Before They’re Gone–The Work of George Catlin

George-Catlin-frontispiece-200There are many artists known for their paintings of the West, but the one whose work enthralls me the most is George Catlin.  Working somewhat in the ‘naive’  style, Catlin’s life work was to capture the American Indian before they vanished, and this he did:  his subjects came from over fifty nations.

Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, later moving to upstate New York, Catlin’s fascination with American Indians started at an early age. His mother had regaled him with her tales of being a captive of the Iroquois during the Revolutionary War, and his cheek bore a scar from a ‘tomahawk’ thrown in a childhood game.

Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832

Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832

An encounter in 1805 with an Oneida may also have influenced him.   Although he initially studied law, Catlin was accepted by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and started his career as a portraitist. Successful enough to be commissioned by clients such as Sam Houston and Dolly Madison, Catlin spent time in Philadelphia’s museums painting tribal costumes, weapons and ornaments brought back by Lewis and Clark. When a delegation of Native Americans came to Philadelphia in full regalia, his ambition took root.

Choctaw Stickball player, ca. 1834

Choctaw Stickball player, ca. 1834

Catlin began by painting people from the various tribes in upstate New York. His empathy for the Indians is obvious in his work, portraying them as individuals rather than savages—the general concept of the day. Catlin foresaw that they would soon be wiped from the earth by diseases such as small pox, and ills such as whiskey. When the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced tribes of the southeast on the notorious Trail of Tears, Catlin decided—despite being recently married—to venture west.

Armed with letters of introduction as well as some of his earlier work, Catlin called upon William Clark in St. Louis. Clark was then Governor of Missouri Territory as well as Indian Agent for the Territory of the Upper Louisiana, the latter position giving him full authority over all Indian matters in the West. Clark let Catlin set up his easel in his office where he painted visiting Native Americans there to trade or for treaty matters.

Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, a Blood Chief, ca. 1832

Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, a Blood Chief, ca. 1832

Subsequently, he and Clark became close friends, and Clark took Catlin up the Mississippi to a council with Sauks and Foxes, and again up the Missouri and overland to Kansas. Clark also posed for a full length portrait.

During six years from 1830 to 1836 Catlin traveled throughout the west, returning to his family for the winter. He painted warriors and women at work, villages, buffalo hunts, ceremonies and the scenery of the west, as well as everyday implements the Indians used. So many  purportedly wanted their likenesses drawn, it was often necessary for Catlin to develop a shorthand of sketching and filling in later. In addition to painting the Plains Indians, he made trips up the Arkansas and Red Rivers, and into Florida and the Great Lakes.

A Mandan Village, ca. 1833

A Mandan Village, ca. 1833

Catlin was determined that the world should see the American Indian through his paintings and, to this end, he started a series of exhibitions and lectures, including not only the paintings but artifacts and costumes he had collected as well. ‘Catlin’s Indian Gallery,’ as it was called, was largely successful and motivated him to approach Congress with the idea the collection should be bought as the basis for a museum. Despite the support of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and William Seward, the resolution got no further than the House of Representatives.

This apparent failure prompted him to take the collection to London. There he received such popular support he remained for five years, the exhibitions evolving over time into a sort of Wild West show. This eventually went on to Paris where he was befriended by King Louis Phillipe and the paintings were exhibited in the Louvre.

A Choctaw woman, ca. 1834

A Choctaw woman, ca. 1834

However, when revolutionaries overthrew the King, Catlin was forced to return to England. Bankrupt and surrounded by creditors, he was bailed out by one Joseph Harrison of Philadelphia, who took possession of all the works.

By 1852, with his wife deceased and his children sent back to America, Catlin was persuaded by a Parisian acquaintance to go to Brazil in search of gold. He found no gold but proceeded to paint the indigenous peoples of South America over the next five years.   He later made trips to Alaska and up the Columbia and Snake Rivers, crossing the Rockies and canoeing down the Rio Grande.

In 1870, Catlin returned to the United States. He had a collection of copies of his original works, which he now called a Cartoon Collection, as well as an historical

Okipa, a Mandan ceremony, ca. 1835

Okipa, a Mandan ceremony, ca. 1835

series he had done for Louis Phillipe. With the Indian Wars now raging in the west, Catlin received an invitation from the Smithsonian Institution to exhibit . Catlin saw this as his last chance to persuade the government to take possession of this pictorial record of a peoples and life that would soon vanish. But in 1872 Congress was more concerned with defeating the Indians rather than gaining pictures of them, and George Catlin passed away in October of that year, his life’s work packed away .

