Catlin provides several pages of description of every detail of Mah-to-toh-pa’s clothing and weapons. He explains the significance of many features, noting, for example that Mah-to-toh-pa is the only living member of the tribe afforded the great honor of wearing a headdress of buffalo horn. Catlin also describes in great detail the illustrations on Mah-to-toh-pa’s robe, which give a visual narrative of many feats of bravery.
Many artists before (and after) Catlin had depicted American Indian subjects. But most other 19th century artists produced generic and Europeanized portraits. Catlin’s depicts Mah-to-toh-pa and his many other subjects as unique individuals, with names and specific histories.
But Catlin also includes, here and elsewhere, a shameless plug for his Gallery:
The dress of Mah-to-toh-pa then, the greater part of which have represented in his full-length portrait, and which I describe, was purchased of him after I had painted his picture; and every article of it can be seen in my Indian Gallery by the side of the portrait, provided I succeed in getting them home to the civilised world without injury. I, 164
And he later reworked the incident into the highly fictionalized version depicted in the frontispiece above, which has the artist painting Mah-to-toh-pa’s portrait outside a tipi (a form of housing not used by the Mandans), surrounded by a throng of rapt Indians.
In addition to describing the people of the great plains, Catlin also gives an account of the landscape and wildlife he encountered. The great herds of buffalo feature prominently in his descriptions.
The buffalo bull is one of the most formidable and frightful looking animals in the world when excited to resistance; his long shaggy mane hangs in great profusion over his neck and shoulders, and often extends quite down to the ground (Fig. 7). The cow is less in stature, and less ferocious; though not much less wild and frightful in her appearance (Fig. 8). I,26
Like any good travel writer, Catlin played up the drama and adventure of his western travels. At one point he describes a close encounter with a large number of buffalo:
In one instance, near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River— and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them, from which we were highly delighted to make our escape. It was in the midst of the “running season,” and we had heard the “roaring” (as it is called) of the herd when we were several miles from them. When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river, and galloping up and over the bluffs on the other. The river was filled, and in parts blackened, with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about, following up their objects, and making desperate battle whilst they were swimming. II, 15
Catlin understood the importance of the buffalo to the Plains Indians, and he was convinced that both the Indians and the buffalo would soon be extinct. He blamed fur traders in particular for spreading disease among the Indians and for decimating the population of buffalo and other western fauna.
There are, by a fair calculation, more than 300,000 Indians, who are now subsisted on the flesh of the buffaloes, and by those animals supplied with all the luxuries of life which they desire, as they know of none others. The great variety of uses to which they convert the body and other parts of that animal, are almost incredible to the person who has not actually dwelt amongst these people, and closely studied their modes and customs. Every part of their flesh is converted into food, in one shape or another, and on it they entirely subsist. . . . .It seems hard and cruel (does it not?), that we civilised people with all the luxuries and comforts of the world about us, should be drawing from the backs of these useful animals the skins for our luxury, leaving their carcasses to be devoured by the wolves— that we should draw from that country, some 150 or 200,000 of their robes annually, the greater part of which are taken from animals that are killed expressly for the robe, at a season when the meat is not cured and preserved, and for each of which skins the Indian has received but a pint of whiskey! I, 295-96
Offending the fur trade lobby may have worked against Catlin when he again tried to sell his paintings to the U.S. government in 1852. His book had sold reasonably well, but had not generated enough money to keep him out of debt. And his beloved wife died suddenly in 1845, leaving him with small children to raise. At one point Catlin was thrown into debtor’s prison in London and had to be bailed out by his brother-in-law, who also took custody of his surviving children. In an attempt to raise funds, Catlin offered his paintings to the U.S. for a reduced price. Congress deliberated, but eventually refused to pay Catlin’s $25,000 asking price. Eventually the gallery was purchased by railroad tycoon Joseph Harrison, Jr.
Catlin published one more book, Rambles Among the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, which gives anecdotes of his childhood encounters with Indians, his travels in the western United States, and a later journey to South America with only a freed slave named Caesar as his companion. (Some scholars doubt that he actually made the South American trip.)
Catlin ends this book with a warning that the spread of the telegraph and railroad into the western United States would cause the final destruction of the Indian peoples.
George Catlin died in 1872, at the age of 76. A few years later Joseph Harrison’s widow donated the paintings of his Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian, where they remain today. Fortunately, Catlin’s direst predictions did not come to pass. Indian civilization survived, even though the spread of European settlers and the industrial revolution had a major impact. But Catlin’s art and writings bear witness to a pivotal moment in American history– the early encounter between Europeans the Indians of North America.