Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) in 1951

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) in the Seattle Sunday Times circa 1905

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952)

Early life[edit | edit source]

Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin. Curtis' father, Rev. Johnson Asahel Curtis (1840-1887) was a minister and a United States Civil War veteran. Rev. Curtis was born in Ohio, and his father was born in Canada, and his mother in Vermont. Edward's mother Ellen Sheriff (1844-1912), was born in Pennsylvania; both her parents were born in England. Curtis' siblings were Raphael Curtis (1862-c1885) who also was called Ray Curtis; Eva Curtis (1870-?); and Asahel Curtis (1875-1941). Around 1874 the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota and Curtis built his own camera. In 1880 the family was living in Cordova Township, Minnesota and Johnson Curtis was working as a retail grocer.

Early career[edit | edit source]

In 1885 at the age of seventeen Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and became partners in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Edward paid $150 for his 50% share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi as a partner, and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called: "Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers".

Marriage[edit | edit source]

In 1892 Edward married Clara J. Phillips (1874-1932) who was born in Pennsylvania. Both her parents were from Canada. Together they had four children: Harold Curtis (1893-?); Elizabeth M. Curtis (1896-1973) aka Beth Curtis, who married Manford E. Magnuson (1895-1993); Florence Curtis (1899-1987) who married Henry Graybill (1893-?); and Katherine Curtis (1909-?) aka Billy. In 1896 the entire family moved to a new house in Seattle. The family then consisted of: Edward's mother, Ellen Sheriff; Edward's sister, Eva Curtis; Edward's brother, Asahel Curtis; Clara's sister, Susie Phillips; Clara's other sister, Nellie Philips; and Nellie's son, William.

Middle career[edit | edit source]

In 1895 Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898 while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Grinnell became interested in Curtis' photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana in the year 1900.

The North American Indian[edit | edit source]

In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian, in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document as much Native American traditional life as possible before that lifestyle disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: "The information that is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." He made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history.

Divorce[edit | edit source]

In 1910 the family was living in Seattle and on October 16, 1916, Clara filed for divorce. In 1919 she was granted the divorce and received the Curtis' photographic studio and all of his original camera negatives as her part of the settlement. Edward went with his daughter, Beth, to the studio and destroyed all of his original glass negatives, rather than have them become the property of his ex-wife. Clara, Edward's ex-wife, went on to manage the Curtis studio with her married sister, Nellie M. Phillips (1880-?) who was married to Martin Lucus (1880-?). In 1920 Beth Curtis and her sister Florence Curtis were living in a boarding house in Seattle. Clara, his ex-wife, was living in Charleston, Kitsap County, Washington with her married sister Nellie Phillips and her daughter Katherine Curtis.

Hollywood[edit | edit source]

Around 1922 Curtis moved to Los Angeles with his daughter Beth, and opened a new photo studio. To earn money he worked as an assistant cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and was an uncredited assistant cameraman in the 1923 filming of The Ten Commandments. On October 16, 1924 Curtis sold the rights to his ethnographic motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters to the American Museum of Natural History. He was paid $1,500 for the master print and the original camera negative. It had cost him over $20,000 to film.

Decline[edit | edit source]

In 1927 after returning from Alaska to Seattle with his daughter Beth, he was arrested for failure to pay alimony over the preceding 7 years. The total owed was $4,500, but the charges were dropped. For Christmas of 1927, the family was reunited at daughter Florence's home in Medford, Oregon. This was the first time since the divorce that Curtis was with all of his children at the same time, and it had been thirteen years since he had seen Katherine. In 1928, desperate for cash, Edward sold the rights to his project to J.P Morgan's son. In 1930 he published the concluding volume of The North American Indian. In total about 280 sets were sold of his now completed opus magnum. In 1930 his ex-wife, Clara, was still living in Seattle operating the photo studio with their daughter Katherine. His other daughter, Florence Curtis, was still living in Medford, Oregon with her husband Henry Graybill. In 1932 his ex wife, Clara, drowned while rowing in Puget Sound, and his daughter, Katherine moved to California to be closer to her father and her sister, Beth.

Loss of Rights to The North American Indian[edit | edit source]

In 1935 the rights and remaining unpublished material were sold by the Morgan estate to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston for $1,000 plus a percentage of any future royalties. This included: nineteen complete bound sets of The North American Indian, thousands of individual paper prints, the copper printing plates, the unbound printed pages, and the original glass-plate negatives. Lauriat bound the remaining loose printed pages and sold them with the completed sets. The remaining material remained untouched in the Lauriat basement in Boston until they were rediscovered in 1972.

