Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

His early exposure to American Indians indelibly impressed northeastern Pennsylvania native George Catlin (1796–1872). His mother Mary “Polly” Sutton Catlin (1770–1844), married in 1789 to Putnam Catlin (1764–1842), formed his earliest impressions of Native Americans. With her mother Sarah Smith Sutton (1747–1834) she was captured and held captive at the age of seven by Iroquois. The day was bloody and gruesome and exceptionally savage. The July 3, 1778, Battle of Wyoming in Luzerne County – followed by the horrific Wyoming Massacre that evening – left hundreds of Americans dead at the hands of Loyalist forces fortified by the Iroquois. The battle and the massacre have been described as “the surpassing horror of the American Revolution” because of the brutal torture and murder committed by Iroquois Confederation warriors. Polly mesmerized George and his siblings with tales of the Wyoming Valley’s Native Americans. He never forgot his mother’s sensational accounts.

Catlin’s 1823 encounter in Philadelphia with a delegation of American Indians in their native dress was all it took to seal his destiny. He became an ardent advocate for America’s indigenous people, ultimately recording the history, customs and traditions of various tribes through the written word but, especially, through his paintings. Admiring their grace and dignity, “arrayed and equipped in their classical beauty,” and fearing their way of life was rapidly disappearing, Catlin determined that “nothing short of the loss of my life will prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian.”

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, on July 26, 1796, George Catlin was sent in 1817 to follow in his father’s footsteps at his alma mater, Litchfield Law School, Conn., the first institution in the United States established expressly for teaching law. The younger Catlin disliked his education. He was by no means a dilettante, though. He preferred learning about natural history, science and arts, sketching fellow law school students and, of course, learning about American Indians. After two years of study the younger Catlin passed the bar and began practicing law in Wilkes-Barre but soon realized he was not suited for the courtroom. His artistic bent continued to surface and he understood he was more interested in painting than arguing cases. Just two years into his legal career he “resolved to convert my law library into paint pots and brushes.” In 1823 at the age of 27 he moved to Philadelphia where he pursued his passion. Self-taught, he set up shop painting miniature portraits. It was at this time he encountered the visiting Indians and dedicated his life’s work to chronicling their story in paintings.

Over the next several years Catlin specialized as a commissioned portraitist. All the while he found himself becoming more invested in the American Indian way of life. He traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., where he executed a likeness of Seneca sachem (chief) and famous orator Red Jacket, a name he took for a scarlet coat given to him by the English for his wartime services during the American Revolution. This was Catlin’s first Indian portrait and the first of his two portraits of Red Jacket. Along with Red Jacket, Catlin painted other Indians of the Northeast: the Iroquois, the Ottawa and the Mohegan.

Catlin became acutely aware that the customs and traditions of these tribes had been diluted because of their relationship with so-called “civilized” society. Urged by President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830, which he signed into law the same day. The federal government previously employed separate treaties as one way of displacing Indians from their tribal homelands, a mechanism strengthened by the 1830 act. In cases where this failed the government sometimes violated both treaties and Supreme Court rulings to facilitate eviction of Indians from their valuable lands in the East and promote westward expansion. The government forced approximately 50,000 Indians to settle in Indian Territory (in what is today Oklahoma) to open up millions of acres to white settlers. The Cherokee living in Georgia resisted – angering many white individuals because gold had been discovered in the state in 1828 – and provoked Jackson to order military action in 1838. At gunpoint of federal troops and Georgia’s state militia the tribe made the perilous journey in inclement weather. Historians estimate that between 3,000 and 4,000 of the 15,000 to 16,000 Cherokees died en route from the brutal conditions of what has since been called the Trail of Tears. The National Park Service has organized the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail which it characterizes as “A Journey of Injustice,” online at http://www.nps.gov/trte.

Eastern tribes had been pressured into giving up their lands – and their traditions, customs and way of life. Catlin realized this fate awaited all Indians living throughout the United States. As the white man’s wagons moved westward, more Indians were pushed from their homelands, never to return.

Passage of the Indian Removal Act and its detrimental impact on Native Americans deeply affected Catlin who decided to paint portraits of Indians of distinctive tribes in the West – and do so before their culture would inevitably vanish, seemingly without a trace. In the spring of 1830, equipped with rolls of canvas, an easel and cases of fish bladders containing oil paints, Catlin traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to meet Superintendent of Indian Affairs William Clark and launch his lifelong journey recording the unfolding saga of the American Indian. Enjoying the support of Clark, co-commander with Meriwether Lewis of the legendary 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition (also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition), Catlin gained access to delegates of several tribes. According to a profile of Catlin published by Popular Science Monthly in July 1891, nearly two decades after his death, “In 1831 and 1832 he accompanied General Clark … to treaties held with the Winnebagoes and Menomonees, the Shawnees and Sacs and Foxes, and in these interviews began the series of his Indian paintings.”

Catlin spent the following two years in St. Louis painting portraits of Indians. He completed likenesses of many of the Plains Indians including the Sioux, the Iowa and the Omaha, among others. He also continued to paint tribes settled in the East, such as the Potawatomi and Delaware, already in the throes of becoming members of what would be the largest group of Indians, later termed “the Vanishing Race.”

