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Curtis, Asahel (1874-1941), Photographer

HistoryLink.org Essay 8780 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Seattle-based photographer Asahel Curtis made 60,000 photographic images over a 44-year career. They provide a remarkable visual record of the Pacific Northwest. He was the brother of the renowned photographer Edward Curtis; the brothers had a falling out when they were in their 20s, and never reconciled. As photography aesthetics have changed, Asahel's photographic legacy has grown in stature and now his place among the greats seems secure.

Early Years

Asahel Curtis was born to Johnson Asahel Curtis and Ellen Sheriff Curtis on November 5, 1874, in Le Sueur County, Minnesota. He joined two brothers, Raphael and Edward, and a sister, Eva. Raphael is believed to have died in 1885 at age 23, although the obituaries of both Asahel and Edward list a brother, Ray, as a survivor living in Portland, Oregon.       

Johnson Curtis, a Civil War chaplain, divided his time between business and the ministry (United Brethren Church) after the war. He came West with 19-year-old Edward in late 1887, settling in Sidney, Washington Territory. He bought land, started building a house with Edward and planned to go into the brickyard business.

By way of perspective, the Great Seattle Fire would not occur until June 1889, Washington Territory would not become Washington State until November 11, 1889, and Sidney’s name would be changed to Port Orchard (Kitsap County) in 1903.

In May 1888, hearing that her husband was critically ill with pneumonia, Ellen Curtis came out to Sidney with Eva, 17, and Asahel, 14. Johnson Curtis died three days after their arrival, at age 47.

Edward finished work on the cabin and tried to provide for the family. He had an interest in photography, having built his first camera from scratch as a teenager by studying a photographic manual and apprenticing with a photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota, before coming west with his father.           

Edward Curtis, Photographer

In 1891 -- three years after his father’s death -- Edward mortgaged the family home in Port Orchard and moved to Seattle, which was still rebuilding from the fire of 1889 and not far removed from its frontier days. He paid $150 to go into business with Rasmus Rothi, forming Rothi & Curtis, photographers.

Edward soon became known for his portraits and wedding pictures, but was also attracted to the area’s scenery and Indian tribes. In 1892, he married Clara Phillips, left his partnership with Rothi and became co-owner of Curtis & Guptill photography studio. Edward and Clara lived above the studio at the outset. They would have four children: Hal, Florence, Elizabeth (Beth), and Katherine.       

In 1895, 21-year-old Asahel came to live with his brother and sister-in-law and apprentice in the studio, where he learned to mix chemicals, develop negatives from glass plates, and customize cameras from boxes and lenses available on the market.

The next year, Edward’s mother and sister also moved in with Edward and Clara and their two small children. With some of Clara’s family also starting to move in, Edward bought a larger home.    

Fortunately, Edward’s business was prospering. In 1897, Guptill left the studio and Edward became sole proprietor of Edward S. Curtis, photographer and photoengraver. In photoengraving, photographs were etched on zinc, magnesium or copper plates, and mounted on wooden blocks for letterpress printing. It was the primary method of reproducing photographs on the printed page for most of the twentieth century. 

Asahel Curtis, Photographer

At Edward’s urging, Asahel left the studio for the Klondike Gold Rush in the fall of 1897. He would take photographs. It was agreed that Asahel would send the glass-plate negatives to Edward for printing. Edward would sell some of the photographs to Seattle’s newspapers and develop a side business in photographs of the Far North. Asahel would also prospect for gold and take photographs of miners, which Edward would send to their loved ones.     

Asahel journeyed north aboard the Rosalie, skippered by colorful Captain John O’Brien, nicknamed Dynamite Johnny, a friend of the notorious Gold Rush con man, Soapy Smith. In an article for The Alaska Sportsman magazine 40 years later, Asahel recalled the kindness of both Captain O’Brien and the purser, Charles LaFarge toward a cheechako (newcomer to the Far North).

Besides the usual prospecting gear, Asahel carried a 6-by-8-inch box camera, 3,000 glass-plate negatives, slide holders, a light meter, a tripod, and containers of photographic chemicals.

