Gaining Support ~ For Future Generations

The North American Indian Project coincided with the years following the closing of the frontier. Many Americans had begun romanticizing life before the arrival of industrialization.

The turn of the century was also a turning point in Edward S. Curtis' career. With his photographic studio attracting the "best" of Seattle society, Curtis nonetheless found himself increasingly drawn to exploring other local subjects, in particular, American Indians in natural settings. A chance encounter with some influential scientists and naturalists led Curtis to begin realizing his dream of documenting America's Indian population.

"A party of ‘Scientificos' came to study the mountain. . . . I acted as their guide in giving the mountain the once over."
~ Edward S. Curtis, date unknown

In 1898, while climbing Mount Rainier to photograph scenic views, Curtis came across three lost "tenderfoots,"as he called them. The explorers were nationally known George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine and expert on the Plains Indians; Clinton Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey; and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Department of the Interior Division of Forestry. Curtis impressed the party with both his photography and his charm.

In 1899, Merriam and Grinnell invited Curtis to accompany the Harriman Alaska Expedition as the official photographer.

Harriman Alaska Expedition, by John Burroughs, John Muir, and George Bird Grinnell, New York, 1901.  Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
Harriman Alaska Expedition, by John Burroughs, John Muir, and George Bird Grinnell, New York, 1901.

Participating as photographer in the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition gave Curtis the opportunity to compensate for his lack of formal schooling. The scientists who joined railroad millionaire Edward Harriman's expedition to survey the vast economic potential of the Alaskan frontier referred to it as a "floating university." Curtis' most important lesson may have been about the fundamentals of ethnographic research.

In 1900 Edward Curtis accepted publisher and Plains Indian expert George Bird Grinnell's invitation to visit the Blackfeet Indians of Montana. This experience, reinforced by Grinnell's prediction that this way of life would soon disappear, made a huge impression on Curtis.

"Sun Dance Encampment-Piegan", Montana
by Edward S. Curtis, 1900, from The North American Indian, Vol. VI, 1911.
Gifford Pinchot, about 1912 Gifford Pinchot, about 1912
Clinton Hart Merriam, about 1895 Clinton Hart Merriam, about 1895
George Bird Grinnell, about 1900 George Bird Grinnell, about 1900

~ A President's Encouragement

~ The Curtis Family ~ Working on the Frontier ~ Gaining Support ~ A Life's Work ~ Early Books ~ Family Sacrifices
~ "The Man Who Never Took Time to Play" ~ Curtis' Technique ~ Alaska ~
~ Timeline ~ Suggested Readings ~ Credits ~

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