The Photographs of Solomon Butcher

Dressed in their Sunday best, pioneer families posing for Butcher often put the bravest face possible on an existence full of hard work and harsh living conditions, chronicled in Butcher's photo-biography of the pioneers of Custer County.

(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

THE PIONEER FAMILY of father, mother and all eight children posed rigidly in front of their modest sod house as the photographer, Solomon D. Butcher, arranged them for their portrait. He worked swiftly and efficiently in the summer heat. Behind him stood his two-horse team hitched to a small wagon, on the side of which was painted, “For T.J. & S.D. Butcher’s Picture Album of Custer County.”

For the best light, the family faced into the sun; it was the conventional method in the 1880s. With a long exposure time, it accounted for the humorless, squinty looks on the faces of the family members.

As Butcher explained years later, while he was focusing his camera, “One of the children, a lad of 7 or 8 years, made a break for the tall grass.” The family searched for him for 15 minutes while Butcher “stood patiently awaiting the round-up in the boiling sun.”

The boy remained in hiding, however, and the family members resumed their positions before the camera. “Just as we were about to make the exposure, away went another of the boys, which resulted in another hunt and another failure,” Butcher recalled.

This was as far as the farmer was willing to go. He angrily ordered, “Take what you’ve got!”

So Butcher took the photo, less two boys.

Butcher, with his gable-roofed photo-lab-on-wheels, was a familiar sight to the pioneer families of Nebraska. He was the state’s foremost chronicler of the lives of its early settlers. He took their pictures and told their stories, pursuing his craft for four decades through the hardest of times to leave an unsurpassed written and visual record of pioneer times in Nebraska.

Born in 1856 in what is now West Virginia, Butcher moved to Illinois with his family when he was 3. In 1880, at age 24, Solomon moved to Custer County with his family in search of cheap government land. He settled a claim of his own and tried his hand briefly at the pioneer life. His father and brother helped build his sod house on his own homestead claim, which he relinquished after only two weeks. Butcher came to the land of homesteaders and pioneers, but his interests lay elsewhere.

Butcher purchased his first photographic equipment largely with borrowed money when he was 27. The confluence of historical events placed Butcher in the right location, at the right time and with the right technology to record the settlement of the Great Plains.

The hunger for westward expansion and cheap land had been growing rapidly since the early 1800s. By mid-century, it had become a constant theme. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War,  Congress passed the Homestead Act, making available millions of acres of western land. According to its terms, any citizen who was at least 21 years old and who had not borne arms against the U.S. government could claim a 160-acre plot of surveyed government land, provided he or she filed a claim and improved the land.

The claimant was required to build a 12-by-24 dwelling. Some unscrupulous opportunists attempted to circumvent the spirit of the law by building 12-inch-by-24-inch structures, claiming the law did not stipulate feet or inches.

Claimants also were required to raise crops and live on the property for five years before becoming eligible to lay claim to it. Alternatively, the would-be settlers could simply pay the government $1.25 per acre and claim the land after only a six-month residency. Almost overnight, the western territories became the Promised Land, and with the coming of the railroads, immigrants raced to claim their own 160-acre parcel of the American Dream.

At the same time the railroads were crisscrossing the nation’s broad expanse and the first plows were turning over the prairie sod, the art of photography was rapidly developing into a viable and powerful means of recording history. Through chroniclers such as Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, the camera brought the true nature and horror of war home to millions of Americans. It now surpassed the brush and palette in reflecting the reality of the country’s natural wonders, its growing cities and its people.

BUTCHER SET UP his first studio in 1883 in a leaky Custer County soddy. Business was slow, and he earned an additional 75 cents a day by farming for his father – a job that he loathed. That same year, he moved his studio to Walworth, took a partner and, in short order, failed.

He was far from unique in his failure. A drought was afflicting the entire region, farms were drying up, and whole towns – including Walworth – collapsed.

In 1886, however, the 30-year-old Butcher – who by now had a wife, Lillie, and two children – formulated the plan that would ultimately gain him lasting fame, if not fortune: He would create a pictorial history of Custer County. As he put it, Butcher “conned” his father into providing him with a team and wagon, which he converted to a mobile photo lab. He painted his and his father’s names on the side and ranged the county for the next several years, taking photographs and composing stories, faithfully recording the words of his subjects. Butcher little suspected that it would take him 15 difficult years to complete his book.

Portrait photography proved to be a less than lucrative profession; throughout his life, in order to supplement his income and support his family, he turned his hand to a number of conventional part-time jobs. He worked as a teacher, postmaster, grocery clerk, farmer, purveyor of Texas real estate, justice of the peace and traveling salesman for a grain and flour mill. He also was also a failed inventor. Both his electric magnetic oil detector and his patent medicine “Butcher’s Wonder of the Age” were disasters.

By 1899, Butcher had moved to Broken Bow, and from there to West Union, always working part-time to help finance his vision of a Custer County history. Times remained hard, going from bad to worse when his house burned, taking with it most of the family’s possessions and all of his biographies and prints. Fortunately, his glass plates had been stored in the granary and were spared. Butcher moved back to Broken Bow and began to assemble his history once again.

He sold subscriptions to the book, ordered new prints and rewrote biographies and anecdotes. Two years later, with completion in sight, Butcher ran out of funds. But he found a savior: A wealthy rancher and local character named Ephraim Swain Finch – “Uncle Swain,” to his friends – financed the remainder of the project. In the summer of 1901, the 400-page S.D. Butcher’s Pioneer History of Custer County: and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska finally was published.

Butcher’s dedication read, in part: “To the Pioneers of Custer County, that noble band of men and women who blazed a pathway into the wilderness.”

The first run of 1,000 copies quickly sold out, and Butcher immediately printed a second run of 1,000 in time for Christmas. At $2.50, the book was not cheap, especially among a population that frequently lived at subsistence level; but many who bought copies found in them their own images and stories, and those of friends and neighbors. Although the farmer is well represented in the volume, often shown seated rigidly with his family and possessions outside his house made of earth, Butcher did not focus exclusively on the sodbuster. The cattle industry is well represented, both anecdotally and with rare photos of working cowboys. One intriguing image features a cowhand from Kearney holding a large wooden model of a sailing ship. In his accompanying text, Butcher explains that the man carved the pieces for the model while in the saddle, watching the herd on trail drives.

Butcher also included scenes of natural wonder, Indian encampments and portraits of former slave families who now owned their own farms. He showed views of prize livestock and formal headshots of early pioneers, including his own parents. He included clergymen, attorneys and officers of the law. Broken Bow, where the book was finally published, was well represented, with page after page boasting its public buildings and frame homes.

There is even an image of Butcher himself, standing proudly in front of the unimpressive sod dwelling he had earlier built and abandoned within two weeks. Under it, he quotes a Plains folksong, which begins,

“Farewell to my homestead shanty;

        I have my final proof;

The cattle will hook down the walls,

       And someone will steal off the roof.”

Butcher knew his audience. In the course of their often monotonous lives, they craved excitement. Many of the book’s anecdotes are sensational, detailing the lives of various outlaws and describing murders and hangings, both legal and extralegal. Perhaps the most chilling account is the story of the 1878 lynching of Ketchum and Mitchell. It was one of the most brutal and shocking events in early Nebraska history, and Butcher did it justice, both visually and verbally.

As Butcher tells it, Ami Ketchum and Luther Mitchell were two farmers living together in Custer County, when suspicion of cattle rustling fell on Ketchum. A posse arrived at their soddy to arrest him, whereupon a gun battle ensued in which Mitchell shot and killed one of the posse members and Ketchum wounded two others.

Mitchell and Ketchum initially ran off to Merrick County, but soon hired a lawyer and surrendered to the authorities. The man whom Mitchell had killed was Bob Olive, a Texas gunman who had fled to Nebraska with two murder warrants and a $400 reward on his head. Unfortunately, he also was the younger brother of I.P. “Print” Olive, local rancher and a noted gunfighter. Olive, one of Nebraska’s richest stockmen, owned a ranch near Plum Creek, and his recent problems with rustlers had originally inspired the posse that had ridden out after Ami Ketchum. Print Olive now had strong personal reasons for wanting revenge on the two farmers, and he offered a significant reward to anyone who turned them over to him and his cowboys.

Mitchell and Ketchum were hustled aboard a train for their return to Custer County for trial. However, a corrupt sheriff held the train at Plum Creek near the Olive ranch, and turned his handcuffed prisoners over to Olive and his men. They put the two in a wagon and drove them to a remote canyon known as Devil’s Gap, where they brutally murdered them. The mob hanged Ketchum, shot and hanged Mitchell, then proceeded to burn both bodies as they swung from the limb.

When the blackened bodies were later discovered and driven into Kearney, the local citizenry was outraged. Several suspected of having participated in the killings – including Print Olive – were arrested and in April 1879 tried in Hastings. Olive and another man were found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. They won a new trial, however, and after a 20-month stay in the penitentiary, both were released.

