The story really begins with money mogul John Pierpont Morgan. He was born in 1837 and he died in 1913. He is remembered for his financial skills. His company known as J.P. Morgan and Company began in 1871 with his partner Drexel. Morgan’s administrative skills blossomed as he reorganized railroads in the 1880s; consolidated electric and steel industries in the 1890s; dabbled in agricultural equipment in the 1900s; and was a force in development of major trusts, insurance, and banking projects before his death in 1913.
He was always gaining more and more control in the business world, but he cultivated an interest in the arts as well. Perhaps that is why 1906 is important as we consider a non-financial action by J.P. Morgan that continues to amaze us a century later. Indeed, without this one “investment,” we might have lost a great American heritage. Morgan contracted with Edward S. Curtis, official photographer for the 1898 Harriman Alaskan Expedition, for Curtis to deliver 20 volumes (1500 photos each) of Native Americans. Morgan offered $75,000 for the project, the collected photos to bear the title The North American Indian.
Curtis was up to the job and made every effort to record Indian life in a time of rapid change. Indian tribes were losing their lands and losing what we today call “civil rights.” He began documenting daily life of Indians across the country in their cultural contexts, quite unusual at the time because many understood Indians only as “savages.” His photography revealed that tribal peoples had a special nobility all their own, and in the process preserved a record of a people decimated by U.S. government actions of the time. He photo-surveyed over eighty Native American tribal groups and in the process, preserved a record of the contextual lives of Native Americans and the lands on which they resided.
The first volume of twenty was published in 1907 as The North American Indian, Volume 1. J.P. Morgan would be dead for seventeen years by the time the final volume would be published in 1930. To collect those twenty volumes, Curtis spent twenty-five years traveling across the U.S. from the Great Plains to the mountains of Washington, Oregon, and California. He collected photos from Mexico to Canada and Alaska, and captioned each one—that is, he came up with new titles some 30,000 times. Curtis met the task guidelines set up in that contract of 1906, but there is much more to the story. This major twenty volume set is only part of many Curtis photos housed in the Library of Congress within its Prints and Photographs Division.