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No. 843:
George Catlin

Today, an Indian bestows a transforming gift upon a young boy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

George Catlin was born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania -- on the edge of the American wilderness. When he was only nine, he went hunting. He spotted a deer and took aim. Suddenly another rifle cracked, and the deer fell dead. Out of the brush came a huge Indian. George hid while the hunter skinned the deer.

He told his father, who went out to welcome the Indian. You see, George's mother had been captured by Iroquois fighting alongside the English during the Revolution. They'd treated her well. Catlin's parents figured we owed the Indians respect.

The hunter befriended George. He gave him his tomahawk. Then two things happened: One day George practiced throwing the tomahawk at a tree. It bounced off and gashed his cheek. Two days later, other settlers senselessly bushwhacked the Indian and killed him. Young Catlin was left scarred -- inside and out.

Catlin went on to study law and become an amateur miniaturist painter. He did portraits of Dolley Madison, DeWitt Clinton, and Sam Houston. Life was going smoothly enough, but he craved a larger calling. In 1823 he found one.

He met a party of Indians traveling to Washington for negotiations. Catlin felt his old scars, and he wrote that

the history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worth the life-time of one man.

By 1830 he was ready to begin an eight-year odyssey among Blackfoot, Poncas, Crow, and Mandans. He lived and painted among them. Afterward he wrote books about them. He built a unique record of the people America was destroying -- the same way they'd once destroyed his friend. The work changed his painting.

Gone were the affectations of the 18th-century parlor. Now he insisted that "... artifice has no place in art. Nature 'has a grace beyond the reach of art.'" The Indians liked his work. They took him into their secret rites. Some were pretty terrifying -- men hung by hooks through their chest, that sort of thing.

As Catlin grew old, his art and his writing lost its incisiveness. As the Indians lost their land, they lost their definition. In 1843 Catlin's great contemporary, Audubon, saw Western Indians on a trip up the Missouri River. But now they were poor and disease-ridden. Audubon, whose expectations had been built up by Catlin's work, was repelled by what he finally saw.

Catlin had done his magic in the nick of time. He'd received his gift, borne his scars, and used them well. Toward the last, he deteriorated, right along with the way of life that he kept on trying to describe. But no matter. He left behind the best account of that life we have. He, more than anyone, told us who these people had once been -- while they still were.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Millchap, J.R., George Catlin. Boise, ID: Boise State University Western Writers Series, No. 27, 1977. (The phrase in quotes above is from page 10 of this source.)

Truettner, W.H., The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Inst. Press, 1979.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for suggesting Catlin as a subject and providing materials.