In our last article, we had the opportunity to see Lockport in 1831 through the eyes of an Englishwoman not in love with America. Mrs. Trollope was on her way to see Niagara Falls and had little patience for the rustic places in between.
Lockport was not her destination but, rather, the last impediment to be endured before reaching her goal. Fortunately for those of us interested in history, there were others whose sense of time and place were unerring. An uncomfortable lawyer named George Catlin has given Niagara County residents a legacy of which we may be proud.
People with an interest in the history of the Erie Canal will often recognize the old lithograph of Orange Dibble's derricks at work in the Lockport Deep Cut.
It seems that every book about the building of the Erie Canal uses this famous image. A close second is the drawing of Lockport and the famous double flight of five locks as they appeared in 1825. The latter drawing is probably the earliest view of Lockport that we have.
The images are actually among a set of four of the Lockport area appearing in the appendix of Cadwallader D. Colden's "Memoir, Prepared at the Request of the Committee of the Common Council of the City of New York and Presented to the Mayor of the City at the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals" in 1825. Colden's book detailed the building of the Erie Canal and recounted the festivities enjoyed at its grand opening in October and November 1825. Even as it opened, the creation of the Erie Canal was recognized as a historic event of great significance to Americans.
Not everyone, of course, was fascinated by the old Erie Canal. In the 1830s and 1840s, people all over New York State took great interest in a young artist traveling among the Indians of the upper Midwest.
He not only painted exciting pictures of Native American tribe members who were yet free and independent of white control, but he also wrote about them. His letters were printed in newspapers in New York and Buffalo and even Lockport, with datelines like "Mandan Village, Upper Missouri, Aug. 12, 1832," and "Mouth of the False Washita, Red River, July 14, 1834."
Sometimes he rode with the U.S. dragoons "in the country of the buffalo and the fleet, bounding antelope."
Occasionally, the traveling artist would return East to show his paintings amid much acclaim. His accurate, dazzling paintings of American Indians and the Old West made the artist famous on both sides of the Atlantic.
By 1839, his work was so popular and esteemed that many Americans considered his gallery to be a national treasure at risk of being lost to European collections. The U.S. Senate rejected a proposal to appropriate $50,000 to purchase the artist's gallery of Native American paintings in March 1847.
Like those who recognized in advance the great economic potential of the Erie Canal, this American artist's foresight captured the images of a vanishing way of life on the High Plains and within the embrace of the Rocky Mountains.
So we have it today that a lawyer who gave up law to be an artist in 1823 first drew sketches of Lockport and the Erie Canal and then headed West to become one of the greatest of painters of the American Indian. His name was George Catlin. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, even as Mrs. Trollope was passing through, George Catlin's brothers, Henry, James and Richard, were prominent in Lockport. Their prominence in Lockport was dwarfed by the reputation George Catlin achieved as America's artist of the American Indian. Brother Henry Catlin served as clerk of the Niagara County Legislature in 1828. In 1831, he was nominated to run for county clerk by the Anti-Mason party convention.
His residence on Ontario Street (Lot 12) was sold to Jonathan L. Woods in 1836. Records in the county historian's office indicate that the house, at the time of its purchase and for some time after, contained a large and quite well-done model of Niagara Falls by artist George Catlin. In addition, there was supposedly a table made by the artist topped with "Lockport marble" that contained fossils of "prehistoric organisms petrified in the stone."
Sadly, this record of the interview with one John L. Murray concludes with a bad omen for the existence of these items. "These (works by George Catlin), with many other similar articles remained about the house for a long time until they became nuisances, in fact."
One wonders if any of these items by a famous American artist still exist somewhere in Lockport today.
George Catlin's brothers James and Richard were Lockport druggists. James Catlin established a drug and medicine store next to the Post Office on Canal Street as early as February 1829. His newspaper advertisement of that year reports that, as soon as the canal opens for the season, he will offer a full line of paints and dye-stuffs and every other type of goods typically handled by such stores. More than a year later, in November 1830, James offered his house for sale. The house, according to James, is located on Main Street nearly in front of the courthouse and is a small house, well built, pleasant and convenient -- a house any gentleman wishing to obtain a well-built new cottage-like dwelling would like. A few months later, the Niagara Courier of Lockport reports that James Catlin is in Geneva, serving as editor of the Geneva American. The Lockport editor pronounces a blessing upon Catlin, saying, "Our friend Catlin is a gentleman of very respectable talents, and we doubt not will ably fulfill his trust as a sentinel upon the watchtower of Liberty." Brother Richard Catlin appears to have assumed control of James' drugstore in December 1830.
Another brother of George Catlin was Julius. George and Julius had planned to go West together. Their dreams were to come to a bitter end when Julius drowned while swimming in the Genesee River near Rochester in 1828.
As to the artist, we know little of his time spent in Lockport. Obviously he was here in 1824 or 1825 long enough to draw the four Lockport sketches, later to be represented as lithographs in Cadwallader Colden's "Memoirs."