Death and burial[edit | edit source]

On October 19, 1952, at the age of 84, Curtis died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California in the home of his daughter, Beth. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California. His terse obituary appeared in The New York Times on October 20, 1952:

Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.

Curtis archive at the Library of Congress[edit | edit source]

The Prints and Photographs Division Curtis collection consists of more than 2,400 silver-gelatin, first generation photographic prints--some of which are sepia-toned--made from Curtis's original glass negatives. Most of the photographic prints are 5" x 7" although nearly one hundred are 11" x 14" and larger; many include the Curtis file or negative number within the image at the lower left-hand corner. Acquired by the Library of Congress through copyright deposit from about 1900 through 1930, the dates on the images reflect date of registration, not when the photograph was actually taken. About two-thirds (1,608) of these images were not published in the North American Indian volumes and therefore offer a different and unique glimpse into Curtis's work with indigenous cultures. The original glass plate negatives of which had been stored and nearly forgotten in the basement of New York's Pierpont Morgan Library were dispersed during World War II. Many others were destroyed and some were sold as junk.

Charles Lauriat archive[edit | edit source]

Around 1970, Karl Kernberger of Santa Fe, New Mexico went to Boston to search for Curtis' original copper plates and photogravures at the Charles E. Lauriat rare bookstore. He discovered almost 285,000 original photogravures as well as all the original copper plates. With Jack Loeffler; and David Podwa, they jointly purchased all of the surviving Curtis material that was owned by Charles Emelius Lauriat (1874-1937). The collection was later purchased by another group of investors led by Mark Zaplin of Santa Fe. The Zaplin Group owned the plates until 1982, when they sold them to a California group led by Kenneth Zerbe, the current owner of the plates as of 2005.

Peabody Essex Museum[edit | edit source]

Dr. Charles Goddard Weld purchased 110 prints that Curtis had made for his 1905-1906 exhibit and donated them to the Peabody Essex Museum, where they remain. The 14" by 17" prints are each unique and remain in pristine condition. Clark Worswick, curator of photography for the museum, describes them as:

Curtis' most carefully selected prints of what was then his life’s work ... certainly these are some of the most glorious prints ever made in the history of the photographic medium. The fact that we have this man’s entire show of 1906 is one of the minor miracles of photography and museology.

References[edit | edit source]

  • New York Times; June 6, 1908; "Mr. Edward Curtis's $3,000 Work on the Aborigine a Marvel of Pictorial Record. Photo-history is the apt word which has been coined to describe the work which Edward S. Curtis is doing for the North American Indian. Nothing just like it has ever before been attempted for any people."
  • New York Times; April 16, 1911; "Lives 22 years with Indians. With the aid of J. Pierpont Morgan, Edward S. Curtis has finished more than half of his monumental study of the American Indian. He has spent fourteen years among them in this work, and calculates that eight more years will see the completion of it."
  • New York Times; October 14, 1911; "Many acres of forest land have been denuded in order to furnish the paper on which have been printed the voluminous and sometimes acrimonious discussion as to the meaning of the word "Tacoma." Edward S. Curtis, the Indian authority, who has been highly commended by The New York Times thus disposes of the question in the seventh volume of his great work, "The North America Indian."
  • New York Times; June 16, 1912; "Briarcliff Lodge, New York, June 15, 1912. Edward S. Curtis of Seattle, Washington, is the guest of Mrs. J. Stuart White at the Briarcliff Lodge. John J. Sinclair of New York is at the lodge for a short stay previous to sailing for Europe.
  • New York Times; September 7, 1913; The appearance of Volume IX. of "The North American Indian," a field research conducted under the patronage of the late Pierpont Morgan, brings before the public another section of this valuable and comprehensive study of a people who are rapidly disappearing or losing their aboriginal traits, and acquiring the manners and customs of the dominant white race.
  • New York Times; March 28, 1915; "Review: In the Land of the Head-Hunters. Edward S. Curtis has for many years been identified with the North American Indian. To them and their customs and languages he has given the study of a lifetime, living as friend and brother with the men of different tribes, permitted to watch them in their everyday life as well as in the exercise of their ceremonials."
  • New York Times; October 20, 1952; "Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer."
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