Butcher’s account of the “Mitchell and Ketchum Tragedy,” which runs on for 20 pages in his book, features a number of photographs, including Mitchell’s sod farmhouse and Print Olive’s log ranch cabin with a number of mounted cowboys in front. Butcher painted crude holsters and gun belts around their waists for dramatic effect. Butcher was not above faking – or, “staging” – an entire scene for posterity, or to make a point. For this story, he employed locals to pose for re-enactments of the cowboys’ kidnapping of the two suspects and of the hanging itself. One photograph that required no staging, however, was that which he took of the charred bodies of Ketchum and Mitchell after they had been driven into Kearney. It serves as a grisly reminder of the level of violence often present on the frontier.

ALTHOUGH BUTCHER’S Pioneer History of Custer County was his greatest life goal and his one brief success, it represented only a fraction of his work. Year after year, Butcher diligently took the photographs and recorded the stories of his neighbors, as the soddies gradually gave way to frame dwellings, and horses and mules were sidelined by steam tractors and automobiles. Some of the anecdotes that went with Butcher’s photos were humorous.

One involved “Uncle Swain,” Butcher’s closest friend and supporter and a frequent subject for his camera. According to Butcher’s account, one frigid day in winter, Swain decided he’d had enough of his wife’s nagging, and – declaring that he was going to end his own life – buttoned up his coat, left his sod house and lay down on a snow bank to freeze. In a short while, the would-be suicide summoned his two bemused nephews to bring him his buffalo robe, so that he might “freeze in comfort.” After a respectable amount of time had passed, Swain asked, “Say, boys, is the old gal a-cryin’?”

When they informed him, “Naw, she’s laughin’,” he hollered, “Then, by George, that settles it! I won’t freeze!” And shaking the snow from his buffalo robe, he re-entered his soddy.

One photograph shows a family sitting outside its sod house with a huge white monstrosity perched on the roof. It seems Butcher had accidentally damaged the roof section of the photo prior to delivering it to the farmer. So he covered up his blunder with a crude painting of a white creature that he swore was a turkey. The farmer was furious, and at first refused to pay Butcher for the print, claiming no turkeys had been in the area the day the picture was taken. “Besides,” the farmer argued, “we don’t have any white ones.” The farmer’s wife, however, “reminded” her husband, “Yes, Theodore, don’t you remember me telling you to drive the turkeys away?” Mollified, the farmer paid Butcher for the photograph.

Butcher, in fact, retouched a number of his photographs. In the interest of verisimilitude, he would paint in various creatures and effects to enhance his vignettes. One print depicting a man shooting birds from a rowboat is questionably improved by Butcher’s addition of a puff of gun smoke and a sky full of objects that vaguely resemble birds. Another print shows a farmer fighting a swarm of locusts – which Butcher helpfully added to the image, one insect at a time. Although a world-class photographer, Butcher’s skills as a free-hand artist left much to be desired. Yet, despite what to our eyes are crude, almost childish, additions, his customers apparently were satisfied with the result.

The year after the publication of his Pioneer History, Butcher moved his family to Kearney, where he opened a studio that focused mainly on printing postcards. He put his son Lynn in charge, while he rambled off in search of subjects. Again, success eluded him. In 1913, the Nebraska State Historical Society purchased Butcher’s entire archive of negatives, paying him an embarrassingly low $600. Three years later, the Society briefly hired him to provide additional documentation to the collection. For the rest of his life, Butcher struggled financially.

When he died in 1927, he left behind nearly 4,000 prints, negatives and biographies of the iron-spined pioneers among whom he lived, and whom he admired. He documented the comic, tragic, spirit-breaking and faith-renewing aspects of early life on the Plains. In recording the hardships and the triumphs of everyday people, he created for future generations an eloquent and invaluable record of what it took to open and settle this new land of Nebraska.


Seeing Solomon

SOLOMON BUTCHER is buried beside Lillie in the Gates Cemetery, some 16 miles north of Broken Bow. Their gravestone, a modern replacement of the original concrete marker, reads “SD – Photographer and Author of Pioneer History of Custer County – Lillie – Devoted Wife and Able Assistant.”

Rightly so, Nebraska’s historical institutions are proud of their Butcher collections. The Custer County Historical Society offers an online gallery of his photographs. The historical society owns the existing Butcher negatives, and has made his extensive work available for viewing on their website. Many of the families pictured in the photos still live on the land Butcher photographed and have donated a number of original prints to the historical society, which also are found on the website:

The Nebraska State Historical Society owns some 5,000 Butcher images. In 1998 the society received a grant from the Library of Congress and Ameritech to digitize 3,000 glass plate negatives. The images are available online at the American Memory portion of the Library of Congress website.

(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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