The exciting, dangerous life of photographers of the Old West, including one with ties to Fargo and Moorhead

David Barry shot this photo of Chief Gall, who wanted the photo back. Elizabeth Custer said she could hardly believe “there could be so fine a specimen of a warrior…“ Public domain image

Photographer David Barry was holding a glass-plate negative up to the light one day in 1881 when the door to his portable photo gallery crashed open. Quickly he hid the plate and whirled around.

Chief Gall of the Dakota hulked in the doorway, glaring at him. Gall demanded the glass-plate negative of himself that Barry had shot and developed only moments before. When Barry refused to show the delicate plate or to allow Gall to find it for himself, Gall pulled out a knife and charged.

Perils of Photos

This clash of cultures was but one of many perils faced by itinerant photographers of the old American west. But despite the dangers of sudden severe weather, wild beasts and wilder land, plus explosive, poisonous photographic chemicals, men like Barry, Carleton Watkins and F. Jay Haynes in Minnesota, among others, trekked to the West to photograph geological surveys, to document railroad expansion and territorial boundaries, to explore, and to make their fortunes.

But they stayed for two major reasons: their love of photography, and the excitement of the wild, unsettled territories of the West.

Primitive Methods and Equipment

When the earliest photographers of the West began shooting pictures, about 1850, photography was in its infancy; so primitive, that taking photos (daguerreotypes) was a true ordeal for those being photographed. They were required to sit perfectly still, in bright sunlight, for 20 minutes, for an uncopyable photo; the slightest movement meant a blurred image. Many people suffered sunburn.    

Watkins Shoots Yosemite

In 1861 there were no roads into Yosemite. By this time, photography had changed substantially. Wet-plate collodion (guncotton and hen’s eggs) photography had been invented. Glass plates smeared with collodion, once developed, became negatives, and many photos could be made from them. Plus they were cheaper.

Haynes took this shot of the Yellowstone Falls. Public domain photo

However, photographic equipment remained primitive: bulky, heavy cameras, fragile glass plates, and worst, the darkroom. A darkroom had to be lugged along because the glass plates had to be developed immediately or would be useless.

Carlton E. Watkins’ huge camera (18 x 22 inches) was constructed for his Yosemite trip. He also brought a camera to make stereoscopic 3-D views, much prized back East. “One can only imagine,” wrote Martin W. Sandler in The Story of American Photography, “the difficulties he encountered as he hauled everything across gorges and up and down the sides of mountains.”

Twelve mules were required, one for the tent darkroom alone; five mules simply to move Watkins to another vista. But the results were worth it. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1863, “Thus, the great tree, the ‘Grizzly Giant,’ is shown in two admirable views; the mighty precipice of El Capitan, more than 3,000 feet in height–these and others are shown…in a perfection of art…”

He also worked very hard to get his views, finding the exact right place to stand. Historian William DeWitt Alexander wrote that he followed a narrow ledge trail above a 600-foot drop, figuring to be the first person ever there, “We had ticklish spots to cross where a slip might have been fatal,” only to discover that Watkins was already up there, taking pictures.

His Yosemite pictures won first prize at the Paris Exposition Universelle, and aided Yosemite’s preservation. But he photographed much more: San Francisco, inactive volcanoes, Mendocino coast, Oregon, Columbia River, Utah, as well as artistic views of houses, trains and roundhouses.

J. Frank Haynes with his true love, Lily, in this 1878 photo. Public domain photo

F. Jay Haynes

Seeks Marriage

F. Jay Haynes came West to earn money to get married. Before he was finished, he shot the most beautiful pictures of Yellowstone ever taken, which helped it become the first-ever National Park. He also nearly died there.

Like most early photographers, Haynes worked at odd jobs before photography: he operated his father’s general store, sold sewing machines, peddled sheet music, busts of composers, parlor knick-knacks and bottled furniture remedy.

Finally, he worked with noted photographer “Doctor” Wm. H. Lockwood, of Ripon, Wisc. There Haynes met Lila Verna Snyder, the sister of Ada Lockwood. Soon they wanted to marry, but Haynes knew he had to prove he could support her.

Haynes Opens Studio

He came to Fargo, Dakota Territory, in 1876 with 10 cents. There he opened a studio in his sister Ella’s house. He knew landscape views would bring additional, long-term income, and regional and national markets for distinctive stereoscopic views.

J. Frank Haynes had a studio in Moorhead, as shown here. Public domain photo

Then came his big break. The Northern Pacific Railroad needed promotional photos of the ‘Bonanza Farms’ of Dakota Territory, so in October, 1876, they sent Haynes to the Dalrymple Farm.

They liked his work so much that in November he was named official railroad photographer. He was awarded a permanent railroad pass and $1.50 for each view he produced.

Haynes wrote, “I never saw business until I came to this country.” He built his own studio in Moorhead, Minnesota, and occupied it on December 13, 1876.

Meanwhile, he traveled on the N.P. taking photos; from the depot at Duluth, to natives clustered at Fort Lincoln; from steamboats at the Bismarck levee, to hunting parties in
N. P. observation cars. And supplemental views, which he could market privately.