Over the next two years, he took several thousand photographs and joined a group of prospectors working a placer-mining claim on Sulphur Creek, about 35 miles southeast of Dawson. Although the claim was unproductive, the prospectors’ cabin afforded a dry place in which to mix chemicals and prepare photographic plates.

While Asahel toiled in the Yukon, brother Edward won two national prizes for his photography -- first place at the 1898 National Photographic Convention for his Indian images, and another first place in 1899 for photographs of clam-digging Princess Angeline (Indian name Kickisoblu), daughter of Chief Seattle, after whom Seattle is named.

In the spring of 1899, while Asahel was still in the Yukon, Edward went north as chief photographer for Harriman’s Alaska Expedition, funded by Edward Harriman (1848-1909), the railroad magnate. The main purpose of the expedition was to establish the feasibility of a trans-Alaska railroad linking North America and Siberia. Edward made friends with noted scientists and his appetite for native North Americans was further whetted when he encountered Eskimos for the first time.

Asahel's Tales of the Yukon

The written record of Asahel’s Klondike adventures is sketchy. He made occasional entries in a small, leather-covered diary, now in the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. It is water-stained and difficult to read.

Entries, usually brief, start shortly before Thanksgiving 1898. They deal with the weather (“very cold”), menus (“Butter Sponge Cake” and “Sourdough Pudding”), and  money worries (“I will have to figure very closely to pull through”). 

Social life was hit-and-miss. February 13, 899: “Fall in with a man with empty sled and come down Stormy. Cards all day and into the evening.” Photography was never far from his mind. February 15, 1899: “Spent all day at the cabin developing plates. Those exposed on sulphur developing quite well.”

In an undated diary entry in early 1899, Curtis tells of encountering a man who offered to sell him a piece of meat from an animal he claimed to have killed a few minutes earlier. Curtis declined and was glad he did, when, a short distance up the trail, he found the animal from which the man had cut the meat. The creature appeared to have been dead for a long time.

Curtis wrote a very different version of the story for The Alaska Sportsman in 1940, saying he avoided eating tainted meat served to him at a dinner because he had seen the long-dead animal, from which it was cut, while walking a trail earlier that day.

Asahel abandoned his usual terse entries in this undated, incomplete sentence titled Tales of the Yukon: "The mistic [sic] beauty of the mountain lakes with cabin’s warmful surface neath mountain crags in tiny cascades leaking merrily down from the glaciers and ice fields above." His writing improved as he matured.   

The 6x8-inch box camera young Asahel used during the Gold Rush bears no manufacturer’s names on the box or the lens, indicating he most likely assembled it himself. Because of its long focal length, it produced four-by-five-inch negatives of great clarity. That camera, and a slightly more sophisticated one acquired by Curtis in the 1920s, may be seen by appointment at the State Historical Society archives in Tacoma.

Some of Curtis’s Gold Rush prints are dramatic: Dog teams straining to pull heavy sleds. Prospectors crossing lakes thick with ice on makeshift rafts. Mail being delivered -- often by Asahel himself -- to homesick, news-hungry miners. Overburdened men slogging up Chilcoot Pass.

Others simply record scenery and daily life: Crowds milling in the streets of Dawson. Prospectors gathered outside the post office. Gold-seekers playing cards in a saloon. The cold stillness of an Arctic winter.  

Four decades after returning from the Klondike, Curtis sold a batch of Gold Rush photographs -- at $1.25 each -- to The Alaska Sportsman, along with explanatory text.  

One shows a miner with pans overflowing with gold:

“The lure of gold brought thousands to the Northland, but working daily with it some of the romance was lost. The question most frequently asked about this strange land is, ‘Wasn’t lots of the gold stolen?’ My answer would be that there was little stealing.

 “This miner [in the photograph] wanted a picture showing the cleaning of gold from the sluices. He emptied cans of gold into the pans until more than $50,000 was in sight and asked to be excused while he looked over the claim to see how work was progressing.

“When he returned an hour later, I questioned him about leaving a stranger with so much gold that was legal money anywhere. ‘You look honest to me,’ he replied” (46161, UW Curtis Collection).

