Edward S. Curtis had married Clara S. Phillips in 1892 and they had four children together. He was gone for long periods of time working on the book project. Due to his long absences and the financial drain on the business, Clara divorced him in 1916 and gained full custody of their children. He moved into the Rainier Club in Seattle and paid for room and board by taking portraits of its wealthy members. At the time of the divorce many negatives were lost because both Clara and Edward S. Curtis destroyed them rather than see the other person own them.
In the 1920’s Curtis worked briefly in the motion picture business. He worked on Tarzan movies and in 1923 worked on The Ten Commandments with director Cecil B. DeMille. After a few years in the business he went back to working on The North American Indian project, though on a much smaller scale. He took his daughter, Florence, with him into the field.
Though J.P. Morgan and his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr., financed half of the $1.5 million eventual publication costs, Curtis lost money to the point that he borrowed against his own copyrights. He ended up giving the remaining copies to Morgan. The copyrights were sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in 1935 for $1,000, plus a percentage of future royalties. A complete set was donated to the University of Oregon and this was Curtis’ own set that he had kept hidden from Morgan.
Curtis ended up living the last 30 years of his life near his daughter, Beth Magnuson, in California. She financed a trip for her father so that he could document the Eskimo people. She also paid for an assistant named Stuart Eastwood. Beth went with him on this trip. They hit a bad storm almost immediately and ended up being stuck high and dry on a sandbar for two days. There is film footage showing them stuck on the sandbar. They went on to Nunivak Island and Curtis was impressed by the people there saying “he never knew a happier and more thoroughly honest and self-reliant people”. He said that he had “found a place where no missionary has worked.” Sadly, about ten years after his arrival, Swedish missionaries established themselves and destroyed much of the culture.
When he returned from his trip to the North, he was arrested for failure to pay alimony to his wife. He had to point out to the judge that he had no money since he had not been paid for the project. Curtis actually wept in front of the court upon disclosing his financial situation. The judge threw the case out.
When the Great Depression hit, there was little interest in an expensive publication such as his. In 1932 Curtis moved to Colorado and had a complete physical breakdown. He spent time with his son doing gold mining. He invented a device to extract gold dust, the Curtis Counter Current Concentrator. Curtis started to write about gold mining.
In 1948 Curtis was contacted by a retired librarian in Seattle named Harriet Leitch. The Seattle Historical Society wanted to know more about a partial set of The North American Indian that had been donated to them. Though there seemed to be little interest from the public about him in his last years, Harriet was able to record much of his life story from their correspondence.
Edward S. Curtis passed away in 1952 and is survived by his grandchild, Gary Curtis, and three great-grandchildren. Gary, age 88, lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. He plans to be around for at least three more years so that he can celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edward S. Curtis’ birth in 2018. Representatives from several institutions owning some of Curtis’ work recently met to discuss what they would like to show at the sesquicentennial event.
Photos by Edward S. Curtis in this article are from the following source: http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/index.html