CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 12 Buffalo Hunt, Chasing Back

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

Plate No. 12.
Buffalo Hunt. ""Chasing Back."

"Turn about is fair play," according to an old and familiar adage; and in these wild and thrilling scenes we often meet it almost too literally to be willing to admit the justness of its application. The wounded chased bull often turns on his assailant, and runs him back, over the whole ground; in which unpleasant reverse he has but to balance himself upon his little horse, praying for smooth ground under its feet, and deliverance from the fury that is behind him.

This picturesque and jagged outline of the hills only requires the background of a dark, lurid cloud; and if viewed distance it will need but little stretch of the imagination to conceive it to be a magnificent castle, fit for the residence of the proudest monarch earth.
I was mounted on a small Indian horse; on my head was a broad-brimmed, low-crowned white hat, which, performed double office of pillow and nightcap by night, and umbrella by day, was almost indiscernible in form; a blue shirt, and a black velveteen shooting-jacket, with enormous pockets stuffed of a strange miscellany of requisites, covered my upper man. I wore neither a neckcloth, braces, nor waistcoat. Around my waist was a strong leathern belt, in which were stuck my hunting-knife and a brace of pistols in front; and at the side, a short, heavy iron-handled ‘cut-and-thrust’ sword; my nether extremities were protected by a stout pair of corduroy breeches and buckskin leggings, fitting the leg; and in my right hand was my faithful double-barrelled rifle. At length a momentary halt was given, and a hurried proclamation issued amongst the Pawnees that ‘the men must be ready.’ We were drawn up on one side of a hill, below which was a valley of no great depth, and on the other side another hill intersected by many ravines, down each of which a black living torrent of buffaloes was pouring in to the valley. I rode toward the first which Fate threw in my way; and he seemed inclined in no way to hurry pace his pace or to chance the direction in which he was lazily cantering along. He was indeed a magnificent bull, of the very largest size, and had the thickest fell of hair that I had seen on the prairie….My ball struck him a few inches behind the hart, and one moment he paused, as I thought, about to fall; but it was only to glare his eyes fiercely upon me, lash his tail, and then charge me at full speed. It would have been madness to have expended my last shot, so I reserved it for a mortal struggle, in case my horse and I should be overthrown, and in the meantime urged him with hand, leg, and spur to his utmost exertions. I looked over my shoulder, and nostrils throwing out bloody froth, were close at my horse’s flank. However, I could soon perceive that, from his unwieldy size, and severe wound I had given him, he was failing in strength, and I accordingly pressed my little horse to place me further out of his reach. As soon as he saw that his efforts at revenge had failed, he stopped short, stamped, blew, bellowed, and made all the most furious gestures of rage and pain. When I was again about fifty yards from him, I pulled up, and determined to wait two or three minute; very prudently reflecting that in the mean time my horse was recovering breath, while my enemy was bleeding and exhausting himself by empty demonstrations of furry. As soon as I thought my horse ready for a new race, if necessary, I dismounted and fired with better aim and effect; the bull staggered a few paces and rolled in the dust."
(TRAVELS of the HON. C. A. MURRAY, in the PAWNEE COUNTRY, in 1834-6; vol. i, p. 390.)

Mr. Murray I am sure, will pardon me for representing him in a retreat, which I would scarcely venture to do were he dealing with ordinary enemies; and those of my readers who know anything of the character of contentions with a wounded Buffalo Bull will easily acquit me of any attempt in this, to question the valour of my honorable and esteemed friend.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins "Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the "Indian Gallery", Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at