George Catlin was the first painter of Nebraska scenery and Nebraska Indians. Before him Thomas Seymour, one of the members of Major Long's expedition, made a few sketches, but the real first honors belong to Catlin. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1796, educated to be a lawyer, but became a portrait painter instead. A delegation of Indians from the far West came to Philadelphia where he had his art studio. He resolved to become the painter of Indians and Indian life. He forsook the studio, came to St. Louis and took passage on the steamer Yellowstone on her first voyage to the upper waters of the Missouri River. This was in the year 1832. He stayed that winter with the Mandan Indians and came down the Missouri the next year, visiting all the tribes and painting pictures at every stopping place.
Along Nebraska shores Catlin painted pictures of Blackbird Hill, of Bellevue, of the junction of the Platte and Missouri rivers, of prairie fires, buffalo hunting, Indian weapons, games, customs and portraits of prominent Indians. There were no cameras in those days and Catlin's oil paintings make our first picture gallery.
Catlin saw the fertility as well as the beauty of Nebraska. This description written by him of the country near Blackbird Hill is true to-day as it was then:
"There is no more beautiful prairie country in the world than that which is to be seen here. In looking back from this bluff toward the west there is one of the most beautiful scenes imaginable. The surface of the country is gracefully and slightly undulating, like the swells of the ocean after a heavy storm, and everywhere covered with a beautiful green turf and with occasional patches and clusters of trees. The soil in this region is also rich and capable of making one of the most beautiful and productive countries in the world. From this enchanting spot there is nothing to arrest the eye from ranging over the waters of the Missouri for the distance of twenty or thirty miles, where it quietly glides between its barriers formed of thousands of green and gracefully sloping hills, with its rich alluvial meadows and woodlands -- and its hundred islands covered with stately cottonwood."
The Steamer Yellowstone.
(From Thwaites's "Early Western Travels." Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland, Ohio.)
Catlin was the first white man to visit and describe the great Red Pipestone quarry on the border of South Dakota and Minnesota from which come the smoking pipes used by Indians far and near. In his honor this rock is called catlinite. As related elsewhere, Catlin carried away from Nebraska the skull from the burial mound of the Omaha chief Blackbird.
In 1840 Catlin visited Europe with a company of American Indians and gave entertainments in the principal countries. In 1857 he published his book on North American Indians with over 400 illustrations made from his oil paintings. He died in New Jersey in 1872, having visited forty-eight Indian tribes and made over five hundred paintings among them. These paintings are now in the National Museum at Washington, forming what is known as "Catlin's North American Indian Gallery."