PTB Letters (#35) Barnum and Catlin

Barnum and Catlin

In this week’s blog we’ll explore the connection between P. T. Barnum and a lawyer-turned-artist, author, and showman, a man quite famous in his own right, George Catlin.  A letter to Catlin in Barnum’s copybook caught my eye this week, written while he was in Paris fine-tuning arrangements for wrapping up General Tom Thumb’s tour of France.  Barnum was also reaching out looking for new and profitable opportunities, especially since the entourage had made so little money performing in French towns, Paris being the exception.  On first reading, the proposal Barnum described to Catlin on November 8, 1845, comes across like a middle-of-the-night brainstorm that should never have made it to pen and paper.  Rereading the letter confirms the idea was abhorrent, and further investigation reveals that this wasn’t a novel and untested idea for Barnum in 1845.  Far worse, it points to a disturbing piece of history, exposing a deep injustice that should not be swept out of sight.

First, the background on George Catlin (1796-1872), who is best known for the hundreds of portraits he made of Native American people in the early to mid-19th century.  Like Barnum, Catlin was prolific in his field, diverse in his talents including as a promoter, and an adventurous man with great drive and energy.  Unlike Barnum, he’d received a formal education, having graduated from the Litchfield Law School (Conn.) and being admitted to the Bar in 1819.  The profession that his father had followed did not suit him however, and in the early 1820s he left law to attend art school in Philadelphia.  Though he favored portrait painting, his style was not as refined as the academic portraitists who painted society’s wealthy and elite, and he turned his sights instead toward recording the faces and clothing of the Native Peoples of this country.  In the 1830s he moved west, using St. Louis as his base for several trips to Native American territories, and visited fifty tribes.  He created a large body of artwork and assembled it as Catlin’s Indian Gallery, but the enterprise failed to become a livelihood.  The American public was not that interested in paying to see his paintings, nor did efforts to have the U. S. government purchase the collection succeed.  These disappointments led to Catlin taking the collection to Europe in 1839 where he exhibited it in the major cities over the next few years.  Praised by critic Charles Baudelaire, the Indian Gallery became popular with a public that was more curious about Native American people and the artifacts of their culture.

Barnum became acquainted with Catlin in England when he, Barnum, arrived there in early 1844.  After Gen. Tom Thumb’s audience with Queen Victoria sparked even greater popular interest in seeing Barnum’s “Man in Miniature” a bigger exhibition space was needed, and according to Barnum’s autobiography they moved into the largest room in London’s Egyptian Hall.  This space had been occupied by Catlin, and his Indian Gallery of paintings and “curiosities” was still in place.  One can only imagine the incongruous setting for Tom Thumb being there greeting his audiences and giving brief performances—though that may just be a limitation of my 21st century perspective!


Portrait of George Catlin, by William Fisk, 1849. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

The next part is where the darker side of the story begins, with information we get from Barnum’s autobiography.  During Gen. Tom Thumb’s tour of the British Isles, Barnum heard the Lancashire Bell Ringers perform with their dozens of handbells, and he was so impressed by their talent that he arranged with them to go to America where they would perform at his museum and then go on tour—for which he hired a manager.  Barnum felt he should “compensate” England for the extended absence of the beloved Bell Ringers by finding a novel exchange.  So he sent an agent to America “for a party of Indians, including squaws.”  The agent went to Iowa, and then returned to London with sixteen Native Americans, including children, who were subsequently exhibited by Catlin throughout the British Isles.  As Barnum notes, they were “on our joint account, and were finally left in his sole charge.”

As far as the retelling in Barnum’s book, the story ended there.  But Catlin took the group to France and traveled around to show them off and make money.  King Louis-Philippe in particular was fascinated by the Iowan people and their war dances, and even had Catlin make copies of some of his portraits.  The exploitation of people in this way was a cruel thing to begin with, but as weeks and months passed, the situation became far worse.  Tragedy struck as one after another succumbed to contagious diseases.  The survivors were distraught with grief but were not allowed to grieve in the ways they were accustomed to because they were constantly “on exhibit” or travelling.  Completely controlled by white men who knew nothing of their culture and values, the Iowans must have felt intense resentment, sorrow, and anger at their situation.  One cannot deny that terrible injustices were inflicted upon them.

