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Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Archival Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Edward S. Curtis papers
    Date (inclusive): 1900-1978 (bulk 1903-1954)
    Number: 850111
    Creator/Collector: Curtis, Edward S.
    Physical Description: 10.3 Linear Feet (8 boxes, 1 flatfile)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: The Edward S. Curtis papers document all of the photographer's major projects, focusing on The North American Indian, his major publication, the Curtis Picture Musicale, and his full-length feature film In the Land of the Head Hunters. The promotion and publication of these projects is particularly well-documented. The collection also contains the original manuscript musical scores for both the Curtis Picture Musicale and In the Land of the Headhunters. Also included are typescripts and notes for books, lectures, and other writings. There is a small amount of Curtis's original photographic material as well as miscellaneous personal and professional documents.
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    Language: Collection material is in English.

    Biographical/Historical Note

    The headline for a 1905 article in the Seattle Times hailed Edward Sheriff Curtis as "Artist, Explorer, Clubman, Photographer, Historian and President's Friend." Indeed, by this point in his career, Curtis was all these things and more. Now known primarily for his photographs of Native Americans, Curtis's enduring achievement was a monumental, heroic, and theatrical portrayal of the American Indian whom he saw as a "vanishing race." Curtis's depiction of Native Americans was filtered through his interpretation of their pre-contact, rather than current, way of life.
    Born near Whitewater, Wisconsin in 1868, Curtis grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He built his first camera when he was 12 years old. In 1887, at the age of 19, he and his father traveled to the Washington Territory, where after settling near Port Orchard, they sent for the rest of the Curtis family. Curtis moved to Seattle in 1891 and opened his first photography studio, Rothi and Curtis Photographers, in partnership with Rasmus Rothi. Within a short time he went into partnership with Thomas H. Guptil, forming Curtis and Guptil Photographers and Photo-engravers; Guptil left the firm in 1897. Although Curtis's photographic interests were initially portraiture and landscape photography in the pictorialist tradition, he soon became fascinated with recording Seattle-area Native American groups. Later in his life he claimed that his pictures of Princess Angeline (1895), the aged daughter of Chief Sealth or Seattle who eked out a living as a clam digger, were his first Indian photographs.
    In 1898, while photographing on Mt. Rainier, Curtis rescued a group of well-known scientists that included zoologist C. Hart Merriam, head of the U.S. Biological Survey and a founding member of the National Geographic Society, and ethnographer and naturalist George Bird Grinnell, editor of Field and Stream and founder of the Audubon Society, who had become lost while climbing the mountain. Impressed with Curtis, Merriam asked him to join the Harriman Alaska Expedition (1899) as its official photographer. Organized by E. H. Harriman, a railway magnate and financier, the expedition's aim was to explore Alaska's coastal waters from its southern panhandle to Prince William Sound. Participation in the expedition introduced Curtis to the fundamentals of ethnographic research. His photographs were included in a two-volume souvenir photograph album produced for expedition members, and reproduced as photogravures in two of the 14 volumes in the Harriman Alaska Series.
    The following year Grinnell invited Curtis to photograph the Sun Dance ceremony at the Piegan Reservation in Montana. This experience further solidified Curtis's interest in Native American cultures and fueled his desire to produce a comprehensive visual and written record of the last vestiges of what he saw as the "vanishing race" and its traditional ways. Concentrating on peoples west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, Curtis spent over a quarter of the twentieth century in the field working on The North American Indian ( NAI), his 20-volume publication containing over 1500 small full-page photogravures, along with 700 large-format photogravures in the 20 accompanying portfolios. NAI became one of the largest anthropological projects to be undertaken to date, and is indeed often the only record of the lore and history of some North American tribes.
