Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Sketch of George Catlin
GEORGE CATLIN'S work was not directly scientific, but rather artistic. It was inspired, nevertheless, by a scientific motive; and it has resulted in leaving to the world the fullest and most various records that it has, in picture and written description, of the aboriginal tribes of both Americas, as they were before their customs and ideas were modified by civilization, or they were contaminated by white influences—a most precious collection of original material for future anthropologists to study.
George Catlin was born in , Pa., July 26, 1796, and died in Jersey City, K J., December 23, 1872. He was descended from a family who "came over with the Conqueror," his ancestor of that period having been recorded in Domesday Book as possessing in 1087 two knights' fees of land in Kent. The Catlins have been seated ever since at Newington, Kent; and various members of the family have been honorably employed in the service of the kings of England and other powers. Thomas Catlin, the first ancestor in the United States, with two brothers, came from England or Wales some time before 1643, when he is mentioned as having been settled in Hartford, Conn. Putnam Catlin, the artist's father, served in the colonial forces for six years during the Revolutionary War. His mother, Polly Sutton, was the daughter of an early settler of Wyoming Valley, who was engaged in the battles with the Indians at the time of the massacres; and she was herself captured by the Indians at the surrender of Forty Fort.
Mrs. Catlin was a Methodist and a devout Christian; while the father, a practicing lawyer, was "a philosopher, professing no particular creed, but keeping and teaching the commandments." In 1797 the family removed to Ona-qua-qua Valley, Broome County, N. Y., traveling on horseback over an Indian trail, the baby George being carried in his mother's arms. They afterward removed, at different times, to Hop Bottom, Montrose, and Great Bend, Pa.
Until he was about fifteen years old the boy lived much with Nature, and became an accomplished hunter and fisherman occupations for which he had an inveterate propensity, and from which his father and mother had great difficulty in turning his attention to books. By virtue of his associations his mind and imagination were filled with stories of Indians and Indian life. His parents had vivid recollections of the terrible adventures in which they had participated; his father's generous hospitality caused the place to be frequented by Revolutionary soldiers, Indian fighters, hunters, trappers, and explorers, for whose stories he had an always ready ear; even the noonday rests in the farmfields were enlivened by the relation of incidents of the early settlement; and the very valley where he lived had been the rendezvous of Brant and his army during the frontier war.
His early training, which was that usual for the sons of persons of means in the colonies, was carefully attended to by his father and his mother. In 1817 and 1818 he attended the law school of Reeves & Gould, at Litchfield, Conn. He continued his law studies in Pennsylvania, and entered upon the practice of the profession in the courts of Luzerne and the adjoining counties. But during the time of his practice, from 1820 to 1823, the passion for painting, in which he had already in Connecticut become noted as an amateur, was getting the advantage of him, and soon all his love of pleading gave way to it; and, he says, "After having covered nearly every inch of the lawyer's table (and even encroached upon the judge's bench) with penknife, pen and ink, and pencil sketches of judges, juries, and culprits, I very deliberatelyresolved to convert my law library into paint pots and brushes, and to pursue painting as my future and apparently more agreeable profession." He settled in Philadelphia in 1823, and was at once admitted to the fraternity of artists there, which included Thomas Sully, John Nagle, Charles Wilson, and Rembrandt Peale. In the next year he was admitted as an academician of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was most successful as a miniature painter in water-colors on ivory. Among his more famous paintings were one of Mrs. Madison in a turban; the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1839; the portrait of De Witt Clinton, which hangs in the Governor's Room of the New York City Hall, and of which the Franklin Institute, of Rochester, has a copy from his hand; and portraits of members of the Legislature and other prominent men of New York. He visited New York, Buffalo, Norfolk, and other cities in the exercise of his art; and often saw the delegations of Indians that were in the habit of visiting Washington at that period of our history. While in Philadelphia, he writes, his mind was continually reaching for some branch or enterprise of the art "on which to devote a whole lifetime of enthusiasm, . . . a delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified looking Indians from the wilds of the far West suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed and equipped in all of their classic beauty, with shield and helmet, with tunic and manteau, tinted and tasseled off exactly for the painter's palette." Having an eye for nature rather than for the conventionalities of civilization, he had long been of the opinion that the wilderness of our country afforded models equal to those from which the Grecian sculptors transferred inimitable grace and beauty to marble; and a short experience in the woods among Indians confirmed him in this view. In the midst of his success as a painter, he wrote in 1861, "I again resolved to use my art, and so much of the labors of my future life as might be required, in rescuing from oblivion the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America, to which I plainly saw they were hastening before the approach and certain progress of civilization." If he should live to accomplish his design, he thought, "the result of my labors will doubtless be interesting to future eyes, who will have little else left from which to judge of the original inhabitants of this simple race of beings." So he set out alone, unaided, and unadvised, to collect his portraits and illustrations of primitive looks and customs, to set them up "in a gallery, unique and imperishable, for the use and benefit of future ages." He was never even comfortably off in money matters, says his biographer, Mrs. Clara Catlin Clarke, "relying for his livelihood upon his brush or his pen. He lived poor and died the same. He received no pecuniary aid, governmental or individual, in the prosecution of his work." He accomplished it with remarkable thoroughness.
