Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana
The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century
- By Donna M. Lucey
- Smithsonian.com, October 05, 2009
(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)
What would account for this freak show of coyote carcasses arrayed in front of the justice of the peace’s office? It’s a bizarre sight to 21st-century eyes, but perhaps it wasn’t so strange in Morrison’s day. Rangeland predators were an immediate threat to Montana livestock. Ranchers and farmers tried to eliminate them by any means at hand, including greyhounds, traps, poison, bullets, even dynamite planted in wolf dens. In 1883, Montana passed its first bounty law, which provided payment for the hides of various predators when they were presented to probate judges or justices of the peace. Bears and mountain lions brought in the most, $8 per skin; wolves and coyotes earned hunters $1 and 50 cents, respectively. (But bounties for mature wolves rose precipitously over time, reaching a peak of $15 in 1911—$5 more than the going rate for a mountain lion.)
In this photograph, the stilted poses of the coyote carcasses may be attributed to the fact that they were frozen. But what of the men and boy? Are they bounty hunters waiting to cash in? And is the bespectacled gentleman behind the window the justice of the peace, calculating his payout? Or is he sizing up the men, wondering if he could interest them in the fire insurance he apparently sold on the side?