    During the first years of the twentieth century Curtis's photographic work in general, and especially his Native American material, became increasingly well-known throughout the United States. When not in the field he worked unceasingly to raise funds for NAI by giving lantern slide lecture tours, mounting exhibitions, and publishing articles. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt asked Curtis to photograph his family. Roosevelt was very interested in the NAI project and wrote a glowing letter of recommendation that Curtis used in subsequent publicity for the project. Finally, in 1906, J.P. Morgan agreed to back the NAI project for the next five years, and in 1907 the first volume was published with a foreword by Roosevelt.
    Despite incessant work by the large team Curtis assembled for the project, which included William E. Myers as researcher and writer; Frederick Webb Hodge as editor; and a phalanx of ethnological and photographic assistants, interpreters, and native guides, only eight volumes of NAI were completed in the first five years. After Morgan's death in 1913 his son, J.P. Jr., agreed to continue sponsoring the project, the final volume of which was published in 1930. To augment Morgan's funding and the sale of subscriptions Curtis continued to raise capital through increasingly complex off-season projects. In 1911-1912 he mounted the Curtis Picture Musicale (The Story of the Vanishing Race) . This elaborate multimedia production began with an orchestral prelude composed by Henry F. Gilbert. Curtis's lecture was accompanied by both hand-colored lantern slides shown through a stereopticon, which made them appear to dissolve in and out of one another, and by film clips, with an orchestral number composed by Gilbert for each segment of the talk. Although it opened at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out audience, the production proved costly, and subsequent performances were not as successful.
    Curtis had been using a motion picture camera in the field since 1904, and in 1911 he formed the Continental Film Company to support his idea of producing a commercial, full-length motion picture film, whose ticket sales would help fund the NAI project. In the Land of the Head Hunters was released in 1914. An "epic story of love and war" set in pre-contact times, this silent movie was the first feature film to star Native American, non-professional actors, specifically members of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes of British Columbia, who were meant to portray their ancestors. Curtis commissioned John J. Braham ( Hiawatha and The Corsair) to compose a full score for the film. Shot on location, the film, which included elaborately costumed performances of the spectacular Kwakwaka'wakw dances, was made all the more dramatic through the use of dynamic camera work, the vivid toning and tinting of the footage, and Braham's theatrical score. Despite its initial critical acclaim, it too was a financial disaster. Although In the Land of the Head Hunters does accurately document some aspects of Kwakwaka'wakw culture, Curtis's intention was to produce what would now be termed a mass-market "blockbuster" film. In fact, the film is currently viewed as documenting a cultural encounter between Curtis and the Kwakwaka'wakw who performed his version of their past.
    Curtis's constant work in the field and his promotion of NAI on the east coast during the winters kept him away from his family most of the time. His wife Clara divorced him in 1919, and he and his daughter Beth moved to Los Angeles, where they opened a Curtis Studio in the Biltmore Hotel (Clara and their daughter Katherine continued to run the Curtis Studio in Seattle until 1930). In Los Angeles Curtis also worked as a still photographer and cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and other Hollywood studios to finance his fieldwork. During this time, again to raise funds for fieldwork, he sold the copyright for NAI to the Morgan Company and also sold the copyright for In the Land of the Head Hunters. In the summer of 1927 Curtis and his daughter Beth traveled to remote islands in the Bering Sea to complete the fieldwork for the last volume of NAI. This was his last expedition. Returning to Los Angeles, Curtis spent the rest of his life working as a cameraman, mining for gold, and writing his memoirs. The remaining assets of the NAI were sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company of Boston in 1935. Curtis died in Los Angeles in 1952.

