George Catlin

George Catlin was an American artist and author who specialized in painting, writing, and collecting artifacts concerning the customs of the native Indians of the United States of America. Catlin was convinced that westward expansion spelled certain disaster for the indigenous inhabitants and this is why he built up his collection: so that he could ’’rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs.” He was the first artist to record the Plains Indians in their own territories and his work constitutes an invaluable record of their culture. Today, although this is gone, his account of their life in the Old West has helped to make it legendary and indestructible.

Catlin was born in 1796 in Pennsylvania where his father lived as a retired lawyer. He sent his son to study law in Conneticut in 1817. When he passed his final exams Catlin began practicing as a lawyer in the town of Wilkes-Barre. During his spare time, Catlin had taught himself to paint and he became so good at this that, by 1821, he had learnt the skills of portrait painting. Within the next 2 years he was exhibiting his works at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts before being enrolled as a member in 1824. Catlin may have stayed there, until one day he met a delegation of Native American Indians who were heading to the big cities in the East to state their case about unfair treatment.

Catlin had always been interested in Native American ways and this meeting changed his life and his future career. He decided there and then to become their historian for he realised that the Indian way of life would soon be gone forever. This is why he set out to record the appearance and customs of America’s ‘vanishing race’ before it was too late. He felt that by doing so, he could lend a hand to a dying nation which had no biographer or historian of its own, thereby snatching from future oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity. First of all, he had to make a reputation for himself as a major painter and so he moved to Albany, New York State in 1826 where the pickings were bigger and the clientel were more important.

In Albany, Catlin painted the Governor, and also got married before moving on to St. Louis 2 years later. This city was ideal for his plans about recording the Red Indian for it was the meeting place for tribal delegates who came there to talk with Gen. William Clark, Governor of the vast Indian Territory. During the next 2 years, Catlin divided his time between painting paid for portraits and making unpaid studies of the natives. His first opportunity to travel into the wilderness came when he was hired to paint the portrait of General Clark himself, who then asked Catlin to accompany him on his next trip into Indian Territory.

Catlin travelled with Clark as his diarist on a diplomatic journey up the Mississippi River to the Indian lands in the north. The reason for this was that Congress had just passed the Indian Removal Act, which required those natives living in the area to leave and resettle west of the great river. The Indian’s ancestors were Asian nomadic hunters who had migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge into North America during the last Ice Age about 20 to 30,000 years ago. Their descendents shared certain cultural traits with their forebears including the use of fire, the domesticated dog, and religious rites. They lived in hunter/gatherer subsistence societies with comparatively fewer societal constraints and institutional structures than the more unyielding, market-based societies of Western Europe. The differences between these two cultures were vast enough to make for great misunderstandings and create long-lasting cultural conflicts far into the future.

Apart from battling with the incursions of explorers, trappers, soldiers, miners, and settlers, the American Indian also had to contend with the many diseases that Europeans brought with them and from which they had no immunity. Chief among them was smallpox where sometimes whole tribes were wiped out. Now that they were also being forced from their ancestral lands, this created an enormous pressure on their culture to adapt or perish. Catlin was convinced that Western expansion spelt certain disaster for the land, the wild life, and the ‘Red Men’ who lived there. This was the main reason he agreed to go with General Clark – so that he could capture the wilderness of the frontier, and record the picturesque drama and way of life of those who lived there before it all disappeared forever in the face of advancing civilization.

Catlin made St. Louis his base during his further trips into Indian Territory where he spent the next 6 years moving about the country, visiting about 50 tribes in all. His method of working was that he would travel and paint during the spring, summer and autumn, and then return home for the winter where he would finish off the paintings and rough sketches he made on every trip. One of the first paintings he made on these trips was of Kee-moan-san or ‘Little Chief’ of the Kaskaskia tribe. However, when we look at this painting we are surprised to see a North American Indian dressed like a European in a black suit, white shirt and cravat. His normally long hair has been cut short in a white-man’s short-back-and side’s style. Thinking about this, we begin to doubt that Little Chief is a member of any tribe at all and realize that here is a man who has lost his own culture.