State Fair Exhibit Causes Stir

The inside of the Palace Studio Car in 1886 is filled with photos, including the ceiling. Public domain photo

In 1877, Haynes exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair. His stereo views of Dakota subjects caused a genuine stir. Following this he was hired to photograph the gold rush of the Black Hills, as well as mining activities in Lead, Central City, Deadwood and Crook City, Dakota Territory. He wrote Lily, “…the N.P.RR Company are commencing construction of their road west of the Missouri (River, at Bismarck.) By next fall they will be in the Yellow Stone Country, and I am in hopes of getting views there. You know, Lily, the Western country suits me splendidly.”

That summer Haynes achieved his goal of earning $1,000 above expenses. He and Lily were married. His popularity soared. He was hired to photograph for the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroads; then the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Love at First Sight

In late August, 1881, he fell in love again; he saw, for the first time, the magnificence of Yellowstone.

After Haynes was hired by the Northern Pacific Railroad to shoot photos, and had his own “Palace Studio Car.” Public domain photo

He hired assistants to take care of his studio, and began spending more and more time taking views of Yellowstone.

He built a studio car, the ‘Palace Car,’ which the Northern Pacific Railroad pulled along on his excursions. It boasted “a heated reception room for waiting customers,” according to Montana Historical Society’s booklet entitled F. Jay Haynes, “a studio room, a dark room with storage and living quarters for two. The studio, or ‘operating room,’ contained cameras, props and painted canvas backdrops — a sunlit garden, a scholarly library, a cozy sitting room…”

Haynes often operated the Palace Car in winter, hiring assistants in summer so he could head back to Yellowstone. Once he very nearly lost his life.

Haynes figured Yellowstone would be even more beautiful in the winter, and wanted to photograph it after the snows fell. He was commissioned by the New York World newspaper to make the first winter trip into the Yellowstone, along with the noted Arctic explorer Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka.

Frank Haynes while on a winter expedition to the Yellowstone. Public domain photo

It began in January, 1887. Just about everything went wrong. It took six days to ski 25 miles, and poor snow conditions forced the party of eight to abandon their snowshoes and toboggans, “and the group suffered overnight

temperatures of -37 degrees,” wrote F. Jay Haynes.

Then Lt. Schwatka developed hemorrhaging lungs, and had to be left behind. Everyone wanted to quit — except for Haynes. He convinced two members to continue with him. They endured a five-day storm in the Upper Geyser Region, but Haynes got some good photos. Next, they became marooned on the slopes of Mount Washburn during a howling, two-day blizzard. They barely survived. Haynes’ ‘Yellowstone Park in Winter’ photograph series proved an immediate financial success.

He returned to Yellowstone every year of his life thereafter, including more winter excursions, but always he continued with other western photos.

D. F. Barry Records Reservation Life

In 1881, David Barry probably expected problems like Gall pulling a knife on him. The spirit of the Indians had been broken. They were prisoners of war; herded onto reservations and facing the loss of the way of life they loved.

Newspapers all over the nation begged for photos of the warriors who had killed Custer in 1876. So when Gall surrendered at Fort Buford in Dakota Territory, Barry loaded his necessaries and made the trip up the Missouri River.

For the N.P., Haynes took this photo of the Yellowstone Shoshone Canyon, with an automobile ahead. Public domain photo

Barry wrote in his journal that Major Brotherton, “…above all warned me to avoid having any trouble with any of the Indians. I was more than anxious to photograph Chief Gall. I went to the hostile camp and through the interpreter ‘Fish’ Allison made arrangements to take photographs of the chiefs at $6 per sitting.” At the last minute they changed it to $21 each. Barry reluctantly agreed.

Thus Gall came into the portable gallery for the first time, “as he was dressed for camp with no preparation of any kind,” Thomas Heski wrote in The Little Shadow Catcher. “…He refused to listen to suggestions as to how to pose. …He pulled his robe over his head with only his eyes showing. Realizing such a photograph would be worthless, Barry gently pulled the robe down over his shoulders and rolled back his shirt, baring his magnificent chest. Gall, haughty, scornful, eyed Barry with disdain, and Barry snapped the shutter.” Gall left.

   A few minutes later Gall returned, and pulled the knife. Luckily, Barry had a revolver handy, and Gall backed down.

In 1885, David Barry took this photo of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Public domain photo

That photo of Gall was a stunner; when Elizabeth B. Custer saw this photo of Gall, whom she knew had helped massacre her husband, she wrote Barry: “Painful as it is for me to look upon a pictured face of an Indian, I have never dreamed in all my life, there could be so fine a specimen of a warrior, in all the tribes as Chief Gall.”

Amazingly, Gall and Barry later became good friends at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where Barry got many shots of the Sioux chief.

Until his death, Barry recorded with his camera the life of the lowly soldier, and the beginning stages of reservation life.

Many other photographers came west, each with their own particular vision. David F. Barry, Carleton Watkins and F. Jay Haynes were representative of those who captured, with their “Little Shadow Catchers,” as the Indians called cameras, the varied and teeming life of the old West.

But they probably never understood the extreme value of the legacy they left for future generations: a permanent photographic record of the settling of the American West.