    Administrative Information

    Preferred Citation

    Edward S. Curtis papers, 1900-1978, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 850111.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 1985.

    Processing History

    The collection processed and finding aid written by Beth Ann Guynn in 2008. The finding aid was encoded by Beth Ann Guynn and Linda Kleiger in 2014.

    Digitized Material

    The lantern slides in Series II (boxes 7 and 7a) were digitized by repository and the images are available online: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/850111_ref20_pb2

    Related Archival Materials

    The repository holds David Gilbert's manuscript transcription and recordings of the original John J. Braham score for Edward Curtis's 1914 silent film In the Land of the Head Hunters and the performance edition of the Braham score, scored by Gilbert and first performed at the premier of the restored film at the Getty Center on 5 June 2008. See: Scores for In the Land of the Head Hunters , Special collections accn. no. 2008.M.58.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Edward S. Curtis papers document Curtis's major projects, focusing on his seminal publication, The North American Indian, the Curtis Picture Musicale, and his full-length feature film In the Land of the Head Hunters. The promotion and publication of these projects is particularly well-documented, and provides a picture of a highly-driven personality who well knew the importance of publicity in garnering financial support for his visionary projects.
    Series I comprises manuscripts and publications and includes materials related to The North American Indian (1907-1930), typescripts for Curtis's books Indian Days of Long Ago (1914) and In the Land of the Head-hunters (1915; written after the film was made and with a slightly different title), and several undated, and apparently unpublished, typescripts for lectures or writings. The series is divided into three subseries.
    Series I.A documents Curtis's efforts to promote The North American Indian , ranging from newspaper articles and reviews to publicity materials and subscription agreements. Also included are partial lists of photographs taken for the project and a list of photographs deposited for copyright.
    Additional manuscript and publication materials including the typescripts for Curtis's books Indian Days of Long Ago and In the Land of the Head-hunters , as well as undated and apparently unpublished typescripts and notes, are found in Series I.B. Manuscript titles include "The Forgotten Map Maker," "Peyote Ceremony According to Charles More," "The Peyote Cult," and "The Indian and His Religious Freedom." These typescripts may in some cases relate to Curtis's lectures. Copies of a few articles published by Curtis and copies of published materials reproducing images by Curtis are found in Series I.C.
    Series II documents Curtis's attempts to promote his photography and raise funds for NAI through photograph exhibitions, lectures, lantern slide shows, movies, picture musicales, and films. Starting around 1903 Curtis began giving exhibition talks and stereopticon lantern slide lectures during the months that he was not working in the field as a way to raise funds for his fieldwork. He lectured extensively in the eastern United States as well as in the Pacific Northwest. Series II.A includes several undated lecture typescripts. They contain substantial information, based on first-hand observation, on the cultures of the Northwest, Southwestern, Pueblo, and Plains Indians, and include such aspects as population, religious and cermonial practices, and daily life. Other lectures discuss his experiences in the field and the difficulty of financing research and publications.
    The Curtis Picture Musicale (1911-1912) was a more ambitious money-raising scheme based on the concept of a lantern slide lecture. This elaborate multimedia production began with an orchestral prelude composed by Henry F. Gilbert. Curtis's lecture was accompanied by both hand-colored lantern slides and motion pictures, along with orchestral numbers composed by Gilbert for each segment. Included in Series II.B. are materials related to the Curtis Picture Musicale such as prospectuses, announcements, publicity materials, and programs for the production, as well as Gilbert's complete score for the musicale and additional related music by Gilbert.
    Curtis also conceived of his film In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), an epic story of love and war among the Kwakwaka'wakwa in pre-contact times, as a way to raise funds for his fieldwork and the NAI project. Included in Series II.C are preliminary materials for the film such as typescript narratives regarding the genesis of the film, typescript prospectuses for the Continental Film Company, scripts for scenes, shooting schedules, a list of scenes shot in 1913, film stills, a movie poster, and John J. Braham's manuscript score for the film.
    A small number of hand-colored and tinted lantern slides, such as would have been used by Curtis for his various slide lectures and presentations, comprise Series II.D. These are mostly Pacific Northwest Indian scenes, although a few Navajo and California Indian images are included.
    The personal and professional documents in Series III include posthumous articles about Curtis and materials regarding the disposition of Curtis's manuscripts, recordings, and artifact collection. There are a few letters sent or received by Curtis and a few pieces of original artwork. Also included is a transcript of an interview with M.E. Magnuson, Curtis's son-in-law, conducted by Conrad Angore, G. Ray Hawkins, and a Mr. Lee, on 19 September 1978. The interview relates mostly to the dispersal of the Curtis collection of Native American artifacts.


    Arranged in three series: Series I: Manuscripts and publications, 1900-1935; Series II: Lectures, presentations and audiovisual projects, 1903-1914, undated; Series III: Personal and professional papers, 1908-1978.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Topics

    Indians of America -- Portraits
    Indians of North America -- Social life and customs
    Indians of North America -- Northwest, Pacific -- Social life and customs
    Photography in ethnology
    Indians of North America -- Research
    Kwakiutl Indians -- Social life and customs

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Scores -- United States -- 20th century
    Posters -- United States -- 20th century
    Prospectuses -- United States -- 20th century
    Lantern slides -- United States -- 20th century
    Newspapers -- United States -- 20th century
    Gelatin silver prints -- United States -- 20th century


    Curtis, Edward S.
    Hawkins, G. Ray
    Gilbert, Henry F.B. (Henry Franklin Belknap)
    Braham, John J.