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Before 1900

This is part 1 of an outline of Edward Curtis' life along with some key events in North American history that occurred during his time. The Native history timeline is highly selective due to the limited space on these pages.


U.S. President Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, which gives the federal government the power to “exchange”  fertile Native lands east of the Mississippi River for arid lands in the West.


The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario, becomes the first of 139 Indian residential schools in Canada. It continued to operate until 1970. Until 1996, Indigenous children in Canada were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in White-run schools to "assimilate" them into "society."


The Trail of Tears begins. At least 4,000 Cherokee people die due to diseases and harsh conditions on the forced trip from Georgia to Oklahoma.


After the California Gold Rush begins, the state establishes a form of legal slavery for Native Peoples by allowing whites to declare them vagrant and auction off their services.


The Bureau of Indian Affairs establishes the first Indian "boarding school" on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington Territory. Similar to Canadian residential schools, the goal of the American schools, which were run mainly by Christian churches, was to “assimilate” Native youth into the mainstream of the “American way of life."


U.S. Civil War begins.


U.S. Congress passes the Homestead Act, making western lands belonging by treaty to many Native Nations available to non-Native settlers.


During The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, 8,000 Navajo were forced to walk from their homelands in Arizona to barren internment camps in New Mexico. That same year, at least 150 Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women, and children were killed in the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.


U.S. Civil War ends.


U.S. acquires Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.


Edward Sherriff Curtis is born on February 19th in Whitewater, Wisconsin. He is the second son born to Johnson Asahel Curtis, an itinerant preacher, and Ellen Sherriff Loxley. 

Edward Curtis, Self-Portrait


The Curtis family moves to Cordova, Minnesota.


After gold is discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills, U.S. troops ignore a treaty with the Sioux and Cheyenne Nations and invade their territories.


Curtis' brother Asahel is born in La Seuer County, Minnesota.


Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull lead an army of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians to a massive victory over General George Custer and the Seventh U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn.


Curtis works briefly as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

British Columbia bans the potlatch, a centuries-old ceremony where families gather, names and gifts are given, births are announced, marriages are conducted, and people mourn the loss of a loved one. The bans stays in effect until 1951.


Out of work, Curtis' father travels with Edward to the West Coast. They settle in the area near present-day Port Orchard, Washington.

Congress passes the Dawes Act, with the intent to extinguish tribal sovereignty and open up remaining Native lands for appropriation by white settlers


Curtis' father dies three days after the rest of his family joins them in Washington Territory.  Edward is now the head of the household.

George Eastman invents the Kodak camera, with its advertising slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Previously a complicated process that required knowledge of chemistry and mathematics, photography suddenly becomes something that almost anyone can do.


The U.S. Census counted 248,000 Native People in the country. In reporting the results of the census, the Census Bureau announces that the West officially has been settled, and "the frontier" is closed.

Rothi & Curtis


After Curtis is injured in a lumbermill accident, he mortgages the family home to buy a part-interest in a Seattle photography studio. 


Curtis marries Clara Phillips in Seattle.


Curtis' son Harold (Hal) is born.

The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' “discovery” of this continent by displaying “living exhibits” of Native Peoples.

The Panic of 1893 led to the closure of hundreds of banks and the start of an economic depression that lasts 4 years.


Sometime during this year or early the following year, Curtis takes his first photos of Princess Angeline and other Coast Salish People who live in and around Seattle.

Princess Angeline portrait by Edward Curtis


Curtis takes the first of many trips to Mt. Rainier, where he photographs the natural landscapes. In the process, he becomes an accomplished mountain climber. His daughter Elizabeth (Beth) is born this year.

The U.S. Supreme Court holds that racial segregation is not unconstitutional, stating that “separate but equal” laws do not imply the inferiority of one race to another.


Curtis opens his own studio in Seattle. It quickly becomes the most popular place in Seattle for fashionable portraits. This same year, he leads a then record-breaking group of 58 climbers to the top of Mt. Rainier.


Curtis publishes an article about Alaska using photographs taken by his brother, Asahel, but Edward took credit for the photos. Asahel never forgave him, and the two rarely spoke after this.

After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. "acquires" Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands.

Apache Chief Geronimo laments the future of Native Peoples, saying "After I fought and lost and after I traveled over the country in which the white man lives, and saw his cities and the work he had
done, my heart was ready to burst. I knew that the race of the Indians were done.”


Curtis is appointed the official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition. He spends two months with scientists while photographing Native People and Alaska landscapes.

Curtis' daughter Florence is born.

After overthrowing the monarchy of Queen  Liliʻuokalani, the U.S. “annexes” Hawaii.

Harriman Expedition Souvenir Journal
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