George Catlin

July 26, 1796 - December 23, 1872

Catlin, George, artist (July 26, 1796-Dec. 23, 1872). Born at Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, he was the fifth of 14 children whose mother, Polly Sutton Catlin, when 8, had been captured by Indians in 1778 at the surrender of Forty Fort, near Kingston, Luzerne County. Catlin grew up surrounded by good books and lively tales of border adventures with wild Indians. He studied law in Connecticut and practiced briefly but his major interest was in painting; by 1821 he had some reputation as a portrait artist and had removed to Philadelphia. Here a delegation of 15 Indians from the west aroused his interest, and he resolved to paint the wild peoples beyond the Mississippi. He had painted Red Jacket, the Seneca, in 1826, and other reservation Indians while pursuing his increasingly successful portrait career. In 1830 he set out for St. Louis, winning the friendship and support of William Clark, superintendent of Indian affairs for the Missouri territory and influential among many tribes. Indians liked Catlin and he liked them, and his enormous production of invaluable sketches and paintings promptly began to appear. He accompanied Clark to Prairie du Chien and Fort Crawford on the Upper Mississippi for a treaty council, journeyed to Leavenworth and to the Kansas tribes beyond the Missouri. He returned to the West the following year, traveled overland perhaps to Great Salt Lake via Fort Laramie, visiting the Pawnees and others. Aboard the Yellowstone, the first steamer to ascent the upper Missouri, he left St. Louis in March 1832. Catlin visited the Sioux country, then journeyed to Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. He contacted the Crows and observed the Blackfeet, and always he was painting: portraits, ceremonies and activities, scenes, encampments, artifacts. He visited the Assiniboins, Mandans and other peoples, returning to St. Louis in late fall. He painted captives of the Black Hawk war. In 1834 he accompanied an expedition of the 1st. Dragoons into the Southwest. He joined at Fort Gibson, in what is now Oklahoma, sketching there Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks and other eastern Indians, as well as Osages. The expedition left June 19, reaching Comanche country in mid-summer, stopping at a major village along Cache Creek, southeast of the Wichita Mountains. Later, despite Catlin's serious illness, he visited the Pawnee-Picts, or Wichitas, then returned to Fort Gibson and thence to Missouri. In 1835 Catlin and his wife journeyed by steamboat up the Mississippi from New Orleans to the Falls of St. Anthony. He returned by canoe, painting and sketching as he progressed. The following year he journeyed across Wisconsin to Pipestone Quarry, Minnesota, his last visit to the frontier. He had his first public exhibition at Buffalo, New York, in 1836. At least one-third of his output had been stolen on the fringes of civilization at various times. Catlin's rise in public esteem was swift, and is well-known. He exhibited in England and France from 1839 to 1845, when his adored wife died. Later exhibitions abroad failed to generate financial independence. He made three trips into the interior of South America between 1853 and 1858, and painted on the Northwest Coast and elsewhere. His major collection had been taken over by Joseph Harrison, a Philadelphia manufacturer, after financial reverses. This assemblage eventually was given to the U.S. National Museum; an equal number of pieces are held by the American Museum of Natural History of New York City. Catlin wrote extensively of his travels and work, and all his books have merit. He was a tine, wiry man, about 5 feet 8 inches in height, weighing about 135 pounds, with black hair and blue eyes. He was abstemious, moral, religious, modest and charitable. He became deaf at 50 and died at 76 at Jersey City, New Jersey.

Harold McCracken, George Catlin and the Old Frontier. N.Y., Bonanza Books, 1959.