“There is occasionally a chief or warrior of such extraordinary renown, that he is allowed to wear horns on his head-dress.… The reader will see this custom exemplified in the portrait of Mah-to-toh-pa…. [He is] the only man in the nation who was allowed to wear the horns.”
So wrote George Catlin in Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, begun during the artist’s two-thousand mile journey along the upper Missouri River to what is now North Dakota. It was the first of three self-financed trips between 1832 and 1836 that Catlin undertook in order to capture what he rightly believed to be the final and most thorough visual record of the indigenous cultures of the frontier. Just two years earlier, the Indian Resettlement Act, designed to send Eastern Woodlands tribes inland in order to “save” them from the steady encroachment of white civilization, had passed Congress.
George Catlin agreed with the resettlement policy. In his practical (yet sentimental) values, he was representative of the Jacksonian era, in which the United States, finally in control of the wilderness, felt a wave of nostalgia for what it was about to lose. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Catlin was a mostly self-trained, but successful, portrait painter with a business in Philadelphia. In 1828, according to the artist, an encounter with a delegation of Winnebago on their way to Washington changed the course of his career.
Catlin painted a full-length portrait of Mah-to-toh-pa, second chief of the Mandan people, in late summer of 1832. The Mandan, a stationary agricultural and hunting tribe living in domed timber-and-earth lodges, occupied two villages above the Missouri River near present-day Bismarck. Catlin and Mah-to-toh-pa developed a close relationship: the painter was one of only two white men to observe the Mandan sacred rite, the O-kee-pa, before the tribe’s extinction from smallpox in 1837.