 The hunger for news in the Yukon was captured in a photograph of miners crowded together in Dawson City:  

“The story of the American naval victory over the Spaniards at Santiago lost none of its interest to the thousands of Americans in Dawson City because the paper was two-weeks old. The first paper to reach Dawson sold for $200. The purchaser rented a hall, charged admission to hear the paper read, and cleared $500. He sold the paper for $50 the next morning, and Judge Morford read it aloud to a crowd that jammed Front Street” (46131, UW Curtis Collection).    

Edward's Theft, Asahel's Departure

When Asahel returned from the Yukon in 1900, he discovered that an article on the Gold Rush that brother Edward had published in the March 1898 Century Illustrated Monthly credited Edward with both text and photographs -- photographs Asahel had taken and sent back to Seattle for processing.       

The two argued bitterly. Asahel said he took the photographs and Edward had no business putting his name on them. Edward responded that Asahel’s photographs from the Klondike were the property of the Edward S. Curtis Studio, of which Asahel was an employee.      

Asahel left in a fury and removed all his belongings from Edward’s home. There is no evidence the brothers ever spoke to each other again, even at their mother’s funeral 12 years later.

When Asahel eventually gained control of all the Gold Rush negatives, he overwrote Edward’s name with his own. After the brothers’ split, Ellen and Eva Curtis continued to live in Edward’s home until 1906. They roomed together for a year before moving in with Asahel’s family.    

Edmond Meany, a noted history professor at the University of Washington, was one of the few to maintain a friendship with both men after the breakup, according to Sephanie Lile, an education curator for the Washington State History Museum. She writes that Meany climbed mountains with Asahel and visited Indian reservations with Edward.

Another was Imogen Cunningham, arguably the Northwest’s finest woman photographer. Cunningham -- younger than the Curtises -- got her start in Edward’s studio, but often went to Asahel’s studio for personal developing and printing. She remained a loyal friend of Asahel’s throughout his career.   

Together or apart, the brothers had two things in common -- a talent for photography and a powerful work ethic.      

Two Ways of Photographing the World

Edward -- a master of dramatic lighting, meticulous posing, and exhaustive research -- earned national acclaim for his exhaustive effort to capture in text and photographs every major Indian tribe and Eskimo grouping in North America. He was driven, in part, by his belief that the American Indians were a vanishing race.

Asahel, a whirlwind of activity, was of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school. He seldom posed subjects. Nor did he bother to pick up litter at a scene, feeling it was a natural part of the landscape. Since many of his photographs were commercial assignments, he reasoned that there was only so much one could do with a shipyard, a dam, a school, a wheat field, or a downtown building.

While compiling a portfolio of virtually every facet of life in the Northwest during the first half of the twentieth century, Asahel earned the respect of the business community for his unfailing efforts to promote Washington state. He also earned the respect of conservationists and lovers of the outdoors, though there were times when he tried their patience.    

Asahel's Photographic Career

Immediately after the breakup, Asahel joined the William P. Roman Photo Co. in Seattle. In 1902, he married Florence Carney and shortly thereafter moved to Tacoma to work briefly as a photoengraver. He then took a similar job in San Francisco, returning to Seattle before San Francisco’s historic earthquake of 1906.

In the 1906 Seattle City Directory, Asahel’s employer is listed as the P-I (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The employment must have been brief because later that year he joined the Walter Miller Studio in Seattle.

In time, the Walter Miller Studio became the Curtis Miller Studio, and by 1920, it was the Asahel Curtis Photo Co. Over the years, Asahel employed his wife, sister, daughter Betty, and numerous other darkroom workers and colorists.    

Asahel and Florence, like Edward and Clara, would have four children: Walter, Asahel Jr., Betty, and Polly.         

After Asahel’s departure, Edward continued to maintain a studio in Seattle, but was increasingly on the road after 1905. His wife, Clara -- who had always assisted her husband in the office -- soon ran the whole operation, hiring photographers and darkroom workers and changing the name in 1909 to The Curtis Studio.  

Edward's Epic Work

Meanwhile, Edward pursued his dream of photographing Indians and Eskimos to the exclusion of everything else. His single-mindedness would cost him his marriage, his health, and take virtually every penny he earned. When he and Clara divorced in 1917, she would get the house, the studio, and alimony.

Contacts Edward had made in the scientific community during the Harriman expedition, along with a prize-winning children’s photo in a national magazine, helped him to gain access to then-President Theodore Roosevelt. First he took pictures of the Roosevelt children. Then he talked to Roosevelt about their mutual interest in history and the outdoors, during which he convinced the president of the vital importance of making a record of the North American Indian while there was still time.

In a letter to Curtis (December 16, 1905), Roosevelt wrote: “I regard the work you do as one of the most valuable works which any American could now do.”     

A man of action, Roosevelt asked legendary financier J. P. Morgan to back Edward’s grand scheme, which was to produce a limited edition (500 copies) 20-volume set of North American Indian and Eskimo photographs and text. To do so, he would need to hire a crew, have the latest photographic equipment and record, on wax cylinders, the history and songs of the various tribes. Edward would write all the text to accompany his photographs.   

In 1906, Morgan agreed to pay Edward $15,000 a year for five years and guarantee half the project’s estimated $1.5 million cost. A new volume was to be issued each year, bound in Moroccan leather. The foreword would be written by Teddy Roosevelt.  

The first volume was published in 1907, the last in 1930. There would be much drama and heartache in between.

Seattle Times art critic Deloris Tarzan Ament, reviewing an exhibit of Edward’s stunning Indian photographs assembled for Washington State’s centennial celebration in 1989, wrote that Edward’s thousands of words and 2,226 illustrations, embracing 70 Indian tribes and Eskimo groupings, were to photography what Wagner’s Ring Cycle was to opera.  

The New York Herald called it “the most gigantic [undertaking] in the making of books since the King James Bible ... one that cannot be repeated.”  

Asahel's World

While Edward attempted a photographic feat for the ages, Asahel undertook a grueling schedule of photography, mountaineering, and civic boosterism that would continue right up to his death.        

Asahel was one of three founders of The Mountaineers, a Northwest organization devoted to the outdoors. Along with Montelius Price, he is credited with the first ascent of 9,038-foot Mount Shuksan, in the North Cascades. In 1908, he organized 100 Mountaineers to build a trail on Mount Baker, also in the North Cascades, and the following year led 100 Mountaineers up 14,411-foot Mount Rainier. He also led mass hikes in the Olympic Mountains.

Always attentive to business details, Curtis arranged rail transportation, planned menus, and ordered food from wholesalers for all the expeditions. In 1917, he was chief guide at Mount Rainier National Park.

Curtis was a chronic joiner. And whatever he joined, he usually tried to run. He chaired The Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s State Development and Highway Committees and was a founder and briefly chairman of the Washington State Good Roads Committee. He spent nearly 20 years on the Mount Rainier Advisory Board, several of those years as president, and served a term as president of the Washington Irrigation Institute, during which he promoted large-scale reclamation projects for Central and Eastern Washington.  

Working on behalf of the various committees to which he belonged, Curtis papered the country with letters and telegrams extolling the beauties of the Pacific Northwest. A flurry of letters and telegrams from Curtis, in which he promised “paved roads,” lured President Herbert Hoover to Mount Rainier National Park in the late 1920s. Curtis was disappointed when a similar campaign failed to bring President Franklin D. Roosevelt any farther west than Glacier National Park.        

In June 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, Curtis sent telegrams to each member of Washington state’s congressional delegation urging support of a $5 million federal gift to Canada to help build a highway to Fairbanks, in the Territory of Alaska. The highway, he said, would start in Washington state and bring immense wealth. U.S. Rep. Marion Zioncheck (1901-1936), wired back that it was a great idea. But the state’s senior senator, Homer T. Bone (1883-1970), father of public power in Washington State, thought it half-baked, saying the country had far more pressing needs than a highway to Alaska.

Curtis bought an apple orchard in Yakima, planning to go into the fruit-juice business. He marketed postcards of his scenic photographs. And he produced photographs for tourist-oriented brochures on behalf of chambers of commerce throughout the Washington state.

Over the years, Curtis’ sold photographs to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, the weekly ArgusNational Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Alaska Sportsman, and Charmed Land Magazine. For the Charmed Land layout in 1926, Curtis showcased his artistic side: a stunning photograph of Mount Rainier reflected in a mountain lake.

