- Historic Sites
The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
The project, however, almost stopped there. Despite an appreciative reception from the subscribers and various newspapers that were apprised of the publication (the backing of the President and of Morgan, who donated nineteen of his twenty-five copies to libraries, made it a news event), Curtis still had only a small number of subscribers, not all of whom had yet paid him, and he could not meet publication costs for the next two volumes. Seattle banks had promised him loans, but the Panic of 1907 had occurred, and they had reneged. After spending another winter of uninterrupted work, this time in a log cabin in the Montana Rockies, preparing the text for Volumes III and IV, Curtis hurried to New York, desperate again. “Just how I pulled through, I do not know,” he said. But mostly by persuading some of his wealthier subscribers to pay him in full he was able to get the next two volumes to press.
Still, the project’s road was a bumpy one. Morgan’s money financed the field work, but there was no guarantee that publication costs could continue to be met. In 1909, recognizing the problem, Morgan helped Curtis set up a corporation, The North American Indian, Inc., to handle the business details and meet the expenses of publishing the books. Then, in January, 1912, the original five-year agreement with Morgan for field money came to an end, and Curtis could not ask the financier to extend the grant. Save for a few weeks in the West he spent more than a year trying to find new subscribers whose payments would underwrite the field costs. At the end of June, 1912, he gave up the effort, and with what little money he had raised (principally, he said, through a second mortgage on his house), he rejoined his assistants in the field, “inadequately outfitted and short of funds to do efficient work.”
The next year, with Volume ix on its way to press, the elder Morgan died in Europe, alarming Curtis that now his publication support would end. Fortunately the financier’s son, J. P. Morgan the Younger, assumed his father’s commitment, apparently even opening a line of credit for the publishing corporation at his bank. After that the project rolled more smoothly, with Curtis frequently able to hire large staffs to assist him with his photographic work, logistics, and research. Two volumes, with their portfolios, appeared in 1915 and 1916, and nine between 1922 and 1930, when Volume XX, the last one, was issued. Through the years Curtis continued to drive himself and his assistants, often working twenty hours a day for days at a Stretch. His last field trip, conducted principally in a forty-foot boat, was made in 1927 to Alaska, where he photographed Eskimo life for his final volume.
With the set finally completed, Curds suffered a nervous breakdown and physical collapse. By 1932, however, he was recovered and lived another twenty years, turning his interest to other things, including an expedition to some mines in South America, occasional photographic projects, and the writing of several books. His great Indian volumes, stowed away in rare-book rooms, were almost entirely forgotten, and their magnificent photographs remained generally unknown. On October 21, 1952, at the age of eightyfour, Curtis died in Los Angeles, where he and his family had moved from Seattle.
In 1935, after a total of two hundred fourteen sets had been sold, a representative of the Morgan interests had meanwhile sold the assets of The North American Indian, Inc., to the Boston bookdealer and publisher Charles E. Lauriat for a thousand dollars plus royalties. Included were a small number of unsold sets, several thousand individual prints, unbound sheets, and the handmade copperplates from which the books and portfolios had been made. For some reason all of Curtis’ original glass-plate negatives, which had been stored in a basement of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, were never shipped to Lauriat, and during World War n they were unwittingly dispersed. Some of them were destroyed, but many of them, sold as junk, ended up in the hands of collectors. In Boston, Lauriat found purchasers for the few sets he had acquired and then, from the unbound material, supplemented by material printed from the original plates, he assembled and sold fourteen more sets, bringing the total number of them marketed by Curtis and himself to two hundred seventy-two. From time to time private collectors and others showed an interest in buying the copperplates from Lauriat and bringing out a new, cheaper edition of Curtis’ set. But always the costs proved too high, and potential purchasers of such a set would turn out to be scarce.
In the late 1950’s, however, public interest in Indians began to revive, and researchers began to come on Curtis’ books. Republication of several of his photographs in The American Heritage Book of Indians in 1961 was followed by the printing of more of his pictures in other publications and, finally, by the issuing of illustrated books devoted entirely to Curtis and his Indian photographs.