CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 09 Buffalo Hunt, Surround

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

Plate No. 9
Buffalo Hunt. A Surround.

After the preliminaries of the chase gone through, as described in the former plate, and the hunting party have the reached vicinity of the herd, scenes like the one represented in this illustration often occur. On one occasion I was invited by the Indians to ride out and witness their attack on a herd of buffaloes, near one of their villages on the Upper Missouri, in the summer of 1832. I sat on my horse and witnessed a scene of this kind; a mode of attacking buffaloes which they call Wa-rahs-took-kee, a surround.

Some sixty or seventy young men, all mounted on their wild horses, and armed with bows and lances only, cautiously encompassed the grazing herd, by drawing themselves around them in a circle of a mile or two in diameter, and gradually closing in towards the centre, until the herd took the alarm, and in a mass, endeavoring to make their escape, were met by the gathering horseman, brandishing their weapons and yelling in the most frightful manner; turning the black and rushing mass which moved off in an opposite direction, where they were again met and foiled in a similar manner, and wheeled back in utter confusion. By this time the horsemen had closed in from all sides, forming a continuous line around them; whilst the poor affrighted animals were eddying about in a crowded and confused group, hooking and climbing upon each other, when the work of death commenced. In this grand turmoil a cloud of dust was soon raised, which in part obscured the throng where the hunters were galloping their horses around and driving their whizzing arrows or long lances to the hearts of these noble animals, which, in many instances, becoming infuriated with deadly weapons in their sides, erected their shaggy manes over their bloodshot eyes, and furiously plunged forward at the sides of their assailant's horses; sometimes goring them to death at a lunge, and putting their dismounted riders to flight for their lives. Sometimes the dense crowd was opened and the blinded horsemen, too intent on their prey, amidst a cloud of dust, were hemmed and wedged in amongst the crowding beasts, over whose backs they were obliged to leap for security, leaving their horses to the fate that might await them in this wild and desperate war. Many were the bulls that turned upon their assailants, meeting them with desperate resistance; and many were the warriors who dismounted, saving themselves by the superior muscles of their legs. Some who were pursued by the bulls wheeled suddenly round, and snatching the half buffalo robe from around their waists, threw it over the horns and eyes of the infuriated beast, and darting by its side, drove the arrow drove the arrow or lance to its heart. Others suddenly dashed off upon the prairies by the side of the affrighted animals which had escaped from the throng, and closely escorting them for a few rods, caused their hearts' blood flow streams, and brought their huge carcases to the ground.

Thus this grand hunt was soon turned into a desperate battle; which in the space of fifteen minutes ended in the total destruction of the herd, undoubtedly containing some two or three hundred; all of which met their deaths from the blades or arrows and lances, without the firing of a gun.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins “Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the “Indian Gallery”, Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com