THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN
“The ordinary book of today will last but a few generations. This publication should last for a thousand years....”
W.H. Holmes, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1910
Edward Curtis devoted nearly 30 years of his life to creating one of the masterpieces of 20th-century publishing, The North American Indian.
The publication has been called “the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James Edition of the Bible” and “the most exquisite book art of our time.” Each set contains more than 2,200 photos taken by Curtis and nearly 5,000 pages of text.
Today, most sets of The North American Indian are in museums, libraries, and private collections.
Features more than 100 Native Nations and Tribes
4,956 numbered pages
Published from 1907 to 1930
Fewer than 300 sets printed
In 2012, a single set sold at auction for $2.9 million
Title page of The North American Indian, Volume I.
A complete set of The North American Indian is comprised of twenty individually bound books, each with an average of 250 pages and 75 photogravure images, and twenty accompanying portfolios, each with an average of 36 large image plates housed in a folding case.
Curtis first developed the idea of a multi-volume set of books about Native Peoples around 1903, but it was not until he secured substantial funding from financier J. P. Morgan in 1906 that his project began in earnest. He originally proposed that it would take five years to complete the publication, but, due to a continuing series of complications, it was 24 years until the last volume was completed. Volume I was printed in late 1907, and Volume XX finally appeared in 1930.
The sets were available by subscription only. The standard edition, with photogravures printed on Van Gelder paper or Japanese vellum, was initially priced at $3,000 for the complete set. A deluxe edition, with photogravures printed on Japanese tissue, cost $3,750. Equivalent prices in today's dollars would be $77,500 and $97,500, respectively.
Curtis began The North American Indian with the stated intention of publishing a limited edition of 500 sets. Due to the high cost of the publication and the prolonged publication cycle, he did not reach his goal. It’s thought that no more than 300 sets were produced while Curtis was in charge. Today, most of these sets are in libraries, museums, and private collections.
Throughout the nearly 32 years that Curtis worked on his project, he continually struggled to find enough money to complete it. Although Morgan's money helped to launch the work, it did not pay for the substantial cost of printing and selling the lavish books. In return for multiple financial loans to Curtis, the Morgan family took over all the ownership interests in The North American Indian, including all of Curtis' copyrights to his photos.
By the time Curtis completed his project in 1930, the public’s interest in it and in the plight of Native Peoples, in general, had significantly diminished. In 1935 the Morgan family decided they had no financial or legal reason to hold onto the photographs and research that Curtis had produced, and they sold all of the assets of The North American Indian, Inc. to Charles Lauriat Books of Boston.
Included in the assets that were sold were fourteen complete bound sets of The North American Indian; enough printed text pages and photogravures to assemble an additional 34 complete sets; approximately 285,000 photogravures and original prints produced by Curtis during the project; all the documentation, recordings, and research notes collected during the project, and the original text drafts for the books. The Lauriat Company paid $1,000 for the entire collection.
Lauriat eventually sold all the assets in small lots, and for many years the importance of The North American Indian was forgotten. It was finally rediscovered in the 1970s and is now recognized for its inherent beauty and historical significance.
For more about The North American Indian, download one of our free reports.
Maps of the Indigenous Nations, Tribes,
and Bands of The North American Indian.
A Guide to the Books and Portfolios
of The North American Indian.
Duty Bound to Finish: Edward S. Curtis
and His Quest for Money to Complete
The North American Indian.
Additional information is available in our Resources Guide.