The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis


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

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

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

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

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

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