little known as his magnificent books. It is ironic that toward the end of his life, with his Indian volumes already published, he worked in relative obscurity in such jobs as still cameraman in Hollywood on the set of Cecil B. De Mule’s Ten Commandments .