By Stuart Rosebrook, Ph.D.

Stuart Rosebrook, Ph.D. is the Editor of “True West” magazine and the incoming Executive Director of Sharlot Hall Museum. He has written about Edward S. Curtis for “True West” and been an admirer of the photographer’s work for many years.


Over nine decades after Edward S. Curtis published his final volume of The North American Indian, A Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska(TNAI), no other photographer has attempted an artistic and literary project of such magnitude. While not financially successful for Curtis, his 20-volume project is regarded today as one of the most important photographic and ethnographic records of the Indigenous people of North America. As historian Larry Len Peterson notes in his introduction to Edward S. Curtis: Printing the Legends, “Curtis…left behind the greatest photographic publication in American history, TNAI, with each set containing over 2,200 photogravures.”


But how and why did Curtis undertake such an extraordinary artistic and scholarly work? Born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin, on February 19, 1868, Edward Sherriff Curtis was raised the son of an itinerant minister. Life was hard for the Curtis family, and they moved often, eventually settling in Tacoma, Washington, where his father, Rev. Johnson Edward, hoped to heal from tuberculosis.


In 1891 Curtis convinced his family to invest in his future—a photography studio. While Curtis didn’t know it, his destiny was set in motion with the family’s $150 investment. Curtis quickly gained popularity for his studio portraiture work. In 1899 financier Edward H. Harriman hired the young photographer for an expedition to Alaska. Curtis shot 5,000 photographs on the journey to the Arctic region, and his life would never be the same. As Curtis biographer Peterson says, “He had garnered prestige in the scientific community, among industrialists, and powerful politicians.”


Following the Alaskan trip, Harriman invited Curtis on a trip to Montana. Curtis’s face-to-face interaction with the Native people of Alaska and Montana inspired him to pursue his life’s work. For the next 30 years, Curtis crisscrossed the continent to fulfill his study of North America’s Indigenous people and cultures.


In 1900 Curtis visited the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah for the first time. He fell in love with the Southwest and immersed himself in the cultures of its diverse Native people. His work in the Southwest led to five volumes of TNAI: Volume 1: The Apache, The Jicarillas and The Navajo; Volume 2: Pima, Papago, Qahatika, Mohave, Yuma, Maricopa, Walapai, Havasupai, and Apache-Mohave or Yavapai; Volume 12: The Hopi; Volume16 : The Tiwa. The Keres; and, Volume 17: The Tewa. The Zuñi.


When interviewed on the importance of Curtis’s work in Arizona, renowned photography scholar Jeremy Rowe stated, “Curtis’s work and its visibility helped shape and define public perception and awareness of Arizona and the West during the early 20th century and again from the 1970s to the end of the century as his photographs saw increased visibility in the photographic collecting and documentary markets.”


How should we remember the life and legacy of Edward S. Curtis?


At his passing in 1952, Curtis’s lifework was not fully discovered and appreciated by historians and collectors. As noted in the 2021 True West feature “Shadow Catcher: The Man Who Saved 100 Nations” by art historian and Curtis scholar Tricia Loscher, “Curtis’s multifaceted contributions to the Western canon were declared important by his contemporaries, while today he is often viewed as a Renaissance man, having also contributed to the art and science of photography. His ability to adapt and persevere when faced with changing and difficult environments has long been appreciated.”


Wyatt Earp will be enacting a living history performance of “Edward Curtis the Photographer One Act Show” Saturday, June 1, 2024, at 2 P.M. in the Education Center Auditorium at Sharlot Hall Museum. There are 50 free seats available at each lecture for Sharlot Hall Museum members, first come, first served. The remaining seats will be available for $15 each. Reserve your seat by calling 928-277-2015, or reserve your seat online at the Sharlot Hall Museum Event Calendar page:


“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( This and other Days Past articles are also available at The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at for information or assistance with photo requests.