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(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)

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

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Studio portrait of a wolf and a boy holding a chain connected to a wolfs collar
(Maura McCarthy)

In 1878, when Morrison arrived in Miles City, the Plains were still thick with buffalo, and he hunted them for a time. (His family still has his Sharps rifle.) But by the turn of the century, wild bison were just a memory. This slightly surreal photo may have been a Morrison ode to the vanishing West.

The chained wolf, the buffalo hide on the floor and the buffalo skull are easy enough to interpret, but I needed help from Montana taxidermist Kate Davis to decipher Morrison’s iconography more fully. The log or wooden beam obscuring the young man? A taxidermist would lay a buffalo hide hair-side down on such a beam and use a two-handled knife to skin off any remaining muscle or fat. The beat-up can in front of the beam? It could have contained the oil needed to make the skin supple, or the arsenic used to poison insects that might destroy the hide.

In 1880, cattleman Granville Stuart estimated that 10,000 bison had been slaughtered that winter. “From the Porcupine clear to Miles City the bottoms are liberally sprinkled with the carcasses of dead buffalo,” he wrote, “…all murdered for their hides which are piled like cord wood all along the way. ’Tis an awful sight.” Six years later William T. Hornaday, head taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution (and, later, the first director of the National Zoo), spent weeks searching the region in search of wild buffalo and collected only 24 specimens. The following year, scientists found none.

Donna M. Lucey is the author of Photographing Montana 1894-1928, based on her discovery of the glass-plate negatives of Evelyn Cameron in the basement of a Montana farmhouse.

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