Preservation and Destruction: George Catlin’s Visit to the Sacred Quarry


You see that this pipe is a part of our flesh. The red men are a part of the red stone. If the white men take away a piece of the red pipe stone, it is a hole made in our flesh, and the blood will always run. We cannot stop the blood from running.


Over this past weekend I attended the American Printing History Association conference, held this year at the Grolier Club in New York. The conference theme focused on color in the history of printing, and there were some truly fascinating presentations, as well as some stunning examples of print. I was able to contribute a talk myself on the great color plate books of the 1830s and 1840s, specifically the large-format projects on Native Americans by Thomas McKenney (and Hall), James Otto Lewis, George Catlin, and Karl Bodmer.


An image from Bodmer's Atlas, the best of the Native American color plate books.
An image from Bodmer’s Atlas, the best of the Native American color plate books.


But a twenty minute time limit can be unforgiving, and I had to cut some really interesting material quite ruthlessly (poor Henry Schoolcraft was entirely guillotined from the presentation). So I thought I’d use up a bit of space on my home turf here to talk about one particular story that is well worth telling.


Mainly, I want to talk about George Catlin. I recently wrote an introductory blog post on Catlin over at the Bauman Rare Books blog, which you’ll probably want to check out if you’re unfamiliar with him. But by way of comically short introduction, Catlin was an American painter who traveled out West in order to paint scenes of Native American culture from life. He then exhibited these paintings, along with artifacts he had gathered along the way, in a wildly successful Indian Gallery.


1849 portrait of George Catlin by William Fisk
1849 portrait of George Catlin by William Fisk


His exhibit has been called the forerunner of the Wild West show, and indeed, Catlin was a pioneer in many ways. He was also one of the first advocates for what would become the National Parks system, and he was an outspoken critic of many policies concerning Native American tribes, such as using whiskey in trade. In short, Catlin was one of the few people who looked at the American West as more than just a resource to gut and exploit.


He’s sort of a hero, isn’t he. But history is never quite that simple. Dig a little deeper, and you find a very complex man. For starters, I said Catlin saw the American West as more than just a resource, but it did serve as his bread and butter for the rest of his life. And Catlin was highly criticized in his day—often unfairly, by people whose own agendas he attacked—but sometimes fairly. Certainly by 21st century standards, Catlin’s actions do not appear squeaky clean. Personally, I am fascinated by the story of George Catlin.


One of my favorite Catlin illustrations from his North American Indian Port Folio.
One of my favorite Catlin illustrations from his North American Indian Port Folio (1844).


There’s one story of Catlin in particular I keep coming back to which draws attention to these complexities: his visit to the red pipestone quarry.


Catlin's depiction of the red pipestone quarry, in present-day Minnesota.
Catlin’s depiction of the red pipestone quarry, in present-day Minnesota.


The last of Catlin’s five trips among Native American tribes from 1830 to 1836 was made primarily for one reason. He had heard of one of the most sacred spots where supposedly no white man had ever been allowed, a red stone quarry where a number of Native American tribes mined a mineral from which they made peace pipes. Catlin called the site “the Indian Muse” because it was the source for a number of key myths and legends shared by various tribes. This was the site where the Great Spirit had supposedly first fashioned man himself, from the red stone. In some cases the natives traveled hundreds of miles to reach the cave, a pilgrimage that became sacred in itself. Catlin was determined to visit it and record his findings for science.


About 150 miles away he and his companion (an Englishman named Robert Wood) were essentially arrested by a group of Sioux warriors. Learning Catlin’s intentions, first they begged him not to enter the sacred place. Then they threatened him, and warned him very clearly: “No white man has been to the red pipe and none shall go.”


Catlin's depiction of the Sioux Sun Dance.
Catlin’s depiction of the Sioux Sun Dance.


Catlin admitted that their aggression was “grounded on the presumption that we had come to trespass on their dearest privilege—their religion.” But he refused to back down, arguing the Sioux were acting with “unpardonable stubbornness.” When the warriors saw that Catlin and Wood were determined to continue, “even if it should be at the hazard of our lives,” they finally yielded. The two white men reached the quarry safely. Benita Eisler describes what happened next:


Then, in the name of science and knowledge, he further violated the sacred space. Smashing sections of rock wall with his hammer, he loaded his saddlebags with pieces of pipestone to take east with him.


Catlin sent a sample of the red pipestone back to a naturalist in Boston, who named it “catlinite” in his honor.


Catlin's first book-length publication with his account of the pipestone quarry.
Catlin’s first book-length publication with his account of the pipestone quarry.


Besides the Eisler quote, incidentally, all the quotes I’ve used in telling this story are from Catlin himself. He was extremely proud of this exploit, while at the same time bemoaning the encroachment of white settlers eager to despoil the land themselves.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. awax1217 says:

    An interesting piece of history that I was not aware of. Thanks, Barry

  2. Tom Rathwell says:


    What do you like to do for fun when you are not working?

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