George Catlin

George Catlin

George Catlin, the fifth of fourteen children, was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1796. He studied law in Connecticut and worked briefly as a lawyer. His real love was art and by 1821 had developed a local reputation as a portrait painter.

In 1823 Catlin moved to Philadelphia and the following year became a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He began painting members of the Seneca tribe living on a local Indian Reservation.

In 1830 he travelled to St. Louis and met William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Missouri Territory. He accompanied Clark to Fort Crawford on the Upper Mississippi. He then visited Leavenworth and the tribes beyond the Missouri. The following year he went to Fort Laramie and painted members of the Pawnee. In 1832 he spent time with the Sioux, the Crow, Blackfeet and Mandans.

Catlin accompanied an expedition of the 1st Dragons in 1834 to Oklahoma Territory. This enabled him to paint Cherokees, Creeks, Comanche and Osages.

Catlin moved to New York City and exhibited what became known as the Gallery of Indians. He also took his work to Europe and had major shows of his works and the artifacts in London and Paris he had collected between 1830 and 1836. Catlin also wrote about his experiences and in 1848 he published Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians.

Catlin was not a successful businessmen and bankruptcy in 1852 forced him to sell all his paintings to Joseph Harrison. After the death of his wife Catlin made trips into the interior of South America (1853 - 1858). On his return he began to repainted many of his older works from memory.

George Catlin continued to paint until his death on 23rd December, 1872.

Buffalo Bull : A Grand Pawnee Warrior (1832)
Buffalo Bull : A Grand Pawnee Warrior (1832)

Primary Sources

(1) George Catlin, Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1848)

On an occasion when I had interrogated a Sioux chief, on the Upper Missouri, about their Government - their punishments and tortures of prisoners, for which I had freely condemned them for the cruelty of the practice, he took occasion when I had got through, to ask me some questions relative to modes in the civilized world, which, with his comments upon them, were nearly as follow; and struck me, as I think they must every one, with great force.

"Among white people, nobody ever take your wife - take your children - take your mother, cut off nose - cut eyes out - burn to death?" No! "Then you no cut off nose - you no cut out eyes - you no burn to death - very good."

He also told me he had often heard that white people hung their criminals by the neck and choked them to death like dogs, and those their own people; to which I answered, "yes." He then told me he had learned that they shut each other up in prisons, where they keep them a great part of their lives because they can't pay money! I replied in the affirmative to this, which occasioned great surprise and excessive laughter, even amongst the women. He told me that he had been to our Fort, at Council Bluffs, where we had a great many warriors and braves, and he saw three of them taken out on the prairie and tied to a post and whipped almost to death, and he had been told that they submit to all this to get a little money, "yes." He said he had been told, that when all the white people were born, their white medicine-men had to stand by and look on - that in the Indian country the women would not allow that - they would be ashamed - that he had been along the Frontier, and a good deal amongst the white people, and he had seen them whip their little children - a thing that is very cruel - he had heard also, from several white medicine-men, that the Great Spirit of the white people was the child of a white woman, and that he was at last put to death by the white people! This seemed to be a thing that he had not been able to comprehend, and he concluded by saying, "the Indians' Great Spirit got no mother - the Indians no kill him, he never die." He put me a chapter of other questions, as to the trespass of the white people on their lands their continual corruption of the morals of their women - and digging open the Indians' graves to get their bones, etc. To all of which I was compelled to reply in the affirmative, and quite glad to close my notebook, and quietly to escape from the throng that had collected around me, and saying (though to myself and silently), that these and an hundred other vices belong to the civilized world, and are practiced upon (but certainly, in no instance, reciprocated by) the "cruel and relentless savage."