EDWARD S. CURTIS
Edward S. Curtis, by Adolph Muhr, 1907
Curtis on the Columbia River, c1910.
Edward S. Curtis, self-portait, 1908
Curtis standing next to a dead whale
in British Columbia, c1913
Edward S. Curtis had no idea how big of a mark he would be leaving when he started taking pictures of Indigenous People. With no more than six years of classroom education and no formal training in art, history, science or other academic disciplines, he became one of the 20th century's most famous photographers. Today he is remembered for his twenty-volume masterpiece, The North American Indian, a publication so huge in scope and content that it took nearly three decades to complete.
Curtis' camp on the Spokane Reservation, Washington, 1909
What's in a Name?
In most books and articles about Curtis, his middle name is spelled "Sheriff" (like the law enforcement official). However, that's not the true family name. His middle name was Sherriff (with two "r's"), passed down to him from his grandparents, Charles F. Sherriff and Elizabeth Loxley Sherriff. At some point, someone made a typo in a book, and it's been misspelled ever since. For more about his name, see this blog post.
Correct Birth Date
Many timelines show Edward’s birth date as February 16th, 1868, but family documents reveal that his real birthday was February 19th of that year. The earlier date was a typo from a popular book about Edward published prior to the Internet's fact-checking abilities.
A Lifetime of Work
Although Curtis is best known for the twenty volumes of The North American Indian, his work did not stop there. From the 1920s through the '40s, he worked in Hollywood where he created portraits of stars and produced production stills for famous films like The Ten Commandments and The Plainsman.
To Learn More
Check out our Resources Guide for links to online articles about Curtis and for a detailed bibliography of works by and about Edward Curtis.
Curtis photographing a Nakwakhdakhw Chief, Blunden Harbor, British Columbia, 1912. Photo: Edmund Schwinke.
Edward Curtis was born on February 19th, 1868 in Whitewater, Wisconsin, the second of four children born to Johnson Ashael Curtis and Ellen Sherriff Curtis. His father was an itinerant preacher for the United Brethren Church, and young Edward often traveled with him as he went to various churches in southern Wisconsin. In 1873 the family moved to La Seuer County, Minnesota, but after a very long and cold winter in 1886 the elder Curtis decided to move his family to a more hospitable climate.
He and Edward traveled across the country to the area of present-day Port Orchard, Washington. Together they built a cabin large enough for the rest of their family and eagerly awaited their arrival. Sadly, Johnson Curtis died three days after his wife and other children arrived in the spring of 1888. Edward suddenly became the primary wage-earner for his family. He worked in a local lumberyard for a while but injured his back and was bed-ridden for most of a year.
Although his only training in photography came from a brief apprenticeship in Minnesota, in 1891 he mortgaged their homestead and bought a partnership in a Seattle portrait studio, which he named Curtis and Rothi. He married Clara Phillips, who had cared for him while he was injured, and launched into what would become his life’s calling. He was just 23 years old.
Soon Edward’s appealing portraits of Seattle’s leading families and citizens caused his business to thrive, but he found his real passion once he stepped outside of his studio. Around 1895, he took his first photographs of a few of the Duwamish and Suquamish Native People who lived around Seattle. Among them was qi’qay’seblu wi’weq (“ki’ki’sòblu”, “Princess Angeline”), the daughter of Suquamish Chief Si’ahl (for whom Seattle is named). Within a short time, he won national awards for his photos of her and other local Native People.
In 1899 Curtis was selected to be the official photographer of the Harriman Alaska Expedition, a two-month scientific exploration of some of the coastal areas of that territory. While on the trip he learned the basics of ethnological research from George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society and author of several books and articles about the Cheyenne and other Native Peoples.
Through a series of serendipitous encounters, Curtis was introduced to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. He took a series of pictures of Roosevelt's children, and the two men became close friends. By that time Curtis was forming the concept of what would soon become The North American Indian project, and with the credibility of Roosevelt's friendship added to his name he began to look for funding to help him carry out his ideas. And what ideas he had! What had started as a project consisting of a single portfolio of photographs of Native People had now blossomed into a full twenty-volume set of books with accompanying ethnographic texts.
In 1906 Curtis was given a rare appointment with J. Pierpont Morgan, then one of the richest men in the world and an avid collector of fine art and rare books. Curtis pitched his idea to Morgan, who initially refused to fund it. But after Curtis showed him some of his photographs of Native People, Morgan reconsidered. He eventually agreed to provide Curtis $75,000 over five years (equivalent to $1.5 million in today's dollars), but the funding came with several stipulations that limited Curtis' chances of success. First, Curtis should receive no salary from Morgan's money. Secondly, the funds were to be used only for taking the pictures. The considerable cost of producing the books that Curtis envisioned would have to come from subscription sales that Curtis would have to procure on his own.
To further complicate matters, Morgan insisted that the books should be printed according to the highest possible standards. As a result, subscription prices started at the lavish price of $3,000 for a standard set of the books and $3,750 for a deluxe set with photogravures printed on Japanese tissue. Equivalent prices today would be $77,500 and $97,500.
Fortunately, Morgan was true to his word, and he supported the full amount of the project that Curtis proposed. Curtis spent six to eight months of each year from 1906 to 1911 photographing Native Peoples throughout the West, traveling from the plains of Montana to the canyons of Arizona. The stunning books he published were lauded for their beauty and their details about Indigenous life.
However, at the end of those five years, Curtis had produced only eight of the proposed twenty volumes. After some tense negotiations, Curtis convinced Morgan to continue supporting his work. Although J. P. Morgan died unexpectedly in 1913, the Morgan family continued to partially fund The North American Indian until its completion in 1930.
During World War I, work on the project ground to a halt as subscription sales plummeted. No volumes were produced between 1917 and 1921, and Curtis teetered on the brink of bankruptcy more than once. In 1919, his wife divorced him, citing his many long absences and the continued financial strains caused by Curtis spending every spare dollar on his project. Curtis and his adult daughter Beth moved to Los Angeles, where he opened a new studio and continued planning for more visits to Native Nations. While in Los Angeles, he also worked with Cecille B. DeMille and other directors as a cameraman and still photographer.
When the war finally ended Curtis returned to the field, and in 1922 he published Volume XII. From there he begged and borrowed every dollar he could to finish his work. In 1927 Curtis and his adult daughter Beth made the last trip to complete the series, visiting the Native Communities on the northwest coast of Alaska. It was an arduous journey, but at Nunivak Island, he found a people who had not been devastated by the diseases that had ravaged almost every other Native Community and who, for the most part, still lived as they had for thousands of years. He wrote that “for the first time in thirty years work with the natives I have found a place where no missionary has worked.” In Curtis’ mind, this was a fitting end to his three-decades-long journey.
When the last volume was published in 1930, he wrote, “…great is the satisfaction the writer enjoys when he can at last say to all those whose faith has been unbounded, it is finished.” Physically exhausted and in debt from the financial burdens he took on to complete his work, he spent two years in Denver recovering his strength and planning his future. After returning to Los Angeles, he rarely picked up a camera again. Sadly, by now The North American Indian had been relegated to obscurity as the country focused on its industrial prosperity and becoming a world power. His son Harold and he prospected for gold unsuccessfully for several years, and he had plans to write a book about the lure of gold.
Before that could happen, Curtis died at Beth’s home in Los Angeles on October 19, 1952. The New York Times published a six-sentence obituary that called him “an authority on the history of the North American Indian.” The last line of the obituary said, “Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.”
For more about Edward S. Curtis, please see our Resources Guide.