The explanation of Catlin’s painting of Little Chief, who looks more like a European than a Red Indian, is that years before the Indian Removal Act the American government had already been forcibly removing tribes from their native lands to make way for white settlers. Little Chief’s tribe had long since ceded their lands in Illinois, and been moved to the plains of Kansas when Catlin visited them in 1830. By the time he observed them, he noted that after more than a century of contact with the whites, they were now of ‘mixed blood’ but still, he thought, only ‘half-civilised’. He also felt that the only things the Europeans had brought to the Indians in this case were disease, deformities and death.

Whenever Catlin set out to paint his subjects, he tried to record as much as he could, in as short a time as possible. If he was painting a landscape view then he would do this quickly in watercolours and put it away to be completed at leisure in oils. If he was painting an individual then normally, he would focus on the subject’s face and that person’s ‘lodge totem’. This was either a painting or a tattoo on the face or body which signified that person’s name, their status, and what tribe they belonged to. Catlin would then lightly outline the rest of the body and the costume details until he could get back home to St. Louis. For instance, when the painter was living in the Great Plains of the American mid-west in 1832, one of his sitters was the Grand Pawnee Buffalo Bull. Catlin painted him wearing the feathers and accoutrements of the Pawnee tribe and also sketched in the painting of a male buffalo that the Indian had painted on his chest to identify his name and show that he was a Pawnee warrior.

In 1833, Catlin sailed 2,000 miles up the Mississippi River to its confluence with the Yellow River at Fort Worth. Here, he was among Indians who had hardly been touched by European culture and he spent the next 6 months sketching over 170 drawings of the different tribes living in the area, such as the Blackfeet and the Mandan. It was while he was visiting this particular tribe that Catlin was puzzled by their light-skinned complexions, and the fact that about 1 in 10 of both sexes (and all ages), had silvery-gray or snow white hair. The Mandan also spoke a language that was unconnected to those of all the other Indian tribes.

Like many before him, Catlin connected these facts to an old story of a 12th century Welsh prince called Madoc. Apparently he had left Wales for Ireland in medieval times after a quarrel over the distribution of his late father’s estate. For some unknown reason, he then left Ireland and sailed west across the Atlantic until he reached Florida in America. About a year after his landfall, Madoc returned home to Wales and assembled a group of followers to return once again to America and colonize the land he had discovered. The party left in 10 ships and were never seen or heard from again. Catlin surmised from this that the group had eventually reached the upper Missouri River Valley and that the members of the group were the original ancestors of the Mandan Indians. there is a persistent tradition of a very early ‘’white Indian’’ settlement at Louisville, Kentucky while several 17th and 18th century reports were published which concern encounters with Welsh speaking Indians. Although many anthropologists reject the idea of pre-Columbian British contacts with the Indians, the evidence is not conclusive. I mean, we have all heard about the pre-Columbian Vikings haven’t we? At any rate, this strange Welsh tale still remains one of America’s biggest mysteries.

On his many trips amongst the natives of America, Catlin sketched views of their way of life such as horsemen chasing buffalo across the plains, women drying animal skins, or people playing native games such as lacrosse. He also painted landscape views of places as far north as the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls on the Canadian border. In these natural wonder paintings Catlin shows an uncomplicated love for the scenery in a light and artless account of nature painted in the open air.

Later trips that Catlin undertook involved going as far south as Florida and way out west through unexplored territory in a bid to try and contact the elusive Pawnee and Comanche tribes who lived there. On one of these particular expeditions, Catlin left with a company of dragoons but had to return when over 200 of the soldiers died from disease.

