Written by Justin Brett
Sometimes a small town can be touched by a far more famous figure or event. We've seen that on this blog with the Red River Rebellion, where Sault Ste. Marie was the site of a dispute between Canada and America, one that ended up causing the creation of our own Lochs. One person who came by our town in its earliest years had his work become so famous it is now in the Smithsonian: George Catlin.
Catlin lived from July of 1796 to December of 1872, meaning he lived through what is now known as the 'Old West' period of North America, when the land was very new to settlers and interactions with natives were both common and full of problems. He had a short career as a lawyer, but that changed when he witnessed a delegation of Natives at Philidelphia. Feeling that they were a 'vanishing race', he decided to chronicle them himself, by recording their appearance and customs through paintings.
He would begin his journey in 1830, accompanying one General William Clark up the Mississipi River on his diplomatic mission to speak with the natives. St. Louis would become George Catlin's home for the next six years during five trips he would make throughout the area. An extra journey two years following that brought the number of tribes he interacted with to an impressive sixty-eight.
When his trip was finally over in 1838, Catlin had amassed a sizable collection of his own paintings and artifacts given by the different tribes. The only question was, what to do with it? For some time he took the collection on tour, showing off his works to people in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York, as well as telling them stories of his time with the tribes.
He would then begin a lengthy attempt to sell this collection to the US Government, both to make a living and to ensure his work would be preseved. Congress would unfortunately reject purchasing the collection, causing Catlin to take it overseas for a tour in Europe. His work drew very positive reception; French critic Charles Baudelaire remarked that he had '...captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way'.
Despite this praise, George Catlin was unable to make enough money through the Gallery, nor was he able to convince the US Government to purchase his work. Ultimately he was forced to sell the collection to Industrialist Joseph Harrison in order to pay off personal debts. Catlin would spend the remaining twenty years of his life working to recreate his paintings as best he could, in simplified form based on outlines which has been dubbed 'The Cartoon Collection'. He would also publish several books describing his time with the natives, including engraved artwork by him.
His work eventually paid off in a different way in 1872, when he was invited to Washington, D.C by invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian - although sadly Catlin would only work for the institute for a short time, passing away later that year. It took until after his lifetime, but his works would become valued historical pieces; the widow of Joseph Harrison would donate the original collection to the Smithsonian just seven years later, and many of his sketches are kept in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
While some of George Catlin's exploits have been met with criticism, among them a claim he was the first white man to see some areas he visited, none can argue with his ambition or what he accomplished. It may have been a whim that took him across Canada, but it was a whim that took him a long way.
(Information taken from George Catlin: The Completed Works: https://www.georgecatlin.org/biography.html)