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Reconsidering Edward S. Curtis's Encounter with Scientists on Mount Rainier

Two pages from my essay, Reconsidering Edward S. Curtis's Encounter with Scientists on Mount Rainier


From the earliest publications, Edward S. Curtis’s biographers have reported that he rescued several “scientificos” from a dangerous situation on the slopes of Mount Rainier in 1898. Among those he saved were said to be three prominent conservationists: George Bird Grinnell, C. Hart Merriam, and Gifford Pinchot.


According to these stories, Curtis directly benefitted from this encounter because soon thereafter, Grinnell invited him to take part in the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. However, an examination of the documentation involved provides a different story.

None of Grinnell's, Merriam's, or Hart's journals, diaries, or travel itineraries place all three together on Mount Rainier at any time during the 1890s or later. By analyzing the available records, it appears that the report of Curtis's encounter with scientists on Mount Rainier was a composite of separate events that took place between 1896 and 1899. 


Curtis likely met Merriam on the mountain in 1897, but that encounter likely occurred during a well-planned summit by the claiming group The Mountaineers. He met Grinnell for the first time on the 1899 Alaska Expedition. It is possible that he first met Gifford Pinchot when the latter traveled as part of an 1896 commission that was studying Northwest forests. 

This essay points to the need to thoroughly investigate previously published stories about Curtis, since at least some of them might have been embellished by his children.

Keywords: Curtis, Mount Rainier, Washington, scientists, North American Indian photography, ethnology

This essay was published in PNQ, Pacific Northwest Quarterly (100:3, Summer 2019).

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