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Notes on the History of the Curtis Enterprise

Professor Mick Gidley has written several books examining the historical context for the efforts involved in creating The North American Indian (see bibliography). Excerpts from Gidley’s study, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated, are presented here, revealing the complex arrangements behind the publication enterprise.


The vastly ambitious scope of the North American Indian project was largely enabled by underwriting from financier and railroad magnate J.P. Morgan.

... Morgan agreed [in 1906] to finance the fieldwork for the project at the rate of fifteen thousand dollars per annum for five years ... The injection of funds from one of the world's richest and most influential people ... set a stamp of approval on the project's more ambitious aspects ... Arrangements ... for the management of the Curtis studio in Seattle were formalized ... An office was established at 437 Fifth Avenue in New York City ... with its own manager, but with Curtis himself much in evidence -- to handle subscription sales and promotion of the monumental publication ... that Morgan and Curtis had decided upon: twenty volumes of illustrated text and twenty portfolios of large-sized photogravures. 1

Both the scale and tone of the lavishly illustrated volumes were well suited to the targeted subscribing supporters, wealthy industrialists who had invested in the westward expansion.

... The North American Indian, we find, was unashamedly aimed at leading members of the urban, Eastern business community ... [in a 1911 report] ... reminiscent of many self-justifying statements by men like Andrew Carnegie ... Curtis said, “Civilization, with its tremendous force and its insatiable desire to possess all, must necessarily crush the weaker life of primitive man.“...2

... the processes by which domination was achieved ... were deemed natural. Indeed, the employment of natural imagery throughout the report is most noticeable. Curtis claimed ... that The North American Indian was itself a product of “Nature” per se: “Nature tells the story, and in nature’s own simple words I can but place it before the reader.” ... 3

At a more mundane level, the report also indicates that the project [appealed to] the presumed tastes of patrons ... It was to be comprehensive: If the subject was much too grand to be treated between the covers of one volume, it was at least being covered in one publication – the implication being that it was a very solid work meant for very busy people. Moreover, much of the information in the text was pictorial – “truthful, yet artistic” – and [although] there were very many words in the twenty volumes ... they were there “to round out and intensify the interest of that told in ... a strictly graphic manner.” Also, while there would be an undoubted intensity to the information conveyed in words, it would not have any unnecessary density; it was “freed from the technical, cumbersome terminology” of specialists ... while the authority of The North American Indian had to be unquestionable ... it would be accessible to the “general” reader. Finally ... it was a sumptuous publication, exhibiting very high production values. And, precisely because it was so expensive in its beauty, it was a piece of conspicuous consumption entirely suited to the uses of its elite subscribers. 4


Although the Curtis plates have been widely re-published since the 1970s, the narrative has had limited exposure. Gidley describes the work as “more famous than read.”5 As a commercial photographer influenced by the pictorialist style appearing in galleries and magazines, Curtis transformed his original vision of a photographic record to include field research worthy of a work of comprehensive weight and authority.

To Hodge [editor of The North American Indian], after telling him about the 1904 fieldwork, Curtis was more emphatic: ”The longer I work at this collection of pictures the more certain I feel of their great value ... the thing has grown so ...The only question now in my mind is, will I be able to keep at [it] long enough ... doing it in a thorough way is enormously expensive” ... In the same letter Curtis indicated that his interests extended beyond photography per se in that he wanted, he said, to return to the White Mountain Apaches “more for information than pictures." ... 6

Although the pictorial content was to remain a principal feature of the project, such a plan was much more complicated than the extensive compendium of pictures which had seemed to be Curtis's ambition [earlier in 1904] ... “the word picture,” as he was to call it -- was increased almost immeasurably in significance and scope. Because of this, Curtis tried to interest ... “four or five of the Presidents of the leading educational institutions in America” as “contributors,” essentially an authoritative editorial board able to give endorsement and credibility to the massive wordage now decreed by the Morgan agreement. [Most declined.]7


The North American Indian is often considered the creation of one man, but from the start the project goals required wide efforts. Much of the research and writing was conducted by others, under Curtis’s diligent command.

... the Morgan largesse made it feasible to employ Native American informants and interpreters on a regular basis and, in effect, put a team in the field. Much of the organization of all this fell to William W. Phillips [Curtis's nephew] ... and to Curtis himself, but they were also able to take on staff for extended periods. The single most important recruit was William E. Myers, a former Seattle newspaperman who was to become the project's principal ethnologist and, in time, writer. 8

William E. Myers (1877-1949), who graduated with a degree in classics from Northwestern University in 1899, eschewed public credit for his work. But Curtis acknowledged his contributions in the preface to the eighteenth volume and elsewhere. In a reminiscence composed two decades after the final volumes were published, Curtis said, “For a ... period of twenty years I had the invaluable services of Mr. W.E. Myers. He was a rapid shorthand writer, a speedy typist ... and had developed an uncanny ear for phonetics.” ... 9

... [Myers’s] role ... receives further corroboration from [Curtis’s] report to the January 1913 meeting of the North American Indian, Inc... [noting that] his “party of three men and a stenographer [had] settled down in obscure rooms to do the final work in getting [the first] two volumes ready for publication”; ... a further winter was spent ... in a log cabin in Montana; and ... he and Myers only “took two Sundays a month off” from their cabin ... to visit their families across the Sound in Seattle during the preparation of Volumes 5, 6, and 7 ... [General editor Frederick] Hodge ... remembered that “Mr. Myers, who accompanied and assisted Curtis in the field, was the one who really wrote the text. I ... checked every word of it, of course, and edited it ... before it went to the printer.“ 10

... [Among anthropologists invited to serve on an editorial board most declined] but Hodge, Curtis's old contact at the Bureau of American Ethnology, agreed to serve as editor of the proposed text at a fixed fee per word. Hodge was already editor of both the journal the American Anthropologist and what was to become the standard reference work Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. (2 volumes, 1910). He was one of the most respected figures in American anthropology from the turn of the century onwards. 11


The costs of field work and publishing always exceeded available resources, and required Curtis to spend a great deal of time in fund-raising lectures, meetings and correspondence.

... The 1906 agreement with Morgan was not ... as munificent as it seemed in that it exacted, in true Morgan fashion, a heavy obligation from Curtis: He was to publish the expensively produced volumes ... out of his own funds ... But the building of a subscription list took time and Curtis had major financial problems almost immediately". [After taking out loans and seeking additional grants he was extremely discouraged by summer 1907, writing in a letter] ... " Remember I am doing the best I can and keeping 17 helpers from having cold feet and at the same time get together something over forty five hundred dollars a month to pay the bills."... 12

... [Requests for additional funding from Morgan's office] led to the North American Indian, Inc., office exerting some control over the movements of Curtis and other fieldworkers, including one occasion in 1925 when Myers was specifically forbidden to travel East to discuss with Hodge volumes then in press. 13

... Curtis would be made to pass over more of his rights in exchange; [for further funding from J.P. Morgan’s holdings] ... between 1923 and 1928, in a succession of legal documents, he relinquished copyright in all the pictures published in The North American Indian. But by then he was a chronic debtor. 14


The North American Indian project ... was indeed primarily an enterprise of salvage ethnology, concerned to record traditional ways before -- as it was assumed they would -- they passed away... 15

... Curtis's own definitive [but ambivalent] statement during this period of his greatest fame ... was published by the American Museum of Natural History. “I desire to add my pleas to that of others for prompt work by all of those who would gather first-hand knowledge from the North American Indian,” he said. “Many take issue with the thought that the Indian is a ‘vanishing race’. As far as the ethnologist is concerned, this race is not only vanishing but has almost vanished. We are now working late in the afternoon of the last day,” he continued. “Each month some old patriarch dies and with him goes a store of knowledge and there is nothing to take its place... . " 16

... the Curtis project ... characteristically placed the emphasis on making a record -- indeed, the record-- of Indian life. That is, Curtis frequently presented his work as offering an apprehension of preexisting reality rather than what it was, the construction of a record ...The record as we have it, written and/or visual, constitutes, of course, text. The original enactment of ... a ceremony is not seen as text by its participants but becomes so when [it is] the subject of ethnography ... As an individualistic yet corporate enterprise obliged to appeal for funds in the market place ... the North American Indian project may have been different in degree to the emergent academic anthropology of the period, but not in kind.... 17


1 Mick Gidley, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 19-20.
2 Ibid., p. 127-128 quoting draft of a report to subscribers by Edward S. Curtis, 1911, which was based on Curtis’s Introduction to volume 1 of The North American Indian, 1907.
3 Ibid., p. 128.
4 Ibid., p 128-29.
5 Mick Gidley, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Project in the Field (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003) p. 1)
6 Gidley, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated, p. 18 and note 8, quoting letter in the E.S. Curtis File, Thomas Burke Papers, University of Washington Libraries.
7 Ibid., p. 20 and note 12, noting letter of October 1904 from Curtis to Pinchot, as well as correspondence in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
8 Ibid., p. 21.
9 Ibid., pp. 136, 137-52.
10 Ibid., p. 136-7 and n. 5, quoting 1913 report by Curtis and an oral history interview with Hodge in 1956.
11 Ibid., p. 21.
12 Ibid., p. 110-11 and n. 5, quoting letter from Curtis to Edmond S. Meany.
13 Ibid., p. 113 and n. 9, citing letter from Curtis to Hodge of 1925 and the E.S. Curtis Materials, Pierpont Morgan Library.
14 Ibid., p. 113 and n. 10, citing the Curtis Materials, Morgan Library.
15 Ibid., p. 22.
16 Ibid., p. 33 and n. 29, quoting article by Curtis in American Museum Journal, 1914.
17 Ibid., p. 103-4.


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