Edward S. Curtis began his career as a portrait photographer in Seattle in 1891, the same year the U.S. Bureau of Census officially declared the frontier closed. His dream, to document in text and photographs every Indian tribe west of the Mississippi, came to fruition through a fortunate encounter with a few men devoted to naturalism and ethnography whom he rescued from the peak of Mount Rainier in 1898 - Gifford Pichot, the chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, C. Hart Merriam, the chief of the U.S. Division of Biological Survey and George Bird Grinnell, an acknowledged expert on Plains Indians and the editor of Field & Stream.
Within two years, Curtis was invited to accompany Grinnell to Montana to study the Blackfoot and Algonquin tribes. The following year he accompanied Merriam on the Harriman expedition to Alaska, as the expedition's official photographer.
In 1904, his portrait skills came to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, whose children Curtis photographed for 'The Prettiest Children in America' contest, sponsored by Ladies' Home Journal. Subsequently, Roosevelt lent his support to Curtis, arranging an introduction to J.P. Morgan and writing the foreword to The North American Indian.
For his part, J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 over five years in return for 25 sets, as well as 300 additional prints. However, Curtis vastly underestimated expedition and production costs. The proposed five-year project actually took almost 30 years to complete and eventually cost Morgan nearly $400,000. Curtis photographed 80 tribes, exposing over 40,000 negatives and recorded 10,000 songs on an early Edison wax-cylinder recording instrument.
The complete set of The North American Indian, published in Massachusetts beween 1907 and 1930, included 20 text volumes illustrated with c. 1,500, images and 20 corresponding portfolios in folio format, each with approximately 35 plates. Most are in institutional collections. The set offered here is number 276, on Van Gelder Holland.