In 1830, Catlin ventured out into the frontier to study Indian life before it "disappeared" with the white man's aggressive move westward. From 1830 to 1837, he went from the Mississippi to the Rockies, creating sketches and paintings of the American Indians that he encountered, and making copious notes in his journals to accompany the paintings. When Catlin returned from the wilderness, he exhibited this "Indian Gallery" from 1837 to 1852. It encompassed "a collection of artifacts, more than four hundred paintings, and thousands of sketches--which opened to large audiences both in this country and abroad" (Fryd 163).
Catlin's collection was the first exhibit of the Plains Indians and Indians west of the Mississippi. He recorded details about the Assinboin, Blackfeet, Comanche, Crow, Menominee, Ojibwa, Pawnee, Sioux, Winnebago, and more. Allegedly, Catlin set out to capture the Indians realistically more than artistically, and one scholar has said that "A Catlin Crow is a Crow, a Catlin Mandan is a Mandan" (qtd. in Halpin xiv).
Fryd contends that Catlin was influenced by Charles Byrd King, who received a commission to develop portraits of Indians to decorate Thomas L. McKenney's office as the superintendent of the Indian Trade Bureau. " Catlin probably thought his collection would supplement McKenney's "archives," as the agent called his collection, and hence petitioned the federal government for the first time, between 1837 and 1840, for a commission. Again in the mid-1840s, in 1852, and in 1860, Catlin lobbied for a commission, as did his family (after the artists) death in 1872 and 1873" (166).
The following incidents took place in an effort to commission Catlin's works (from Fryd 167):
"Catlin himself interpreted Congress's failure to purchase his Indian collection earlier, in the 1830s, as part of what he considered the Jackson administration's conspiracy against the Indians, which removed all the southern tribes of Indians west of the Mississippi River, that their two hundred and fifty millions of rich cotton lands might be covered with slave laborers."