Over the years, his writing became more graceful. In 1925, he published a photo of a towering fir tree on the Carbon River Glacier -- 285 feet high, 145 feet to the first limb, 11 feet in diameter at the base. It was titled: “The Silent Soul Which Guards the Forest Fastness.”

Asahel Curtis Counters the Parks

In the 1920s, Curtis became a member of the tourism-oriented Seattle-Tacoma Rainier National Park Committee, founded by business owners to maximize the financial benefits of the park. His old mountaineering and conservationist friends were wary.                  

Before long, their fears were realized. The man who was a constant booster of Mount Rainier National Park, and had been a vocal supporter of Mount Olympus National Monument, created in 1909 on the Olympic Peninsula, began writing articles opposing efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Rep. (later governor) Monrad C. Wallgren (1891-1961) to expand the monument to create a Mount Olympus National Park.

Curtis argued that the expansion would harm the state’s timber industry. At the same time, he went on record opposing efforts to create a national park in the North Cascades.  

In a letter to W. G. Oves of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, Curtis explained his philosophy on national parks. Mountains were for climbing, he said, and should remain untouched; but adding more national parks or expanding existing ones meant impounding water needed by industry and by farmers, curtailing exploration for mining resources, and severely reducing the grazing land available to cattlemen.

Despite his opposition, Olympic National Park (1938) and North Cascades National Park (1968) became realities.

Businessman/Artist

In a 1988 interview with Curtis’ daughters, Betty McCullough Carmichael and Polly Curtis Kella, Sally MacDonald of The Seattle Times quoted Polly as saying her father “liked to think of himself as a shrewd businessman, but I think he was just the opposite. I think he had no knack for business ... . Dad didn’t permit himself to think of himself as an artist, but artist he was.”

MacDonald also wrote that, although slow to anger, Curtis hated to be cheated. Thus, his temper flared when Dave Beck (1894-1993), leader of the Teamsters Union, refused to pay $150 for a set of gold-toned prints he had ordered, telling Curtis he should consider the photographs a charitable contribution to the union. Curtis, in turn, called “Beck a “poor prune,” one of his strongest epithets. Still fuming, Curtis sent daughter Betty down to Beck’s office with orders to sit there every day until the debt was paid. On the third day, a union official handed Betty the money and told her not to come back.

 “Have Camera, Will Travel” would have been a suitable letterhead for the nomadic Curtis. Instead, he opted in 1939 for a businesslike approach: “Expert operators always on hand to cover the most difficult assignment.” 

Legendary Images

Curtis preserved for posterity Makah Indian whale hunts (1910), the skeletal framework of Seattle's L. C. Smith Tower (1915), for many years the tallest building West of the Mississippi; the crowded stands at the first football game in the University of Washington’s stadium (Washington vs. Dartmouth), and the original Indian totem pole in Seattle’s Pioneer Square area. 

He photographed the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 that focused national attention on the Northwest corner of the country, horse-drawn wagons on dirt-surfaced roads being pushed through Cascade Mountain passes, steelhead fishermen wader-deep in the Skykomish River on a chilly winter’s day, an open-air Maxwell automobile chugging into Paradise on Mount Rainier, and the luxurious interior of the nation’s first streamlined ferryboat, the Kalakala, which was rebuilt from the burned-out Peralta and bore a striking resemblance to the ’36 Airflow DeSoto.             

A Way of Life Photographed

Scholars are amazed at the sheer scope of Curtis’s work. It ranges from vegetable stalls and fish markets in the Pike Place Market to tall ships in Smith Cove, from open-cockpit airplanes to apple harvests, from streetcars riding on rails down the middle of Seattle’s streets to swift-moving interurban trains hauling passengers from Seattle to Tacoma and from Seattle to Everett.

Curtis preserved on film a way of life that is no more: The quaintly formal dress adopted by hikers and picnickers during the pre-1940 years. Woodsmen in full logging gear lolling in the notches of giant Douglas firs during a lunch break. Young women in less-than-revealing swimwear on Seattle’s beaches. Clam-diggers armed with buckets and shovels at low tide, fulfilling a popular saying by Puget Sound residents in the early twentieth century: “The table is set when the tide goes out.”      