So with the knowledge of this very troubling “entertainment history,” the proposal Barnum made to Catlin will give pause; we’ll get to that letter in a minute.  Like other uncomfortable truths, it needs to be acknowledged first, then considered in the context of its time to gain some understanding without trying to excuse it.  We also need to be open about the consequences and long-term damage of painful realities that have been largely brushed aside and forgotten by many, though not by those whom they hurt or devastated.

Portrait of The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, by George Catlin, 1844 (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier letters in the copybook suggest that the Barnum and Catlin families, both with young children, spent time together in Paris during the first half of 1845.  (This was the timeframe when Catlin had the Iowans performing for the King.)  Writing from Bordeaux in August, Barnum informed three correspondents of the melancholy news he had just learned.  Catlin’s young wife, and mother of the couple’s four children, had died that summer in Paris.  Clara Bartlett Gregory and George Catlin had been married since 1828.  Barnum appears to have liked Mrs. Catlin, and probably thought she was unusually courageous and adventurous in having accompanied her husband on one of his trips to the western territories.

On August 8th, Barnum added a postscript to his friend Brewster, telling him, “I am much grieved to hear of the death of poor Mrs. Catlin.  She has left behind her a family of helpless and interesting children.” (Sadly, the Catlins’ youngest child would also die that year.)  Barnum also conveyed the news of Mrs. Catlin’s death to another, though unnamed, correspondent, possibly Sherwood Stratton.  And eight days later, he wrote to Mr. West, an editor at the New York Atlas, asking him to publish a notice in his paper.

Will you announce the death of Mrs. Catlin wife of Geo. Catlin, (the proprietor & painter of the Indian portraits gallery)? She died in Paris 2d or 3d August and is buried in the Cemetery of Pere Les Chaise [Père Lachaise].  Her disease was consumption. She has left several interesting young children. She was sister to D. L. Gregory late or present Mayor of Jersey City.

Just three months after Clara Catlin’s death, Barnum was writing to George Catlin, Esq., with his proposal:


Believing that an union of the Exhibition of the Ojibbewa [Ojibwa] Indians and that of General Tom Thumb might be beneficial to both you and me I make you the following proposition, viz to give 2 seances [performances] per day at the Salle Vivienne (Indians and Tom Thumb) commencing Nov 12th and finishing December 14th on the following terms.

The Rent of Saloon, Gaz, fire, Bill printing, Journals, and such other expences as may legitimately be required for the Exhibition to be deducted from the Gross Receipts and the balance to be divided as follows.  One third to you—and the other two thirds to me. I will guarantee that the Receipts shall be more than all of the expenses above named or referred to.

All expences of the ordinary exhibition of Tom Pouce (such as interpreter, little Equipage, persons to exhibit him & attend Equipage & piano & pianist) shall be paid by me—all expenses attending the care and food of the Indians, their costumes & c to be paid by you. The transporting of the Indians & Tom Thumb to & from the Salle shall be considered a portion of the expences.

If we think best and whenever we think best to have the Indians go into the public streets for attracting visitors, the hire of carriages for that purpose shall be at the expense of you & me—that is, it shall be deducted from receipts in the same manner as any other expenses before named.

In five you shall have 1/3d & 2/3d of the net profits of this joint exhibition—each of us furnishing on our own account all the men and accessories at present used for our respective exhibitions.

 I am dear sir Truly Your Obt Svt
P. T. Barnum

Reading that letter pains my heart, knowing what had happened to the Iowan people.  It seems as if the Ojibwa people were, or would be, caught in the same terrible predicament.  Truth be told I have not looked ahead in the copybook to see if Barnum continues to correspond with Catlin about this, so I do not know the outcome.  However, since the plan was to begin in Paris on November 12th, only four days after Barnum wrote this letter, we may soon find out.  Let’s take a deep breath.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator