Following a brief career as a lawyer, John Catlin produced two major collections of paintings of American Indians and published a series of books chronicling his travels among the native peoples of North, Central and South America.
Claiming his interest in America’s ‘vanishing race’ was sparked by a visiting American Indian delegation in Philadelphia, he set out to record the appearance and customs of America’s native people.
He began his journey in 1830 when he accompanied General William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River into Native American territory. Two years later he ascended the Missouri River over 3000 km to Ft Union, where he spent several weeks among indigenous people still relatively untouched by European civilization.
There, at the edge of the frontier, he produced the most vivid and penetrating portraits of his career. Later trips along the Arkansas, Red and Mississippi rivers as well as visits to Florida and the Great Lakes resulted in over 500 paintings and a substantial collection of artefacts.
In 1837 he mounted the first serious exhibition of his ‘Indian Gallery’, published his first catalogue and began delivering public lectures, which drew on his personal recollections of life among the American Indians. Soon afterwards he began a lifelong effort to sell his American Indian collection to the US government. When Congress rejected his initial petition, he took the Indian Gallery abroad and in 1840 began a European tour in London.
In 1841 he published Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, in two volumes, with about 300 engravings. Three years later he published 25 plates, entitled Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, and, in 1848, Eight Years’ Travels and Residence in Europe. From 1852 to 1857 he traveled through South and Central America and later returned for further exploration in the Far West. The record of these later years is contained in Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes (1868) and My Life among the Indians (ed. by N. G. Humphreys, 1909).
Of his 470 full-length portraits of Native American scenes, the greater part constitutes the Catlin Gallery of the National Museum, Washington, D.C.; some 700 sketches are in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. His observations of the Native Americans have been questioned as to accuracy. He was the first white man to see the Minnesota pipestone quarries, and pipestone is also called catlinite.