Perhaps no Curtis photos are more treasured than those of Seattle’s regrades, a 20-year undertaking beginning in the early 1900s, during which the city’s many steep hills were sluiced down to manageable height. While the work was going on, the humps on Seattle’s landscape often bore a resemblance to the great pyramids of Egypt.

Nor are any of Curtis’s photographs more important historically than those of Indian tribes gathered on the banks of the Spokane River for the First National Indian Congress, held in October 1925 (A. Curtis 49602, UW collection).  

Asahel the Man

Whereas brother Edward, often goateed and in a safari hat, resembled Hollywood’s version of a Great White Hunter, smooth-shaven Asahel, lanky and balding -- pockets bulging with cigars, matches, light meters, and pencils -- might have been mistaken for a clerk in a hardware store.    

However, according to Asahel’s daughters, beneath the businesslike exterior and occasional moodiness, their father was a fun-loving family man. They enjoyed vacations at their Yakima orchard. Their father often played pranks. And he took family portraits by triggering his camera’s shutter with a stick.     

Tunnel in Cheek

The only written record of Curtis’s whimsy is an article by Archie Satterfield in the March 22, 1970, Seattle Times. Headlined “Tunnel Visionary of the 1930s,” and accompanied by a stern-faced photo of Curtis. It relates the photographer’s proposal -- almost certainly tongue-in-cheek -- to re-direct the Columbia River across Washington State and employ giant fans to change the climate on both sides of the Cascade Mountains.

Curtis would divert the Columbia with a series of dams and canals, funneling it through a giant metal tube, running across valleys and into great tunnels dug through the Cascade Mountains. The water would end up in Puget Sound. Electricity generated by the dams, Curtis said, could power enormous fans blowing moisture from the West side of the Cascades to arid farmland on the East Side. Fans on the East Side could, in turn, blow warm air to the frequently overcast and cool city of Seattle.            

 The cost: $10 billion. This at a time when the nation was mired in a deep depression -- with long bread lines, swamped soup kitchens, and Hooverville’s springing up everywhere.

Curtis said the cost could easily be recouped from tourists who would flock to see a tunnel that rose 1,000 feet in the air as it spanned valleys between mountains. In addition, he said, the state would benefit from a dramatic increase in productive farmland in Eastern Washington, while Seattle would be transformed into a city where swimsuits would replace umbrellas.     

Curtis concluded (most likely with a smile): “This would make Portland the inland city the Creator intended it to be.”

Asahel's Last Years

Curtis produced large murals of Washington state scenery for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-1934. His last major photographic works were murals for the Washington State exhibits at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on San Francisco’s Treasure Island and the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.  

In January 1941, Curtis went to San Francisco as the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s representative to the Western State Defense Highway Conference, convened to map defense plans in case the war in Europe spilled over to this country.

Just two months later -- on March 7 -- he was stricken with a heart attack while working in his studio in Seattle’s Colman Building. He was taken to his home at 625 Belmont Avenue, where he died three hours later. He was 66.  

His official obituary listed as survivors his wife, Florence; sons, Walter and Asahel Jr.; daughters, Betty and  Polly, all of Seattle; sister, Eva Curtis, also of Seattle; and two brothers, Raymond of Portland, Oregon, and Edward of Los Angeles. (The same Raymond, AKA Raphael, who presumably died in the Midwest in 1885.)

Edward went to his final resting place much more easily than Asahel did. Archie Satterfield, Seattle Times reporter, noted in a February 20, 1972, article that Asahel’s ashes remained at Home Undertaking Co. & Mortuary in Seattle for many years after his death because the family could not decide what to do with them.   

Finally, Satterfield said, it was decided to put the ashes in an urn and place the urn, along with a plaque, at the site of the Asahel Curtis Memorial Grove in Snoqualmie National Forest, 23 miles east of North Bend. The words on the plaque are a simple tribute: “Devoted his mature life to making known the beauty and scenic wonders of the Pacific Northwest.” The grove was formally dedicated by the U.S. Forest Service and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in September 1964. Asahel Curtis Jr. was among those in attendance. 

Soon after the urn was in place, a bolt of lightning struck the rock upon which the urn sat, shattering the vessel and scattering the ashes.  The family, Satterfield wrote, thought it was “the greatest compliment of all.” 

