Catlin's mother, Polly Sutton, survived the 1778 Wyoming Valley Massacre. His father, Putnam Catlin, was a lawyer and landowner as well as Revolutionary War veteran. Growing up in the Susquehanna Valley, New York, Catlin collected indian curiosities and formed a brief friendship with an Oneida family—On-O-Gong-way, his wife, and daughter—who camped on the family farm.
While largely homeschooled, Catlin did attend the Classical Academy in Wilkes-Barre and the Gould and Reeve Law School in Connecticut. Upon graduation from law school in 1818, Catlin worked as a lawyer until 1820, when he decided to become an artist. His initial endeavors were miniatures of locals and some oil-on-canvas paintings of notables, such as Sam Houston. in 1827, Catlin expanded his repertoire by painting Niagara Falls, as well as the Erie and Welland Canals. It was during his efforts to establish his artistic career that Catlin met a delegation of western chiefs, in Philadelphia, who were heading to Washington for treaty negotiations. This meeting gave Catlin the impetus to travel to the West to paint the last remaining "uncivilized" Indians.
During 1830, Catlin arrived in St. Louis, where he became a protégé of General William Clark. From 1831 to 1836, Catlin visited and painted various Plains nations, such as the Pawnees, Otos, Kansas, Poncas, Assiniboines, Ricarees, Dakota, Mandans, Blackfeet, Crows, the Five Civilized Tribes, Osages, Comanches, Picts, Kiowas, and Wicos, as well as the Ojibwas of Minnesota. in 1837, Catlin opened his Indian Gallery in New York City. Catlin offered to sell his collection of approximately 500 paintings and thousands of artifacts to the U.S. federal government, which declined his offer. Afterward, he transported the collection to England in 1839. On February 1, 1840, he opened the gallery at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, which drew thousands, including commoners and royalty. As interest in the display waned, Catlin utilized showmanship to keep the crowds coming. initially employing English cockneys to play Indians, Catlin hired a group of Canadian Ojibwas and later a group of Iowas to recreate aspects of their culture for entertainment and education. Realizing that England was tiring of the exhibition, Catlin moved the entire gallery, including the Iowas, to Paris with great fanfare. Tragedy soon resulted. Catlin's wife, son, and four of the Iowas died in France of disease. After hiring Ojibwa performers, eight became ill with smallpox which resulted in two deaths shortly after reaching Belgium. The remainder were hospitalized in Brussels at Catlin's expense. The direct result of these misfortunes forced Catlin to mortgage his collection, which was sold to cover debts. His daughters were taken in by wealthy in-laws.
During the 1850s, Catlin set out to paint the Indians of Central and South America, as well those along the West Coast of the United States. He eventually completed 600 new Indian paintings. In 1871 Catlin returned to New York to display his work. Unable to secure funds, he accepted free living space at the Smithsonian Institution, where he lived in poverty until his death in Jersey City in 1872.
Catlin's paintings, sketches, and writings are a wonderful resource on Plains Indian culture at its pinnacle. Significant collections of his work are located at the Smithsonian Institute and the American Museum of Natural History.
Catlin is also credited as the first Euro-American to visit the stone quarries near present-day Pipestone, Minnesota. The soft red stone, used to make sacred pipes, is known as Catlinite.
Karl S. Hele
Catlin, George. 1842. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. London: Tilt and Bo.; Catlin, George. 1848. A Descriptive Catalogue of Catlin's Indian Collection. London: G. Catlin.; Catlin, George. 1848. Illustrations of the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians: In a Series of Letters and Notes Written During Eight Years of Travel and Adventure among the Wildest and Most Remarkable Tribes Now Existing. London: H.G. Bohn.; Catlin, George. 1852. Adventures of the Ojibbeway and Ioway Indians in England, France, and Belgium: Being Notes of Eight Years' Travels and Residence in Europe with His North American Indian Collection. London: G. Catlin.; Catlin, George. 1867. Last Rambles Amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes. Edinburgh: Gall and Inglis.; Catlin, George. 1867. O-kee-pa: A Religious Ceremony, and Other Customs of the Mandans. London: Trubner & Company.; Catlin, George. 1875. Life Among the Indians. London: Edinburgh: Gall and Inglis.; Dippie, Brian W. 1990. Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Ewers, John C., ed. 1993. George Catlin's "Indian Gallery": Views of the American West. Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.; Flavin, Francis. 2002. "The Adventurer-Artists of the Nineteenth Century and the Image of the American Indian." Indiana Magazine of History 98, no. 1: 1–29.; Millichap, Joseph R. 1977. "George Catlin." American History Illustrated 12, no. 5: 4–9, 43–48.; Von Tungeln, Annie Laurie. 1974. "Catlin, Painter of Indians." Americas 26, no. 6/7: 15–21.