July 26, 2019 — Today is the birthday of one of our most important frontier artists. George Catlin was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 when George Washington was serving his second term in office.
Catlin was the fifth of fourteen children, was on the small side, and had black hair and a dark complexion. His mother and grandfather had been among the few survivors of the “Wyoming Valley Massacre” in Pennsylvania, and as a child, George heard many stories surrounding that encounter. He developed a fascination with Native Americans, and when he was 10 years old, he and a friend started hurling tomahawks. One hit Catlin’s left cheek and scarred him for life.
Catlin’s parents pushed him to earn a law degree. He did it but, he later wrote, “Another and stronger passion was getting the advantage of me, that of painting...” As a self-taught artist, Catlin’s law office became cluttered with art supplies and paintings of judges and juries, and at age 24 he finally decided to sell his law books in favor of canvas.
Catlin continued to focus on portraits, but in 1824, a delegation of Native Americans passing through Pennsylvania inspired him to focus on their culture. Six years later, he moved to St. Louis, where he became friends with General William Clark and painted portraits of American Indians who visited Clark’s office.
Catlin was aboard the first steamboat to navigate up the Missouri from St. Louis into what is now North Dakota. Of the reactions of the tribes to the steamboat, he wrote “...others, in some places, as the boat landed in front of their villages, came with great caution and peeped over the bank to see the fate of their chiefs, whose duty it was, from the nature of their office, to approach us, whether friends or foes, and to go on board. Sometimes in their plight, they were instantly thrown back, neck and heels, over each other’s heads and shoulders – men, women and children, and dogs, sage, sachem, old and young – all in a mass, at the frightful discharge of the steam from the escape pipe, which the captain of the boat let loose upon them for his own fun and amusement.”
Catlin lived for a short while at Fort Clark and Fort Union during the eight years he spent among the Plains tribes. The observations and notes he made later filled a 2-volume book. He also painted literally hundreds of portraits and scenes from tribal life, ceremonies and rituals. In fact, it was largely because of Catlin’s work that we know as many details about early Mandan culture as we do; only five years after he stayed with them, the entire tribe was almost complete wiped out by smallpox.
Catlin later wrote that he considered the Indian “the most honest and honorable race of people,” and said, “no Indian ever betrayed me, struck me a blow, or stole from me a shilling’s worth of my property that I am aware of.”
Unfortunately, Catlin’s work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. A few years after he went back East, he presented his paintings to Congress, which made a shortsighted decision to reject it. By the time he died of Bright’s disease in 1872, Catlin was virtually penniless – yet now he is recognized as one of the foremost painters of American Indians.
The reason that much of the work survives is that, following Catlin’s death, a widow of one of Catlin’s creditors donated her collection of his paintings to the Smithsonian. Here in North Dakota, a number of his works can be viewed at the Fargo Public Library and at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.