“For every negative that is a disappointment, there is one that is a joy.” -Edward S. Curtis

Photographer in Washington state

IN 1887, Edward Curtis’s family moved from his birthplace near Whitewater, WI to Port Orchard, WA when he was 19 years old. Edward was a gifted photographer — his portrait of Chief Seattle’s daughter Princess Angeline earned him first place in a photography contest (opening photo, last image bottom right.) He soon became well known for his photographs of the Native Americans. During his time they were called Indians.


On Photography: Edward Sheriff Curtis, 1868-1952
Edward S. Curtis, circa 1910

After accompanying an 1899 expedition to Alaska as one of its pair of photographers, Curtis went with the editor of Forest and Stream, George Bird Grinell into northern Montana where they saw the Blackfoot and Piegan tribes. They traveled by horseback and with pack animals. During this trip, Edward Curtis decided to document the native people of North America in writing and photographs.

A life’s work

Curtis photographed and wrote about over 80 tribes for 30 years. His writing filled 20 books. He traveled from Mexico to northern Alaska. His work was supported by businessman John Pierpont Morgan, who over his lifetime was involved in the founding of U.S. Steel, General Electric and International Harvester along with his namesake financial institution JPMorgan Chase.

Curtis was also backed by President Theodore Roosevelt. For three years starting in 1911, he produced and directed a silent film showing the mythology of the Rawakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest.

The North American Indian

Edward S. Curtis’s crowning achievement was published in 1930. The 20 volume work was titled “The North American Indian.” Each volume contained 75 photogravures and 300 pages of text. This video from the Smithsonian is an overview of his work.

The photos in the opening photo are from this work. Here are a few captions in Curtis’s own words.


“This portrait of the historical old Apache was made in March, 1905. According to Geronimo’s calculation he was at the time seventy-six years of age, thus making the year of his birth 1829. The picture was taken at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the day before the inauguration of President Roosevelt, Geronimo being one of the warriors who took part in the inaugural parade at Washington. He appreciated the honor of being one of those chosen for this occasion, and the catching of his features while the old warrior was in a retrospective mood was most fortunate (opening photo, top row, last image on the right.)”

Blanket Weaver-Navaho

“The Navaho-land blanket looms are in evidence everywhere. In the winter months they are set up in the hogans, but during the summer they are erected outdoors under an improvised shelter, or, as in this case, beneath a tree. The simplicity of the loom and its product are here clearly shown, pictured in the early morning light under a large cottonwood (opening photo, top row, second image from left.)”

Edward Curtis in his own words

Of his work, Curtis was overwhelmed. He said, “I want to make them [American Indians] live forever. It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.” He continued, saying, “The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other…consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.”

Sources: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis Gallery