Edward Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin. Curtis' father, Rev. Johnson Asahel Curtis (1840-1887), was a minister and a United States Civil War veteran. Rev. Curtis was born in Ohio. Rev. Curtis' father was born in Canada, and his mother in Vermont. Edward's mother, Ellen Sheriff (1844-1912), was born in Pennsylvania; and both her parents were born in England. Curtis' siblings were Raphael Curtis (1862-c1885), who also was called Ray Curtis; Eva Curtis (1870-?); and Asahel Curtis (1875-1941).
Around 1874 the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, and Curtis built his own camera. In 1880 the family was living in Cordova Township, Minnesota, where Johnson Curtis was working as a retail grocer.
In 1885 at the age of seventeen Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and became a partner in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Edward paid $150 for his 50 percent share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.
In 1895 Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898 while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Grinnell became interested in Curtis' photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana in the year 1900.
In 1910 the family was living in Seattle and on October 16, 1916, Clara filed for divorce. In 1919 she was granted the divorce and received the Curtis' photographic studio and all of his original camera negatives as her part of the settlement. Edward went with his daughter, Beth, to the studio and destroyed all of his original glass negatives, rather than have them become the property of his ex-wife, Clara. Clara went on to manage the Curtis studio with her sister, Nellie M. Phillips (1880-?), who was married to Martin Lucus (1880-?). In 1920 Beth Curtis and her sister Florence Curtis were living in a boarding house in Seattle. Clara was living in Charleston, Kitsap County, Washington with her sister Nellie and her daughter Katherine Curtis.
Around 1922 Curtis moved to Los Angeles with his daughter Beth, and opened a new photo studio. To earn money he worked as an assistant cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and was an uncredited assistant cameraman in the 1923 filming of The Ten Commandments. On October 16, 1924 Curtis sold the rights to his ethnographic motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters to the American Museum of Natural History. He was paid $1,500 for the master print and the original camera negative. It had cost him over $20,000 to film.
n 1927 after returning from Alaska to Seattle with his daughter Beth, he was arrested for failure to pay alimony over the preceding 7 years. The total owed was $4,500, but the charges were dropped. For Christmas of 1927, the family was reunited at daughter Florence's home in Medford, Oregon. This was the first time since the divorce that Curtis was with all of his children at the same time, and it had been thirteen years since he had seen Katherine. In 1928, desperate for cash, Edward sold the rights to his project to J.P Morgan's son. In 1930 he published the concluding volume of The North American Indian. In total about 280 sets were sold of his now completed opus magnum. In 1930 his ex-wife, Clara, was still living in Seattle operating the photo studio with their daughter Katherine. His other daughter, Florence Curtis, was still living in Medford, Oregon with her husband Henry Graybill. In 1932 his ex wife, Clara, drowned while rowing in Puget Sound, and his daughter, Katherine moved to California to be closer to her father and her sister, Beth.
On October 19, 1952, at the age of 84, Curtis died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California in the home of his daughter, Beth. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California. His terse obituary appeared in The New York Times on October 20, 1952: