The Lost Museum Archive

George Catlin — Letter No. 58

by George Catlin

In the 1830s, lawyer and artist George Catlin spent eight years traveling through the Great Plains and Far West documenting Indian life in hundreds of paintings and extensive writings. His ethnographic efforts coincided with the forced relocation of thousands of eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi, a devastating exodus known as the Trail of Tears. To support his travels and pictorial chronicles, Catlin sold Indian artifacts, toured exhibitions of his paintings, lectured, and promoted “Wild West” shows. Catlin considered himself an advocate of Indian cultures, yet his highly romanticized portrayal of Indian life downplayed the devastating impact of European diseases and white settler encroachment on Indian lands. In this excerpt from the last letter in his two volume set of Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Catlin reflects on his experiences and accomplishments and expresses his thoughts on the current state of Indian cultures.

Letters and Notes on the North American Indians Written during Eight Years' Travel (1832-1839) amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America


Having finished my travels in the "Far West" for awhile, and being detained a little time, sans occupation, my nineteenth or twentieth transit of what, in common parlance is denominated the Frontier; I have seated myself down to give some further account of it, and of the doings and habits of people, both red and white, who live upon it.

The Frontier may properly be denominated the fleeting and unsettled line extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Lake of the Woods, a distance of three thousand miles; which indefinitely separate civilized from Indian population--a moving barrier, where the unrestrained and natural propensities of two people are concentrated, in an atmosphere of lawless iniquity, that offends Heaven, and holds in mutual ignorance of each other, the honourable and virtuous portions of two people, which seem destined never to meet. . .

I have principally devoted my pages, as I promised, to an account of the condition and customs of those Indians whom I have found entirely beyond the Frontier, acting and living as Nature taught them to live and act, without the examples, and consequently without the taints of civilized encroachments. . .

I have seen a vast many of these wild people in my travels, it will be admitted by all. And I have had toils and difficulties, and dangers to encounter in paying them my visits; yet I have had my pleasures as I went along, in shaking their friendly hands, that never had felt the contamination touch of the money, or the withering embrace of pockets; I have shared the comforts of their hospitable wigwams, and always have been preserved unharmed in their country. And if I have spoken, of am to speak of them, with a seeming bias, the reader will know what allowance to make for me, who am I standing as the champion of a people, who have treated me kindly, of whom I feel bound to speak well; and who have no means of speaking for themselves. . .

Long and cruel experience has well proved that it is impossible for enlightened Governments or money-making individuals to deal with these credulous and unsophisticated people, without the sin of injustice; but the humble biographer or historian, who goes amongst them from a different motive, may come out of their country with his hands and his conscience clean, and himself an anomaly, a white man dealing with Indians, and with my pen and brush, with which, at least, I will have the singular and valuable satisfaction of having done them no harm. . .

I fearlessly assert to the world, (and I defy contradiction,) that the North American Indian is everywhere, in his native state, a highly moral and religious being, endowed by his Maker, with an intuitive knowledge of some great Author of his being, and the Universe; in dread of whose displeasure he constantly lives, with the apprehension before him, of a future state, where he expects to be rewarded or punished according to the merits he has gained or forfeited in his world.

I have made this a subject of unceasing enquiry during all my travels, and from every individual Indian with whom I have conversed on the subject, from the highest to the lowest and most pitiably ignorant, I have received evidence enough, as well as from their numerous and humble modes of worship, to convince the mind, and elicit the confessions of, any man whose gods are not beaver and muskrats' skins--or whose ambition is not to be deemed an apostle, or himself, their only redeemer.

Morality and virtue, I venture to say, the civilized world need not undertake to teach them; and to support me in this, I refer the reader to the interesting narrative of Rev. Mr. Parker, amongst the tribes through and beyond the Rocky Mountains; to the narratives of Captain Bonneville, through the same regions; and also to the reports of the Reverend Messrs. Spalding and Lee, who have crossed the Mountains, and planted their little colony amongst them. And I am also allowed to refer to the account given by the Rev. Mr. Beaver, of the tribes in the vicinity of the Columbia and the Pacific Coast.

Of their extraordinary modes and sincerity of worship, I speak with equal confidence; and although I am compelled to pity them for their ignorance, I am bound to say that I never saw any other people of any colour, who spend so much of their lives in humbling themselves before, and worshipping the Great Spirit, as some of these tribes do, nor any whom I would not as soon suspect of insincerity and hypocrisy. . .

I have always been, and still am, an advocate for missionary efforts amongst these people, but I never have had much faith in the success of any unless they could be made amongst the tribes in their primitive state; where; if the strong arm of the Government could be extended out to protect them, I believe that with the example of good and pious men, teaching them at the same time, agriculture and the useful arts, much could be done with these interesting and talented people, for the successful improvement of their moral and physical condition.

I have ever thought, and still think, that the Indian's mind is a beautiful clank, on which anything might be written, if the right mode were ever taken to do it.

Could the enlightened and virtuous society of the East, have been brought in contact with his as his first neighbors, and his eyes been first opened to improvements and habits worthy of his imitation; and could religion have been taught him without the interference of the counteracting vices by which he is surrounded, the best efforts of the world would not have been thrown away upon him, nor posterity been left to say, in future ages, when he and his race shall have been swept from the face of the earth, that he was destined by Heaven to be unconverted and uncivilized.

The Indian's calamity is surely far this side of his origin--his misfortune has been in his education. Ever since our first acquaintance with these people on the Atlantic shores, have we regularly advanced upon them; and far a-head of good and moral society have their first teachers traveled (and are yet travelling), with vices and iniquities so horrible as to blind their eyes for ever to the light and loveliness of virtue, when she is presented to them. . .

I have traveled faithfully and far, and have closely scanned, with a hope of fairly pourtraying the condition and customs of these unfortunate people; and if in taking leave of my readers, which I must soon do, they should censure me for any oversight, or any indiscretion or error, I will take to myself these consoling reflections, that they will acquit me of intention to render more of less that justice to any one; and also, that if in my zeal to render a service and benefit to the Indian, I should have fallen short of it, I will, at least, be acquitted of having done him an injury.

Source: Letters and Notes on the North American Indians by George Catlin, New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1844.