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

Jones shack along the Yellowstone
Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT

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Jones shack along the Yellowstone
(Maura McCarthy)

In 1878, 28-year-old Robert C. Morrison drifted from the East to Miles City, Montana, an oasis of barrooms, brothels and gambling dens in the hauntingly beautiful and remote plains and badlands of southeastern Montana. The place had begun as a watering hole for wandering buffalo hunters and the soldiers at nearby Fort Keogh; eventually cowboys, sheepherders, railroad workers and a cast of eccentric Britons would join in the fun.

He had an eye for the off-kilter, the anomalous and the marginalized. At his death, at age 87 in 1938, he left behind more than 3,600 glass-plate negatives, but a disagreement among his heirs left them gathering dust—until now. At the Montana Historical Society, which is printing the negatives, photo archivist Lory Morrow, says she and her staff “talk among ourselves” about Morrison’s unusual vision, which, while “off the mainstream” is also “more realistic” than the work of other photographers from that place and time.

“Jones shack along the Yellowstone” is the only identification of this photo, written by an unknown hand. Why did Morrison frame the boat as if it were marooned on the dry-as-toast plains? (He composed all his pictures carefully: the glass-plate negatives he used were fragile and expensive, and they required long exposure times.) The image captures the loneliness of homesteads once inhabited by hopeful pioneers. You can still see them along the Yellowstone River—abandoned and empty, relics of someone’s busted dream of turning the semi-arid land into a profitable farm or ranch.

Miles City lies on the south bank of the Yellowstone River, as does the Northern Pacific Railroad, which arrived in 1881. For those who settled north of the river, isolation was a given. For an instance, an Englishwoman named Evelyn Cameron—another glass-plate photographer of extraordinary talent—moved in 1902 with her husband to a log cabin some 40 miles northeast of Miles City, near Terry, Montana. Their ranch was, “shut in on two sides by the river & badlands,” she wrote her sister. To get their mail and supplies, “we have to ride or drive 28 miles & cross the Yellowstone by a ferry boat in summer & on ice in winter.... [E]verything down to the smallest tin tack has had to be hauled from Terry (14 miles), taken across a rapid river (1050 feet wide), the latter part of the way without any road.”

Thus a dingy could be considered an essential piece of ranch equipment—even if there’s not a drop of water in sight.

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Coyote carcasses posed in front of A Frasers office
(Maura McCarthy)

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?

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Newlyweds in front of small brick church
(Maura McCarthy)

On their wedding day–Christmas Day, 1899–Clara S. Kelly and John Ramer trudged across the snow to pose in front of an elaborate brick...what? An old Montana farm woman I interviewed thought it might be a playhouse. But what about the steeple? A photo archivist at the Montana Historical Society suggested a crypt. Or perhaps it was a mini-replica of a chapel.

Ramer was a cowboy who’d herded cattle from Oregon to Montana. Kelly, even at 35, was quite a catch–she already had property of her own. She had come to Miles City from Pennsylvania in 1883 to keep house at her brother’s 80-acre farm. (Ramer had fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn under Captain Frederick Benteen, surviving the debacle.) After he died, in 1895, Kelly ran the farm on her own, but from a distance. She and Ramer moved to his horse and cattle ranch set against the badlands fifty miles south of Miles City—and worlds away from anything suggesting a genteel chapel of love.

She endeared herself to future generations in Miles City by planting a long row of cottonwood trees—shelter from the prairie winds—along the road leading from town out toward the cemetery. The photo also reveals the corner of a gazebo and a trio of wedding guests leaning against the farmhouse, waiting for the party to get started in earnest.

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Women posed together with drinks in hand in bedroom
(Maura McCarthy)

These women could be mistaken for a jolly group of sorority girls having some brazen fun. But look a little closer and you can detect a range of ages: the young women sitting on the floor seem fresher-faced than the trio in back (especially the woman standing). And then there are the keys dangling from the lock in the door, a chilling detail that Morrison clearly took care to include in the frame. Why?

The women were prostitutes, and they doubtless locked themselves in their rooms for business purposes. This is one of a series of photographs Morrison made inside a Miles City brothel, and the working girls were clearly not embarrassed to be caught on camera. Perhaps they knew the photographer—a 1904 map of the town indicates that his photography/sign painting business was just a block from a cluster of “female boarding” houses, the mapmaker’s euphemism for houses of ill repute.

