George Catlin was fascinated with the American West — its peoples and its wildlife — from an early age. He was born in 1796 to maternal stories of Indian tribes and frontier life, began painting the subjects in his adulthood, and, when a friend returned from the Lewis and Clark expedition with tales of the dwindling native populations he had seen, made up his mind to go chronicle the Native Americans and great herds of “buffalo” before they were gone forever.
He accompanied William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mighty Mississipp’ in 1830. St. Louis subsequently became Catlin’s jumping-off point for five trips between 1830 and ’36; in those six adventurous years he visited 50 tribes.
What many of them shared was their utter reliance on and reverence for the American bison. Million-animal herds still roamed the open grasslands with Indians in tow. Horses enabled hunters to travel close behind the herds as well as hunt alongside and amongst them. Catlin took it all in, then spent the rest of his life lovingly putting it down in paint. These paintings were part of his effort to celebrate the first Americans and their ways, and are now part of the New York Public Library’s digital collection.