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The Most Gigantic Undertaking: Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian

Two pages from my essay, A Most Gigantic Undertaking


In 1906, Edward S. Curtis succeeded in convincing one of the richest men in the world, J. Pierpont Morgan, to fund a project unlike anything attempted before: a monumental photographic and ethnographic survey of Native Peoples living west of the Mississippi River. For the next twenty-four years, Curtis and a small group of his colleagues traveled tens of thousands of miles from Canada to the Mexican border and visite more the 100 Native nations, tribes, and groups.


The end result was in one of the most acclaimed publications of all time, The North American Indian, a twenty-volume masterpiece that includes 1,486 in-text photographs, 723 large-plate prints, and 4,956 pages.


Fewer than three hundred sets of the books exist today, and they are highly valued by anthropologists, museums, libraries, and private collectors. The money he received from Morgan was to be used only for the project's fieldwork, and Curtis had to raise every dollar needed to write, publish, and sell the books to wealthy collectors around the world.

At the end of his work, Curtis was broke and exhausted, but the books today are highly revered. They have been called "the most wonderful publishing enterprise ever undertaken in America."

Keywords: Curtis, North American Indian, Native, Indigenous, First Nations, tribal, photography, ethnology

This essay was published in The Journal (21:1, 2021), the Book Club of Washington publication.

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