He followed this work for forty-two years, from 1829 to 1871, and during that time traveled through the wildernesses of North and South America, and visited Europe, making his name known everywhere. During eight years, from 1829 till 1838, he lived among the Indians, traders, trappers, and hunters of the West.
In 1830 and 1831 he accompanied Governor Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to treaties held with the Winnebagoes and Menomonees, the Shawnees and Sacs and Foxes, and in these interviews began the series of his Indian paintings. In 1831 he visited, with Governor Clark, the Kansas, and returned to St. Louis. In 1832 he painted the portraits of Black Hawk and his warriors, prisoners of war. In the same year, on his second journey, he ascended the Missouri, by steamer, to Fort Union, mouth of the Yellowstone, and descended the Missouri to St. Louis in a canoe with two men, steering it the whole distance of two thousand miles with his own paddle, visiting and painting ten tribes. Of these tribes the most important were the Manclans, to whom he devoted more time and labor than any other in North America. In 1833 he ascended the Platte to Fort Laramie, visiting villages of the Pawnees, Omahas, and Otoes, and seeing many Arapahoes and Cheyennes, and rode to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, while the Mormons were yet building their temple at Nauvoo. In 1834 he accompanied a regiment of mounted dragoons to the Comanches and other Southwestern tribes, making an extensive journey and seeing many Indians of various tribes; then from Fort Gibson, Ark., on his horse "Charley," without a road or a track, rode to St. Louis, a distance of five hundred and fifty miles, guided by his pocket compass, and swimming the rivers as he met them. In 1835 he ascended the Mississippi to the Falls of St. Anthony, saw the Mississippi Sioux, the Ojibways and Saukees or Sacs, and descended the Mississippi to St. Louis in a bark canoe with one man, steering with his own paddle. In 1836 he made a second visit to the Falls of St. Anthony, steaming from Buffalo to Green Bay, ascending the Fox and descending the Wisconsin Rivers, six hundred miles in a bark canoe to Prairie du Chien, and thence by canoe four hundred and fifty miles to the Falls of St. Anthony. Thence he ascended the St. Peter's to the "Pipestone Quarry" on the Coteau des Prairies, and descended the St. Peter's in a canoe, with a companion, to the Falls of St. Anthony, and from them a second time to St. Louis in a bark canoe, nine hundred miles, steering with his own paddle. In 1837 he went to the coast of Florida to see the Seminoles and Euchees, and in the same years made a voyage from New York to Charleston to paint Osceola and the other Seminole chiefs, then prisoners of war. The letters embodying the observations made during these journeys in which thirty-eight tribes sat to him for their portraits on the tribes and country furnished the illustrations and text for the book, Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, which passed in England through more than twenty-five editions, and of which more than sixty thousand copies were sold.
Mr. Catlin's chief object on these journeys was to observe the Indian as a man, and to perpetuate the representation of the kind of a man he was. He watched him in every aspect, caught him in every mood, studied him in every relation, and put him down, on canvas or in his notes, as he found him. He enjoyed and improved, to the full extent of his power, opportunities which have occurred to few so ready to make a record of them, and will never occur again to any one, of becoming familiar with the red man in his natural, unsophisticated state, with the intention of making mankind, as far as possible, a sharer in his privileges.
Most of the places he visited, the names of many of which have become familiar to us, and which now seem commonplace, were then away out beyond the bounds of civilization, and visited by the ordinary tourist, if visited by him at all, with an apprehension not unlike that with which he would now start out for Central Africa. The Indians knew little of the white man, and his inventions were strange and mysterious to them. Thus, the people on the Yellowstone had never seen or heard of a steamboat, and at some places were at a loss what to do or how to act at the sight of one.
The art of portrait-painting was new to the savages, and the strange, whimsical, and superstitious notions which they conceived of Mr. Catlin's operations were the source of many curious incidents. The portraits produced great excitement in the villages, with intense interest in the personality of the artist. The people pronounced him the greatest medicine-man in the world, for he made living beings; they said "they could see their chiefs alive in two places; those that he had made were a little alive: they could see their eyes move, could see them smile and laugh, and if they could laugh they could certainly speak, if they should try, and they must therefore have some life in them." The squaws generally agreed that "they had discovered life enough in them to render my medicine too great for the Mandans; saying that such an operation could not be performed without taking from the original something which I put in the picture, and they could see it move, could see it stir." Then the cry went around that the artist was a dangerous man; "one who could make living persons by looking at them, and at the same time could, as a matter of course, destroy life in the same way, if I chose." When a movement was made to expel him from a village, and a council was held about the matter, which sat for several days, he got admittance to their council, and assured them, he says, "that I was but a man like themselves; that my art had no medicine or mystery about it, but could be learned by any of them if they would practice it as long as I had; and that in the country where I lived brave men never allowed their squaws to frighten them with foolish whims and stories. They all immediately arose, shook me by the hand, and dressed themselves for their pictures. After this there was no further difficulty about sitting all were ready to be painted; the squaws were silent, and my painting-room a continual resort for the chiefs and medicine-men." But Mr. Catlin always noticed that, when a picture was going on, the braves who were assisting kept passing the pipe around, smoking for the success of the picture and the preservation of the sitter. Thin he was feasted, a doctor's rattle was presented to him, and a magical wand, or doctor's staff, "strung with claws of the grizzly bear, with hoofs of the antelope, with ermine, with wild sage and bats' wings and perfumed with the choice and savory odor of the polecat; a dog was sacrificed and hung by the legs over my wigwam, and I was therefore and thereby initiated into the arcana of medicine or mystery."
Mr. Catlin was called by the Iowa Indians CMp-pe-ho-la; by the Mandans, Te-ho-pe-nee Wash-ee, or Great Medicine White Man; and by the Sioux at Fort Pierre, Ee-clia-zoo-kali-ga-iva-kou, the Medicine Painter, and also We-chash-a-iva-kou, the Painter. Associating with the Indians almost constantly, and seeing their best side, Mr. Catlin's sympathies were wholly enlisted for them; and we find much in his observations appreciative of their character and revealing an anxious interest in their future. He often speaks as one who felt that a doom of extermination which they did not deserve had been pronounced against them. He wrote an "Indian creed" in 1868, pertinently to his being called "the Indian-loving Catlin," in which he described those people as having always loved him and made him welcome to the best they had; as being honest without laws, having no jails or poorhouses, keeping the commandments without ever having read them or heard them preached from the pulpit, having never taken the name of God in vain, loving their neighbors as themselves, worshiping God without a Bible and believing that God loved them also, and "I love all people who do the best they can, and oh, how I love a people who don't live for the love of money!" He asserted, in his North American Indians, that the Indian "is everywhere, in his native state, a highly moral and religious being, endowed by his Maker with an intuitive knowledge of some great author of his being and the universe; in dread of whose displeasure he constantly lives, with the apprehension before him of a future state, where he expects to be rewarded or punished, according to the merits he has gained or forfeited in this world." He found him the worshiper of a spiritual God, with no idolatry. He discerned the evil of allowing traders to go among the Indians to corrupt them, and thought that, if they were obliged to come to the settlements to do their trading, they would enjoy the advantages of competition, and see the better features of our civilization. His theories respecting the origin of the Indians do not seem to have taken settled shape. He believed that the primary race did not come here from abroad, but originated here on the soil independently of other races; although wanderers from other lands may have mingled with it. He found reasons for supposing that there may have been a Jewish element in the race, but not that the race was derived from the Jews; and he speculated upon the possible derivation of the Mandans from a Welsh colony under Prince Madoc in the early part of the fourteenth century. There are not many scientific observations in his itineraries. His journal at Fort Gibson, in 1834, contains a notice of the death of Mr. Beyrich, a Prussian botanist, who had made an immense collection of plants, and died at Fort Gibson while engaged in changing and drying them.