Cowboys and sheepherders joined Fort Keogh’s soldiers in pursuit of Miles City’s illicit pleasures. The cowboy E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott wrote in his memoir, We Pointed Them North, that a local prostitute named Connie the Cowboy Queen sported a $250 dress embroidered with brands from all the cattle outfits that passed through town. Some of Abbott’s cowboy brethren would pick out a woman and “marry” her for a week, buying all her meals and squiring her about town. You couldn’t do that everywhere, he wrote, but things were different in Miles City.

Town officials collected lucrative fines from brothels while conveniently ignoring laws banning them. On the other hand, the Englishwoman Evelyn Cameron recalled that when she arrived in 1895 wearing a divided skirt—a fashion hitherto unseen in Miles City—she was threatened with arrest.

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American Indians posed in front of a booth with sign advertising SAVAGES
(Maura McCarthy)

At first glance this photo seems like a cruel joke: sober-faced Native Americans standing beneath the jaunty hand-painted “SAVAGES” sign, each letter created out of a caricatured Indian’s contorted pose. But irony—even a refutation of racial stereotypes—might have been the point. Morrison was both the photographer and the painter of the sign, which advertised a booth in front of the W.E. Savage building on Miles City’s Main Street. The booth was part of a September 1906 town-wide carnival called Y-Tic-Se-Lim. (An Indian name? No, just “Miles City” spelled backward.)

Morrison’s great-grandson, John Hamilton, a retired United States Forest Service archaeologist, says the image was not intended as a put-down, that the photographer enjoyed a relationship of trust and respect with the native people he knew. Morrison married a woman with Assiniboine blood, he traded with Native Americans regularly (his family still has some of the trade items, including tomahawks and rifles) and he sought out encampments to photograph them.

After arriving in Miles City in 1878, Morrison watched as Native Americans mounted a determined, if doomed, insurgency to hang onto their traditional lives on the northern Great Plains. Within five years after their victory at the Little Bighorn in 1876, most of Sitting Bull’s followers had surrendered to troops at Fort Keogh. Their guns confiscated, their ponies sold, they were given farm implements to begin an agrarian life. In June of 1881, their crops half-grown, more than 2,000 Native Americans were gathered and dispatched to a distant Indian agency by government order—even though the fort’s commander, General Nelson A. Miles, reported that they were in a “peaceable, contented and industrious” state.

The local newspaper, the Yellowstone Journal, painted a poignant scene as “the poor, friendless and homeless” Natives departed on steamboats: “A look of moroseness is visible on all their faces at the outrageous manner in which faith has been broken with them.” In this photo, Morrison has captured that same morose quality, but also a stoic dignity. As if he were asking: So who exactly were the “savages”?

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Black entertainers on stage with white man
(Maura McCarthy)

After the Northern Pacific Railroad came through Miles City in 1881, traveling troupes could come and go with ease (though sometimes they went broke and had to add performances to raise enough money to move on). The minstrel show pictured here took place inside a tent at Miles City’s Riverside Park. It was–like the “Savages” sign in the previous photograph—part of the town’s Y-Tic-Se-Lim celebration in September 1906.

The carnival organizers promised it would be the “jolliest, ripsnort-iest event of the season.” This show was advertised as “The Old Southern Plantation—Takes you back to the days befo’ de wah’,” and the performance was full of plantation stereotypes that typified 19th-century black minstrel shows. The photograph captures the standard scenario: the performers sit in a semicircle, with “Mr. Tambo” and his tambourine at one end and “Mr. Bones” holding a clapper (or “bones”) at the other. Those two told the funniest jokes, with an upright “Mr. Interlocutor” (or two) in formal attire at the center serving as straight man.

Morrison probably needed several seconds to expose this glass-plate negative inside the tent. The actors, standing stock still, are in perfect focus, but the restless audience in the foreground is blurry, apparently unaware of the camera–except perhaps for the one spectator who turned around, leaving behind a ghostly image of a face.