In 1879, the heirs of Joseph Harrison donated the original Catlin gallery to the government. Moth-eaten and with smoke and water damage, the Smithsonian restored them, finally putting them on show for seven years from 1883. In 1912, one of Catlin’s surviving daughters sold the cartoon collection to the American Museum of Natural History while others were in the collection of Paul Mellon, who donated them to the National Gallery of Art.

While Catlin’s work may not be regarded as great as a Remington or Russell, for me, the palette, the vitality of the paintings and the sincerity of the portraits is more enthralling than either artist.

George Catlin rests in a Brooklyn cemetery.

Boy Chief, Ojibbeway, ca. 1843

Boy Chief, Ojibbeway, ca. 1843

All photographs of paintings are public domain.






Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

It’s a source of some amusement to me that John Howard Payne, lyricist of the immortal ‘Home Sweet Home’ (“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home…”) spent his youth in East Hampton. In fact, the small colonial residence of his grandfather, where he lived, is now a museum, sitting on Main St. amongst a line of colonial and Victorian properties. But East Hampton is hardly known for its history. Programs such as ‘Royal Pains’ and ‘Revenge’ as well as a plethora of films, including ‘Something’s Gotta Give,’ continue to perpetuate the image of ‘The Hamptons’ as the enclave of the rich and famous. That’s hardly true of the entire population! And it certainly wasn’t always true… Continue reading

A Question of Bounty

Back in October 2012, Paul Colt visited this blog with a post about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Paul’s latest book, A Question of Bounty:  The Shadow of Doubt is published this month by Five Star.  Here he takes a second look at the death of Billy the Kid.


Paul Colt

Paul Colt

Two years ago Andi gave me the opportunity to share one of my favorite historical controversies. Pat Garrett claims he killed Billy the Kid, July 14, 1881. John Poe, Garrett’s deputy on the scene that night—and others—question Garrett’s claim. They suggest he killed the wrong man and covered it up. Continue reading

Romancing the Vaquero

Anne croppedAnne Schroeder writes about the West in short stories, essays and two memoirs, Ordinary Aphrodite and Branches on the Conejo. Cholama Moon is her first published novel. The second novel in the series, Maria Ines, will be released later in 2014, both by Oak Tree Press. Continue reading

The Role of Newspapers in Kansas Territory

I felt an immediate affinity for my guest this month, Linda S. Johnston.Pub photo 2 copy  Not only are we the eastern stronghold of Women Writing the West, but we have both lived in Great Britain and have both moved house an inordinate amount of times. While I beat Linda in years spent in the U.K., she certainly outdoes me in moves—more than fifteen, including places as diverse as Margate,  England; Seattle, Continue reading

Springtime in the Rockies & the Oysters are Here!


Thanks so much to everyone who joined in.  The winner of the free digital copy of LOVELAND is Kathy O!

Continue reading

They Don’t Drive Pickups in New York

photo-4I was leafing through Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly of April, 1892, in the hope of finding some material with which to greet the (hopefully) coming spring when I happened upon a romantic story entitled, ‘The Owner of LT Ranch.’ Continue reading

What is Sharing and why do you need to encourage it?

I’m pleased to have literary promotion experts Babs Hightower and Barb Drozdowich with me today to give a little insight into the world of social media. Continue reading


I met Steven Kohlhagen through the American Westerns group of Goodreads. Steve kindly complimented me on the article I had written regarding posterity and memoirs, one of which was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Story of the West.  Steve’s latest book, Where They Bury You,WhereTheyBuryYou_v1 partially concerns Kit Carson, and Carson was one of the men Cody had memorialized.  Carson’s scorched earth policy, used to remove the Navajo from their homeland, is something that, today, denigrates the man’s other accomplishments as a frontiersman.  Yet, Cody claimed that the policy had actually saved lives. I therefore approached Steve to find out what his own research had uncovered. Continue reading

A Call to Glory: The Last US Cavalry Campaign

Paul Colt

Paul Colt

I’m pleased to have Paul Colt return to this site this month. Paul, who hopefully needs no introduction by now, has a new book out.  Boots and Saddles:  A Call to Glory has had a splendid review in Publisher’s Weekly:  “Colt’s novel is hyped as a story about George Patton’s early career as a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army, but really is much more. The Patton angle is certainly interesting, but it’s Colt’s sweeping and historically vivid portrayal of the punitive expedition, American and Mexican relations, and German double-dealing that really makes this novel an exciting and stunning success.”  Let’s hear more: Continue reading