Fear of running out of time drove Catlin. In 1832 he began his journey up the Missouri River. His ambitious plan was to visit as many tribes as possible and record their disappearing way of life with pen and ink and paint and brush. It was appropriate that Catlin began his quest in St. Louis with Clark’s help; it was the same location where Lewis and Clark began their expedition 28 years earlier.

Catlin’s view of the American Indian was far out of step with most Americans of the day. In his eyes they were a noble and honorable people and should be treated as such, but most Americans did not share or appreciate his view. He believed American westward expansion would be their downfall and the Indian civilization and culture would be forever lost. He did not believe every Indian would be wiped out but their customs and traditions would suffer that ignoble fate.

Catlin’s 2,000-mile trip up the Missouri River by steamer was the beginning of a six-year pilgrimage. He painted the Crows, the Blackfeet and the Mandan. It was among these tribes that he thrived as an artist. He painted feverishly, as if the preservation of their culture depended on him (which proved to be true). He witnessed, what was for him, the true vision of the American Indian. He exalted in his view of what he perceived to be the epitome of the “Noble Savage,” a sentiment that began in the 1820s. Catlin was enthralled with these people, using exuberant prose to describe everything about them, characterizing them as “picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description.” Observing a Mandan village, he described it as “one of the most beautiful and pleasing that can be seen in the world, and even more beautiful than imagination could ever create.” He was taken with nearly everything about these tribes, even their style of dress which he described as the “most beautifully costumed of any on the continent.” His fascination knew no bounds. He painted not only chiefs and elders, but also the games, rituals, dances, hunts and ceremonies. The western landscape also captured his imagination; to Catlin the expansive fields and meadows were greener than in the East, the skies bluer, the mountains more majestic and the air purer and sweeter. It was against this backdrop he executed some of his most exciting work.

Continuing his journey he encountered several more Indian tribes. He traveled along parts of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. As he moved farther west he painted likenesses of the Wichita, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Winnebago, Ojibwa, Comanche and others.

He assembled his depictions of the Indians, their rituals and ceremonies together with a selection of authentic objects and artifacts. He called the collection containing more than 500 paintings, Catlin’s Indian Gallery. In 1837 with the gallery in tow, he traveled to New York City to exhibit his work. He displayed the collection in Washington, D.C., the following year. In 1839 the gallery was well received in London at Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly. With interest in the exhibit eventually fading and needing to attract visitors, as well as to curry favor with audiences, he resorted to recruiting a troupe of nine genuine Indians from Canada to perform war dances and “scalp” unsuspecting visitors during the display. By doing so he unwittingly created the first Wild West show, replete with commercialization, sensationalism and exploitation.

Desperately needing money to fund his operations, in 1841 he self-published Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians: Written During Eight Year’s Travel Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America, in 1832, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, and 39, a monumental two-volume set of 935 pages illustrated by 312 engraved plates. The illustrations were copies of original paintings he exhibited in his Indian Gallery. Printed at Egyptian Hall, the book was the culmination of his odyssey of nearly a decade. The publication, combining written accounts and reproductions of his original works of art featured in the gallery, was a symbiotic endeavor, each supporting the other. Catlin’s renderings caught the public’s eye, calling for several reprints of Letters and Notes. Several publishers did reprint Catlin’s work, including Wiley and Putnam, New York, in 1842; Chatto and Windus, London, in 1876; Leary, Stuart and Company, Philadelphia, in 1913; and John Grant, Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1903 and 1926. All were different, but each contained richly colored plates that appeared in black and white in the original volumes. Catlin’s paintings and prints remain a remarkable pictorial history of the American Indian prior to the development of the camera.

Critics and artists complained Catlin’s paintings were vapid and flat. Possibly they were referring to some of his landscapes – the colors of the lithographs appear muted, while other scenes possess a more panoramic quality. In some the vistas seem endless as if the terrain goes on forever. In group scenes such as the Indian Slave Dance, faces of the dancers look oddly similar. Even with this qualification his paintings of the ceremonies, dances and rituals offer a record of the Indians’ daily lives. The scenes are depicted in a simple but pleasing fashion. Several large portraits of individual subjects seem rather primitive: these likenesses are out of proportion – heads are either too large or too small for the bodies. Unlike his depictions of landscape scenes, these are much more vibrant, and each face is unique. The paintings leave no doubt; they are depictions of real people. Catlin’s use of Indian adornments enlivens the portraits. Feathers and plumes in hair, necklaces of claws circling necks and designs painted on bodies and clothing offer a look at each figure’s individuality.

At first Catlin met with some difficulty convincing (and in some instances cajoling) subjects to sit for him, especially among Western Indians. Unlike some tribes of the East that were matriarchal, the Indians of the plains, plateau and prairie were firmly patriarchal. On one occasion, after the males of one tribe posed for portraits, Catlin expressed a desire to paint several Indian women. This the men viewed with disfavor. They believed Indian women were of lesser rank, and not deserving of such an honor – portraits were reserved for the more important males. Catlin cleverly addressed the complaint by assuring the braves he wanted to hang the women’s portraits below theirs. This assuaged the situation, allowing him to paint women’s portraits as well.

