Edward Sheriff Curtis was an American ethnologist and photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples.
In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on Native Americans. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan's funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. Under the terms of the arrangement, Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment.
222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much of Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life 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." Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American 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 written recorded history although there is still a rich oral tradition that documents history.
In 1935, the Morgan estate sold the rights and remaining unpublished material to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston for $1,000 plus a percentage of any future royalties. This included 19 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.
Photo credit: © WestLicht Photographica Auction