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George Catlin, Artist


Today is the birthday of one of our most important frontier artists. George Catlin was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 when George Washington was in his second term.

Catlin was the fifth of fourteen children. His mother and grandfather had been among the few survivors of the “Wyoming Valley Massacre” in Pennsylvania, and as a child, George heard many stories surrounding that encounter. He developed a fascination with Native Americans, and when he was 10, he and a friend started hurling tomahawks. One hit Catlin’s left cheek, scarring him for life.

Catlin’s parents pushed him to earn a law degree. He did, but he later wrote, “Another and stronger passion was getting the advantage of me, that of painting...” As a self-taught artist, Catlin’s law office became cluttered with art supplies and paintings of judges and juries, and at age 24 he finally decided to sell his law books in favor of canvas.

Catlin continued to focus on portraits, but in 1824, a delegation of Native Americans passing through Pennsylvania inspired him to focus on their culture. Six years later, he moved to St. Louis, where he became friends with General William Clark and painted portraits of American Indians who visited Clark’s office.

Catlin was aboard the first steamboat to navigate the Missouri from St. Louis into what is now North Dakota. He lived for a short while at Fort Clark and Fort Union during the eight years he spent among the Plains tribes. His observations and notes filled a 2-volume book. He also painted hundreds of portraits and scenes from tribal life. It is largely because of Catlin’s work that we know as many details about early Mandan culture as we do – only five years after he stayed with them, the tribe was almost wiped out by smallpox.

Catlin later wrote that he considered the Indian “the most honest and honorable race of people.”

Unfortunately, Catlin’s work was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. A few years after he went back East, he presented his paintings to Congress, which made a shortsighted decision to reject it. By the time he died in 1872, Catlin was virtually penniless – yet now he is recognized as one of the foremost painters of American Indians.

Much of his work survives because a widow of a Catlin creditor donated her collection of his paintings to the Smithsonian.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm