Between 1948 and 1951, Edward S. Curtis exchanged a series of letters with Harriet Leitch, a former librarian at the Seattle Public Library and, at the time of her correspondence with Curtis, a volunteer at the Seattle Historical Society. The Historical Society had inherited a set of "The North American Indian" and Leitch set out to track down its author and learn more about the making of the work. In his letters to Leitch, Curtis discusses many topics including his memories of climbing Mount Rainier, participating in the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska, photographing Princess Angeline and writing The North American Indian.
Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Curtis came to Seattle in 1887 at the age of 19. He soon established a highly successful photography studio in downtown Seattle and as time progressed, became known for the images he captured of local Puget Sound tribes. Curtis was an avid outdoorsman and frequently led climbs of Mount Rainier. During one of these climbs, he met the group that would later form the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska and was invited to join the expedition as their official photographer. This group included George Bird Grinnell, a noted anthropologist, who Curtis would join in 1900 on a trip to Montana to see the sacred Sun Dance ceremony of the Blackfoot and Piegan Indians.
In 1906, Curtis received funding from J.P. Morgan to begin work on "The North American Indian," a twenty volume set of photographs and text documenting Native American tribes throughout the western United States. It took Curtis 24 years to complete the project and in the process, his personal life, health and finances suffered greatly. The project that had once hailed great publicity and excitement at its start received little fanfare with the release of the final volume in 1930. By the time his correspondence with Harriet Leitch began, Curtis was living in relative obscurity in Los Angeles.