In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. …because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.

~ Theodore Roosevelt, October 1st, 1906. Excerpt from the foreword to Volume I of Curtis’ masterwork, The North American Indian.

In 1901 Edward S. Curtis set out to produce what the New York Herald would later call “The most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible.” His magnum opus, entitled The North American Indian, would be a set of books consisting of twenty volumes of immensely detailed ethnographic text, accompanied by twenty portfolios and 2,222 photoengravings. More than eighty Native American tribes from throughout the Western United States and Canada would be represented.

It was an undertaking the likes of which the publishing world had ever seen. The twenty volumes would document in detail the lifeways, mythology and ceremonies of over eighty tribes, illustrated with the highest quality, hand-pulled photoengravings taken from Curtis’ glass plate negatives. Each of the volumes would contain seventy-five photogravures and would be accompanied by a portfolio of thirty-six larger, loose images. The papers used for printing would also be of the finest quality: a Dutch etching stock by Van Gelder, a Japanese vellum and a finely-made translucent Japanese rice paper. The entire set would be beautifully bound in Moroccan leather. To fund the publication, Curtis would sell five hundred subscriptions and offer a complete set at a base subscription price of $3,000. At the time Curtis began the project he estimated that it would take five years to complete at a cost of $25,000. In reality it would take Curtis thirty years and cost him his health, his marriage and nearly one and a half million dollars.

Click here to view a detailed chronological biography on the life of Edward Sheriff Curtis.

Recommended Reading:

The North American Indian: The Complete Portfolios, by Edward S. Curtis, TASCHEN, paperback published July 1997. This is the most complete volume of Curtis’ photographs to appear since the original publication of The North American Indian.

Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light, by Anne Makepeace, National Geographic Society, hardcover published November 2001.

Edward Curtis: The Master Prints, by Clark Worswick, Arena Editions, hardcover published October 2001.

Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Incorporated, by Mick Gidley, Cambridge University Press, hardcover published in 1998, now available in paperback.

Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of Shadow Catcher, by Barbara Davis, Chronicle Books, hardcover published in 1985, now out-of-print.

Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race, by Florence Curtis Graybill and Victor Boesen, Thomas Y. Crowell Company New York, hardcover published in 1976.

Recommended Viewing:

Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indians. A film by Anne Makepeace. Available on DVD from

In the Land of the War Canoes: A Drama of Kwakiutl Life. Motion picture directed and produced by Edward S. Curtis in 1914. Available on DVD from

Please visit the links page for some very interesting and helpful information on Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian.

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