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Mystic Knights of Bovina
(Maura McCarthy)

Despite their Ku Klux Klan-like appearance, this group poised to march under a banner of MKB is actually the Mystic Knights of Bovina, an all-male, Texas-based organization that provided mock solemnity–and parties–when the Montana Stockgrowers Association convened in Miles City for three days every April. A parade kicked off the gathering, and the Knights’ red masks and black gowns made a “startling” impression, the daily Yellowstone Journal reported.

The Texas connection was established after the railroads arrived in Montana. Cowboys would herd cattle some 1,600 miles from the Lone Star State to feast on the free northern rangelands; once fattened, the animals were loaded onto railroad cars in Miles City and other depots. (One young cowboy from the XIT Ranch received the following directions before leaving Texas: “Jean, tonight you locate the north star and you drive straight toward it for three months and you will be in the neighborhood of where I want you to turn loose.”)

The convention featured some business matters–setting rules for the annual cattle roundups, for example–but it was also a blowout party that jammed Miles City’s hotels with wealthy stockmen and cowboys who earned $40 a month and couldn’t spend it fast enough. Theodore Roosevelt shared a bed with a stranger one year, but that didn’t dim his enthusiasm for the event. “It would be impossible to imagine a more typically American assemblage,” Roosevelt wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, and “difficult to gather a finer body of men, in spite of their numerous shortcomings.”

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Man baptizing woman in a river with people watching
(Maura McCarthy)

The frontier had its share of the devout along with the debauched. In 1880, a Catholic couple carried their baby from their ranch to Fort Keogh—it took 21 days on horseback—so the child could be baptized. Three years later the fort’s Catholic chaplain, summoned to a distant jail to administer the last rites to a snakebitten man, was surprised to see that “every prisoner...prayed for him on their knees. Some prayed out loud.” The patient survived. (Though when a Lutheran minister in 1906 arranged to borrow Miles City’s county jail for a service, he wrote, “I hope it’s empty about the time we are ready to use it.”)

Around 1900 Morrison got himself onto some high point for a God’s-eye view of a baptism in the Tongue River outside Miles City. Wind ripples the water and ruffles the hair of the preacher intoning the words that will usher a woman into the faith and into the tight little group on the shore. But the baptizer and the baptized, gently holding hands, seem deeply intent, apart as they are from everything and everybody in the middle of the river.

Add up all the congregants in this frame and you don’t even get to 20–so you’d think that Morrison would have come up with a composition to make the event look bigger. (The Tongue wasn’t much of a river at that time of year, and Morrison could have done something compositionally to fix that, too.) But he pulled back and aimed his camera at eternity, giving us an endless river twisting into invisibility.

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Man lying in a coffin
(Maura McCarthy)

Here lies Christian Barthlemess, at rest amid the trappings of domesticity, family portraits on the wall, embroidered curtains drawn back to let in the light. Photographing the deceased was a common form of remembrance in 1906, when Morrison took this picture. He imbued the scene with a tranquility that does nothing to suggest the nature of Barthelmess’s death, which occurred just before his 52nd birthday: according to his grandson Casey Barthelmess, he was essentially pulled apart during an effort to rescue him after the collapse of a sewer trench he had been digging near Fort Keogh’s hospital.

Barthelmess was born in Bavaria in 1854 and emigrated to the United States as a teenager. He enlisted in the Army in 1876 and served at several Western outposts before settling at Fort Keogh, where he served as a musician with the regimental band and, beginning in 1888, as the post photographer. Like Morrison, he worked with glass negatives even in an era when the far simpler Kodak camera was readily available; the older process yielded photographs of exceptional clarity and depth, as this portrait shows—you can practically feel the spaces between the lily and the casket, the draped flag and the corner of the room.

Barthelmess compiled an extraordinary record of frontier military life, picturing soldiers in the field and at play, in the mess hall and barracks. But after he died, his widow and seven children lacked official status and were summarily kicked off the post. She hung on to some loose vintage prints and two albums containing more than 400 of her husband’s pictures (some of which were published in 1965 in Photographer on an Army Mule, a book co-written by their son Casey Barthelmess), but asked Morrison to store the bulky negatives. Now more than 500 of Barthelmess’s negatives are emerging amid the 3,687 glass plates in the Morrison collection.

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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.