The artist followed his 1841 work three years later with Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio in 1844. The lithographs were drawn on stone by John McGahey and printed in London by Day and Haghe. The book is a collection of 25 finely hand-colored lithographed plates. Publishers Day and Haghe printed large lithographs of examples from this collection. They measured 12” by 17 1/2” and were hand colored. English physician and ethnologist James C. Prichard published The Natural History of Man in 1843 and illustrated it with octavo size (9 1/2” by 5 1/2”) prints from Catlin’s original drawings. Several years after Catlin issued his 1844 portfolio, a Swedish edition was released.

Although Catlin’s paintings were well received, the message in his written depiction was not. It was widely known he espoused the theory that it was the white man’s civilization that was destroying the Native Americans. Catlin believed the white man’s voracious appetite for more land, smallpox, whiskey traders and hatred of Indians in general played a hand in eroding the Native American culture. He used his paintings, portraying the Indians as a noble people, to combat these factors, but to no avail.

As the years went on, Catlin made trips to the Pacific Northwest and the American Southwest, as well as to Central and South America. He lived in Europe for several years. However, financial problems plagued him for the remainder of his life. His collection of Native American portraits was a monumental, ambitious undertaking. Catlin can be credited with illustrating an exciting, colorful, detailed record of a great number of the different Indian tribes through his words and his portraits. He accomplished this by immersing himself in every aspect of their culture and traditions.


And What of Catlin’s Paintings?

Beginning in 1838 George Catlin spent much of his career lobbying Congress for its patronage and the purchase of his Indian Gallery not only to keep the monumental collection intact for future generations but also to finance his exploration and depiction of the West. He submitted several petitions to Congress and implored government officials in the nation’s capital to help him, but nothing came of his efforts. He dispatched his final appeal to Congress shortly before his death in 1872.

The operating costs of moving his traveling Indian Gallery to venues in the United States and to European cities resulted in financial hardship for Catlin and his family. Creditors were stalking him, attempting to collect the mounting debts he owed.

After spending seven years in St. Petersburg, Russia, advising locomotive and rolling stock builders, wealthy Philadelphia engineer, industrialist and financier Joseph Harrison Jr. (1810-1874) and his wife Sarah Poulterer Harrison (1817-1906) lived mostly in London and Paris, but his poor health caused them to return to the United States. Before leaving London in 1852 Harrison purchased Catlin’s Indian Gallery which had grown to 607 paintings.

Although Harrison built an enormous residence on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square – replete with an entire wing devoted to the couple’s impressive art collection – considered at the time “one of the finest houses ever built in the square,” Catlin’s paintings were relegated to storage in a boiler factory. The Harrisons owned works of art by Thomas Cole, Charles Willson Peale, Sir Frederick Leighton, Emanuel Leutze, Thomas Moran, John Carlin, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Peter Frederick Rothermel, J. Russell Smith, Gustav Muller and Angelica Kaufmann. The Hamilton residence was designed by acclaimed Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, responsible for a number of impressive private and public commissions in Pennsylvania, among them the extant Asa Packer Mansion, Jim Thorpe; Eli Slifer House, Lewisburg; Westmoreland County Courthouse, Greensburg; Fulton Opera House, Lancaster; and the Church of St. James the Greater, Bristol.

After the paintings arrived in Philadelphia they were stacked in their packing cases in the dank basement of the Harrison Boiler Works on Gray’s Ferry Road, where conditions were deplorable. The building caught fire twice, subjecting the pictures to smoke and water damage. Mold covered the storage boxes. Mice nested in the American Indian medicine bags Catlin collected in the West. Moths damaged feathered headdresses and the fur of painted robes. Varnish that had been applied to the canvases years earlier darkened and obscured images. Wooden frames Catlin constructed had warped and fallen apart. Canvases split and pulled away from rusted nails that once secured them safely in place. And there they remained for two decades, neglected and rotting away in the dark.

Harrison died two years after Catlin and robes and clothing from the collection that could not be salvaged were buried on the factory grounds. Executors worked to find a permanent home for Catlin’s Indian Gallery and, after advising Sarah Catlin on its significance, she donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1879. Thanks to the enlightened Philadelphian, the Smithsonian owns the world’s largest collection of paintings by George Catlin.


The editor thanks Iren Light Snavely Jr., librarian of the Rare Collections Library of the State Library of Pennsylvania, for making available original volumes containing works of art by George Catlin which appear as illustrations in this feature. “Historian of Pennsylvania Exceptionalism: Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker” by Snavely appears in the winter 2014 edition.


A resident of Springfield, Mass., David McCormick received his master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Massachusetts. He worked in municipal government for the City of Springfield for several years before retiring. The author is an avid collector of ephemera dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. Now a freelance writer he typically writes about American history in addition to covering topics of regional and general interest. His articles have appeared in a number of magazines and periodicals, among them America’s Civil War, Wild West, Missouri Life and Michigan History.