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Edward S. Curtis Photographs, 1900-1926

By Ruth Vondracek and Sanju Gharti Chhetri

Collection Overview

Title: Edward S. Curtis Photographs, 1900-1926

ID: P 333

Primary Creator: Curtis, Edward S. (1868-1952)

Extent: 0.1 cubic feet. More info below.

Arrangement: This collection is arranged into a single series; Series 1: Photographic Prints.

Date Acquired: 00/00/2007

Languages of Materials: English [eng]


The Edward S. Curtis Photographs consists of three photographic prints, a platinum print and two photogravures, acquired by Gerald W. Williams, that document aspects of Native American life between 1900 and 1926.  The prints are titled, Caches at Celilo, Woman's Costume and Baby Swing - Assiniboin, and The Clam Digger. All of these images appear in Curtis' 20-volume set, The North American Indian.  Edward S. Curtis was known for his exceptional photography and his ethnological work that sought to document Native American groups and their cultures.

Scope and Content Notes

The collection includes two mounted photogravures and one framed platinotype or platinum print. Each of the photographs appeared in various volumes of the The North American Indian, a 20-volume set that Curtis published between 1907 and 1930. The Clam Digger, a platinotype, one of Curtis’ best- known photographs and one of his first, depicts a Native American woman, possibly Princess Angeline, digging for clams on the shore of Puget Sound.  In Woman’s Costume and Baby Swing – Assiniboin a woman in native dress looks down at baby in a swing or hammock, that is suspended by ropes between two small trees. Caches at Celilo is dominated by three wooden cross-framed structures holding wooden planks used to construct seasonal summer homes.

Biographical / Historical Notes

Edward Sheriff Curtis was a notable photographer and ethnographer best known for his work The North American Indian a set of 20-volume photographic project that documents the Native-American tribes and their culture in North America. This monumental work was published over a span of 23 years between 1907 and 1930. Curtis was inspired to capture the native Indian people and their culture lest it would be infringed upon and disappear due to the white expansion and white culture. Curtis dedicated thirty years of his life traveling, exploring, documenting and living with the native tribes, which later ensued into one of his most celebrated work, ‘The North American Indian.

A self-taught photographer, Curtis was born in 1868 in Whitewater, Wisconsin. His interest in photography was evident from his early years as he assembled his own camera when he was only twelve years old with the help of the then popular manual Wilson’s Photographics. Curtis and his family moved to Puget Sound, Washington in 1887 and he later opened a portrait studio in 1892 in partnership with Thomas Guptill in Seattle. He renamed the photo studio to ‘Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photoengraver’ after he and partner Guptill parted ways in 1897. It was in Washington where Curtis first began photographing the local Native Americans. His images of Puget Sound Native Americans won him the grand prize at the National Photographic Convention of 1898.

In 1898, Curtis came across a group of scientists who were lost while he was photographing the Mt. Rainier. Anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, a noted expert in Native American cultures, was one of the scientists in the group. This happenstance meeting allowed Grinnell to learn about Curtis’ work. Grinnell invited Curtis to be the photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 that was spearheaded by Edward H. Harriman and comprised of naturalist John Muir, and zoologist C. Hart Merriam in the team. Grinnell again appointed Curtis the following year to photograph Blackfeet Indian tribe in Montana. These experiences proved crucial for Curtis in perusing and bolstering his interest in studying and documenting the native tribes of North America.

Upon his return to Seattle, Curtis organized exhibitions featuring his work, published articles and gave lectures on native Indian tribes. His work garnered attention from many including the then President Theodore Roosevelt who asked Curtis to photograph family portraits. In 1906, Curtis reached out to John Pierpont Morgan, the railroad tycoon to finance his work, which set his project ‘The North American Indian’ in motion. It was decided that the project would be a set of 20 volumes of ethnographic text illustrated with photoengraving.  The final two volumes of the series was published in 1930. During his 30 years of extensive fieldwork, Curtis is believed to have taken more than 40,000 photographs, 10,000 cylinder sound recordings of Indian speech and music and taken more than 125 trips across country for the making of the project. He was also known as the ‘Shadow Catcher’, a name he earned from the Native Americans. ‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’, is his another notable work which is a first feature-length film to capture the Native Indian people in North America that premiered in 1914. Curtis’ work celebrated Native American culture and left a valuable legacy that offered a rich insight into indigenous people of North America and their way of living.

Author: Sanju Gharti Chhetri

Administrative Information

More Extent Information: 2 oversize boxes. 1 framed platinum print (platinotype), 1 mounted photogravure print, 1  mounted photogravure print with embossed plate mark.

Statement on Access: The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions: Images in this collection are considered to be in the public domain.

Acquisition Note: These three prints were originally part of the Gerald W. Williams (MSS WilliamsG) collection,  Accessions 2007:100 and  2014:059.  The Edward S. Curtis photographs were separated from the Williams collection in 2016.

Related Materials: Other Gerald W. Williams collections contain images of Native Americans, such as Gerald W. Williams Photographs Collection (P 329); Frank Patterson Photographic Postcards (P 312); Gerald W. Williams Postcards Collection (P 323); and Gerald W. Williams Collection of Prints and Postcards of Native Americans Collection (P 317).  The Gerald W. Williams Regional Albums includes some modern reproductions of Edward Curtis' images, as well as images produced by his brother, Asahel Curtis, also a renowned photographer.  Other collections of interest include: Benjamin A. Gifford Photographs (P 218 – SG1) and Ralph I. Gifford Photographs (P 218 – SG2).  The Oregon Multicultural Archives is a rich source for information on Native American communities in Oregon

Processing Information: The three photographic prints in this collection were orginally part of the Gerald W. Williams collection (MSS WilliamsG).  "Caches at Celilo" was part of Accession 2014:059.  The other two prints may have been part of the main Gerald W. Williams collection acquired in 2007.  The three images were separated from the main collection in 2016 to form the Edward S. Curtis Photographs collection in 2016.


Curtis, Edward S. (1868-1952)
Williams, Gerald W.

People, Places, and Topics

Assiniboine Indians
Indians of North America--Clothing
Indians of North America--Northwest, Pacific.
Oregon Multicultural Archives

Forms of Material

Photographic prints.
Photogravures (prints)
Platinum prints.

Box and Folder Listing

Series 1: Photographic Prints, 1900-1926
Box-Item 1.1: Caches At Celilo, 1909

Text below image: "E. S. Curtis. From Copyright Photograph.1909." Mounted photogravure print  (8 x 7 inches).

This image appears in The North American Indian, volume 8 and was used to illustrate "the method commonly enjoyed along the river of storing the summer-house materials at the fisheries."

Box-Item 1.2: Woman's Costume and Baby Swing – Assiniboin, 1926
Text below image: "E.S. Curtis. From Copyright Photograph. 1926." Mounted photogravure with embossed plate mark (13 x  11 inches). Assiniboin woman in native costume looking at baby in swing, that is attached by rope to two small trees. This image appears in The North American Indian, volume 18.
Box-Item 2.1: The Clam Digger, 1900

Text below image: E.S. Curtis. Photo Number: 24. 1900.

Framed platinum print. (12 x 16 inches). Native American woman digging for clams using a clamming stick on the shoreline,  possibly on Puget Sound. The woman is Princess Angeline,daughter of Chief Seattle. A woven basket lies to the side of the woman and a canoe is pulled up on the shore next to her. This image appears in volume 9 of The North American Indian.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.