Mr. Catlin supported himself in his journeys by painting portraits and by the sale of his books. It was his custom to leave the Indian country in the fall and go in his canoe down to St. Louis or New Orleans. There he would select some place promising good custom and settle himself as a portrait-painter for the winter. His collections having become large enough to form a museum and gallery, he took them to Europe and exhibited them at the principal capitals. His first adventure of this kind was fairly successful, and he returned home with a competence. His visit to France, from 1845 to 1848, led to pecuniary disaster, and was saddened by the loss of his wife and son; and in 1852 he suffered a financial wreck in London, from which he never recovered.
Between 1852 and 1857 Mr. Catlin made three voyages from Paris to South and Central America. He found great difficulty in getting the Indians of the Amazon to sit for their pictures, but by catching them unawares and sketching from his boat while they were detained on the shore by some pretext of entertainment, he was able to make sketches among thirty different tribes, on the Amazon, the Uruguay, the Yucayali, and in the open air of the pampas and llanos, containing many thousand people, in their canoes, at their fishing occupations, and in groups on the river's shore.
After he returned from his South. American campaigns, Mr. Catlin lived, in Brussels, upon the proceeds of his brush, and there began the preparation of his cartoon collection.
Mr. Catlin died of an illness contracted from an exposure which he suffered in Washington, in October, 1872. He was removed thence to Jersey City, where his daughters and his brother-in-law, the Hon. Dudley S. Gregory, were living. His collection of pictures now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution, and constitutes the George Catlin Indian Gallery of the United States National Museum. In his paintings he sought to represent the truth, and invented nothing. He regarded the domestic and every-day customs, habits, and manners of the Indians as the essentials to the proper study of their origin and descent, and aimed to reproduce them thoroughly. His principal books were Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians; written during eight years of travel among the wildest tribes of Indians in North America, first published in 1841, and reproduced in several editions, in English and German, with divers variations of title; and Life amongst the Indians, a book for youth, 1867; also published in French. The list also includes works on the O-kee-pa, a religious ceremony of the Mandans; catalogues of his gallery; a pamphlet on breathing with the mouth shut, giving the results of experiences and observations acquired during his life among the Indians, 1865; a pamphlet concerning a Steam Raft suggested as a Means of Security to Human Life on the Ocean, 1850; Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, 1868; The Lifted and Subsided Rocks of America, with their Influence on the Oceanic, Atmospheric, and Land Currents, and the Distribution of Races, 1870; a Letter to William Blackman, concerning his life among the aboriginal races of America; and newspaper, review, and magazine notes and articles.
He put forward in 1832 a suggestion for forming a large reservation of public lands to be a nation's park, containing man and beast in all the wildness and freshness of their natural beauty, saying that he would want no better monument than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution. In 1845 he published a plan for disengaging and floating quarterdecks on steamers and other vessels for the purpose of saving human lives at sea, and proceeded to take out a patent for it, but found afterward that he had been anticipated. In 1842 he was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution in London, and took advantage of the occasion to introduce a subject on which he had long meditated—that of forming a museum of mankind, to contain and perpetuate the looks and manners and history of all the declining and vanishing races of mankind.