George Catlin

*This blog post was written by Archives volunteer Marie Jarry.

My time in the CHS “junk drawer” is wrapping up. 90% of the collection has found its way into the catalog and is ready for perusal by the general public. That still leaves 10% sorted into folders marked miscellaneous correspondence, promissory notes, recipes, penmanship, etc. Their provenance may be revealed later in the future or may never be discovered. Only time will tell.

As my time here as a volunteer wraps up, I am excited to share one more interesting find with you–an 1849 letter from artist and author George Catlin.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was famous for his paintings of Native Americans in the “Old West”. He traveled widely throughout the United States and accumulated a large number of artifacts in addition to creating paintings which he assembled into a traveling Indian gallery. It did not produce the revenue Catlin hoped for and in 1839 he took his collection on a tour of European capitals.

Catlin tried to get the U.S. Government to buy his collection in order to have it preserved intact.

The letter in CHS’ collection finds Catlin still unsuccessful in trying to petition the Government to buy his gallery. It is dated January 4, 1849 and was written from London to an unknown recipient addressed as “Hon. Sir” and later identified as a member of Congress. Catlin says he is enclosing copies of his letters to Congress, their reports, a catalogue of his North American Indian collection and “numerous extracts from leading Journals of England, France, and our own country relative to its interest and value.”

It’s clear Catlin wants the help of this unknown recipient in petitioning Congress to buy the collection. He writes:

I shall have your aid in securing to our country, where they so peculiarly belong, the memorials of a Race of human beings who are so rapidly passing away, and for the collection and preservation of whose history I have applied all the hard earnings and best energies of my life.

Catlin goes on to say that if Congress will not act to buy the collection during its present session he will be forced to try and sell it “on this side of the Atlantic.”

He closes by saying:

I shall have done all I can do, in my prayers that the results of such labours of my life, & such memorials of a dying race, may be cherished and protected in the Archives of our Country, (whose patronage I never have yet, in any way, solicited or received) and whose glory & wealth, in this golden era of her existence, renders it easy for her to acquire.

Unfortunately, all of Catlin’s efforts were for naught. In 1852, mounting debts forced him to sell his collection, which was eventually acquired by industrialist Joseph Harrison. The nearly complete set of his first Indian gallery paintings are now housed at the Smithsonian.

If you’re interested in seeing George Catlin’s letter for yourself, come on down to CHS and ask to see Ms 101660.

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This entry was posted in Collections, Manuscripts by Barbara. Bookmark the permalink.

About Barbara

Barbara Austen is the Archivist at CHS and is responsible for all of the incoming manuscripts, which means she gets to read people's diaries or mail. She has a master's Degree in Library and Information Science and has been working in the museum and historical society world for 30 years.

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