A Son's View of the Feud

In May 1981, Alex Olsen taped an interview with a then-aging Asahel Curtis Jr. in which he asked about the famous feud between the brothers. The tape, which was not transcribed until 2006 and is now in the State Historical Society’s archives, has Asahel Jr. saying the long-standing feud was “ridiculous.” It not only separated the brothers permanently, he added, but it deprived their children from knowing their cousins.   

As for the cause of the “falling out,” Ashahel Jr. says nothing about Edward taking credit for Asahel’s Gold Rush photos. Instead, he says his father was angry because he felt Edward did little to support their mother and the younger children (Asahel and Eva) after their father died.

If this was the cause, was Asahel’s complaint legitimate? Maybe yes, maybe no. Edward, only 20 when his father died, had no money-making skills at the time. He finished building the house in Port Orchard, then went to Seattle to pursue a career in photography at age 23. Two years later, Asahel came to Seattle and moved in with his brother while he learned how to be a photographer and a photo-engraver. Two years after that, his mother and sister also moved in with Edward, who supported them for the next 10 years.    

The Asahel Curtis Legacy

Although many of Asahel’s photographs, especially those of Mount Rainier, are treasured for their art as much as for the story they tell, he was not -- until recent years – included in the company of his brother Edward or such Pacific Northwest photography icons as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. But with unposed, warts-and-all photography now in vogue, Asahel has grown in stature.

Today his place among the greats seems secure.

Sources:
Asahel Curtis Papers, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Asahel Curtis Papers, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma; Richard Frederick and Jeanne Engerman, Asahel Curtis: Photographs of the Great Northwest (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1983); Alex Olson interview with Asahel Curtis Jr., May 1981 (transcribed May 2, 2006), Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma; William Betts, “Pioneer Photographer’s Work Lives On,”  The Seattle Times, July 28, 1963; Stephanie Lile, “Two Views/Two Voices, a Stereoscopic Perspective of Photographers Asahel and Edward Curtis," Columbia Magazine (Spring 1996);  Sally MacDonald, “Northwest Icons: Asahel Curtis Defined the Region With His Lens,” (Sally MacDonald interview with Asahel Curtis’s two daughters, Betty McCullough Carmichael and Polly Curtis Kella), The Seattle Times, June 12, 1988; Archie Satterfield, "Lightning Strikes Asahel Curtis’s Urn," The Seattle Times, February 20, 1972; Archie Satterfield, "Tunnel Scheme," Ibid., March 22, 1970; Jeanne Engerman and Richard Frederick, “Asahel Curtis Forty Years and 60,000 Images,” n.d.,  Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma; Asahel Curtis Photo Collection, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma;  Deloris Tarzan Ament, "A Case for Curtis -- Despite His Controversial Methods, This Photographer Captured the Highlights of a Vanishing Indian Culture -- Shadowy Evidence," The Seattle Times Pacific Magazine, August 13, 1989; James W. Phillips, Washington State Place Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971);  Polk’s Seattle City Directories (1891-1932), Seattle Public Library, Seattle; “Frontier Photographer: Edward S. Curtis,” Smithsonian Institution Libraries Exhibit website (http://www.sil.si.edu/Exhibitions/Curtis/); Photograph of Mount Rainier, Charmed Land Women’s Magazine, August 1926.


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Asahel Curtis (1874-1941)
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. UW19571)


Edward Curtis (1868-1952), ca. 1890
Courtesy Smithsonian Insitution Libraries


Thomas Prosch (1850-1915), ca. 1895
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy MOHAI (Image 2002.3.216)


South coast of Cape Flattery, 1910
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy Washington State Historical Society (Image 1943.42.19218)


Dr. Henry Smith (1830-1915), 1904
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. 05895)


Downtown Seattle, 2nd Avenue looking north from James Street, 1906
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. 00769)


Members of The Mountaineers' 1909 Expedition to Mount Rainier plant Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition flag, Mount Rainier, July 30, 1909
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy Washington State History Museum


Three generations of Makah Indians from Neah Bay sell baskets in downtown Seattle, 1916
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections


 
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