History is often writ large, covering broad periods, events or wide-ranging geography. But sometimes the sidelights of history can be just as fascinating.
This tale is a tidbit of history about how three men, seemingly unrelated, found their lives connected in ways they could not have foreseen. It also touches on an iconic project that almost wasn’t completed, and three men whose lives intersected for a time and enabled the project to come to fruition.
The story centers around the well-know photographer, Edward Curtis (1868-1952), who, in 1906 undertook producing a 20-volume book series titled “The North American Indian.”
The books featured his full-page photos, many of which have become the iconic pictures we associate with North America’s Indians. The books also included transcriptions of their tribal music.
The three men whose paths crossed in the course of this project were the photographer, Curtis, the publisher of The Seattle Times, Alden Blethen, and Edgar Fischer, the proprietor of the Fischer School of Music in Walla Walla and the first conductor of the Walla Walla Symphony.
Curtis, a well-known photographer in Seattle, was fascinated with the remnants of the Indian population of that area and strayed from his usual portraits of civic leaders to take an iconic 1896 photograph of Kickisomlo (also known as Princess Angeline), the daughter of Chief Sealth (Seattle).
During his travels in the 1890s, Curtis also took photographs of several tribes and sold prints of them in his studio. The commercial success of the photographs gave him what he called “The Big Idea,” to publish the series of 20 book volumes featuring large-format photographs that would record the tribes as they had been in their heyday rather than depicting them in their reduced circumstances after the turn of the 20th century.
In the introduction to the first volume of the series he noted, “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” He also undertook the task of capturing their musical rituals. The entire project would involve more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings and transcriptions.
Although the project was initially financed by no less than banker J.P. Morgan, and encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis’s grand project proved to be a costly undertaking and at one point the completion of the series seemed doomed to fail for lack of funds. Naysayers were quick to conclude that it would never be completed.
Enter Blethen, a native of Maine, who had purchased The Seattle Times in 1896. A savvy entrepreneur, Blethen ran Curtis’s photographs in expansive features in his Sunday newspaper, embellishing them with engaging tales of the photographer’s adventures. It proved to be a successful selling strategy for the newspaper.
Describing Curtis as “Explorer, Clubman, Photographer, Historian and President’s Friend,” Blethen’s canny marketing provided the public exposure that Curtis needed to obtain the necessary funding and he was able to complete the series in 1930.
The third character in our tale, Fischer, provides the Walla Walla connection.
Curtis’s grand project included recording the music of the tribes, creating an invaluable collection that preserved the tribes’ musical heritage. Volume 3 of the series featured the Teton Sioux (1908). For that volume, Curtis enlisted the services of Fischer.
Curtis noted “Edgar Fischer has transcribed the music from his personal field notes and from phonographic records made by other members of my party.” Curtis is said to have remarked that Fischer had a great ear and produced flawless transcriptions. And, although the photographs generally take center stage, the musical transcriptions provide an invaluable record of Native American music and chants.
Three men and a legacy for the ages, not so small a story.
You can read Curtis’s “The North American Indian” for free online at curtis.library.northwestern.edu. Volume 8 features the Tribes of the Walla Walla Valley and is titled “The Nez Perces. Wallawalla. Umatilla. Cayuse. The Chinookan tribes.”
For further reading, Timothy Egan’s “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” published in 2012, is an excellent biography of Edward Curtis.