Performing Archive

Who was Edward Curtis?

Edward Sheriff Curtis was born on February 18, 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin. His father, Johnson Asahel Curtis, served as an army chaplain and Union private during the Civil War. When Edward was about 5 years old, his family moved to Minnesota. Unable to work in farming due to wounds from the war, Johnson became a preacher for United Brethren Church, taking young Edward with him on evangelical tours through the countryside.

Johnson fostered Edward’s love of the outdoors during their time together. When Edward was 12 years old, he used Wilson’s Photographic Manual to build his first camera. Due to Johnson’s deteriorating health, Edward had to take over responsibility for supporting his entire family (mother, father, younger brother and younger sister) at only 14 years old. With the Curtis family farm failing, Johnson and Edward established a new home in the Washington Territory in what is now Port Orchard. Johnson died only three days after the rest of the family moved to their new home, making Edward the head of the Curtis household at 20 years old.

In his new home, Edward met his future wife Clara and continued to pursue photography, purchasing his second camera, a 14 by 17 inch large view. In 1891, Edward decided to make photography his full-time career, relocating the family to Seattle and purchasing a share in a photography studio with Rasmus Rothi. In 1892, Edward left his studio with Rothi to create the premiere photographic portrait studio in the city with Thomas Guptill. Edward also married Clara that year and lived with her above the studio. The next year, their first son was born.

Around 1895, Curtis became fascinated with the Native American populations in the Seattle area. He took many photographs of Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Siahl. Curtis and Guptill’s studio continued to earn accolades from the National Photographers Convention and Argus magazine. In 1897, Guptill left the studio, making it “Edward S. Curtis Photographer and Photoengraver.” Clara helped Edward manage the business. The next year, 1898, the National Photographic Society exhibits several of Curtis’ photos (including some of Princess Angeline) . The society also awarded him the grand prize and gold medal for his photo “Homeward,” which depicts Native Americans in a canoe.

The same year, Edward rescued a lost climbing party on Mt. Rainier, including George Bird Grinnell, an influential naturalist who shared Curtis’ interest in Native Americans, and Clinton Hart Merriam, the founder of the National Geographic Society. They invited Curtis to be the official photographer for the Harriman Expedition to Alaska.

On the expedition, Curtis learned the ethnographic skills he needed to further his photography of Native Americans. In 1903, he began his North American Indian project. Although various institutions and publishers refused him funding, he acquired the support of J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt. He spent the next 30 years traveling around the Western United States territories learning about, recording, photographing and filming Native American tribes. Although his marriage failed and he faced numerous financial hardships, Curtis persisted. He finished the final 20th volume of The North American Indian in 1930.

The Great Depression hit and Curtis’ photography business struggled. Throughout the rest of his life, he worked on a film The Plainsman with Cecil B. DeMille, mined gold, and wrote his memoirs, with the encouragement of his daughters. He died at age 84 and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

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