Catlin’s final mission into the Old West was in 1836 where he traveled to the sacred area of the Indians only source of red pipestone in what is now south-west Minnesota. This was the place where the Natives cut the stone for their ‘peace-pipes’ as we call them and also the site where Catlin claimed that he was the first white man to discover and tell of its existence. In his book North American Indians, he explained the reasons why the Indians smoked these tobacco pipes in the first place. One of the tribesmen had held his dark-red coloured pipe up against his own copper-coloured skin and said ‘’Look! Don’t you see that the pipestone is part of our flesh and that we are part of the pipestone? God has told us that the red stone is only to be used for making pipes so that when we wish to talk to him, we can do so through the smoke of our pipes.’’

By this stage, in 1836, Catlin could claim that he had traveled thousands of miles over the United States, made contact with dozens of the tribes, learned many of their languages, and recorded a great deal of their ways of life through direct observation in over 500 paintings, sketches, and notebooks. Moreover, he had also bought and collected a great number of Native cultural artifacts – all of which would later be turned into invaluable educational information on the American Indian’s way of life in the Old West.

When Catlin came home from his last expedition, he spent the following 2 years completing his paintings. He then combined them with his collection of native artifacts and toured various cities and towns giving public lectures on his recollections of life among the Red Indians. He told people that Western expansion in America could only spell certain doom for the Red Man and he saw it as his mission in life to preserve their primitive culture through the exhibiting of his collection and the dissemination of his writings on their ways of life. Ultimately, his goal was to sell the entire collection of paintings, writings and artifacts to the American Government because he realized that the Red Man’s way of life would soon perish. He knew how important his collection could be to future anthropologists, historians, fellow Americans, and to the rest of the world.

However, the government wasn’t interested in buying his collection nor did they care about the plight of the Indians. So, to try and get someone in authority interested in his message, Catlin left America to visit the capital cities of Europe. There, he first set up business in London where he brought along with him some real Red Indians in what was in effect, the first ever ‘Wild West Show’. He also published his first book in the city, which championed the cause of the natives by explaining the many dilemmas that they had to cope with. Catlin’s book was also an indictment against the new, so-called ‘American way of life’, which he saw was rapidly destroying the Native inhabitant’s much older way of life.

Catlin lived in London for the next 5 years before touring the Continent and returning once more to the city. During his second stay he undertook to become the American spokesman for a number of British companies who where representing land speculators in Texas. Catlin’s job was to promote the splendors of the state to possible immigrants who would then pay in advance for land that they had never seen. Some of his landscape paintings of American scenes were used as posters to lure potential buyers into going to a Texas ‘Garden of Eden’ that didn’t exist. In fact, Catlin himself had never been to Texas and even he was fooled into mortgaging his Gallery of paintings and artifacts to invest in the same land scheme. The entire project was a swindle and those immigrants who did make their way to Texas mostly died of disease, drought, or were killed by warring Apache or Comanche Indians – whose land it was in the first place.

Catlin was ruined financially and his mortgaged Gallery was sold at a knock-down price to an American millionaire. He then returned to America and spent the next 20 years trying to re-create the painted part of the collection he had lost, in a second compilation of works known as the ‘Cartoon Collection’. These were based on the sketches of his first works from the 1830s and it was through them and his published writings that he continued to promote the Indian cause. All the while he was yearning to get back to exploring, painting and collecting again and in 1852 he got what he called ‘the second starting point in his life’. This came when he was invited to explore Central and South America, and also the Rocky Mountains of the USA. The records of the 5 years he spent on both these mission were written up in his last 2 books. Finally, Catlin spent the remaining years of his life collating all his work to date, up until he died in 1872.

Just 7 years later, his entire collection was handed over to the people of America for posterity and Catlin’s dream finally came true. He was one of the very few voices of his time who spoke out against the corruption, exploitation and the genocidal race to clear the Native American Indian from the face of the earth. His collection is an invaluable historical and anthropological compilation on the American Indian’s way of life, and an intriguing artistic accomplishment. It is also important in that it reminds us all that other people with different cultures have rights in this world also.