“I swear every American has seen a Solomon Butcher photograph,” says the author John E. Carter. “I think that’s a real easy bet.”
Very few Americans, however, know the name Solomon D. Butcher. His photos, distinctive portraits of the hardy homesteaders of the American West, often standing in front of their small sod houses, have become the ubiquitous representation of settling the western United States in the late 1800s. They’re included in nearly every American history book depicting the early settlers following the passage of the Homestead Act. In fact, his photos are some of the only that exist of this pivotal moment in the country’s history.
Although his photos are now iconic, Butcher never saw success in his lifetime and few know his name today. His life story is a tumultuous one full of half-baked schemes and minor disasters.
“He was funny, eccentric, and just a little bit out of step with the rest of the world,” says Carter, who wrote Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream. “And he had a real knack for failing at things.”
Butcher was born in Burton, Virginia (now West Virginia) on January 24, 1856. When he was four years old his family moved to Winona, Illinois, where his father had a good job working for the Central Railroad. In 1880, Butcher’s father abandoned his railroad job, lured west by the promise of land under the Homestead Act, and Butcher, then twenty-four years old, decided to move with him.
The Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, allowed any American, including freed slaves, to put in a claim for up to 160 free acres of federal land. A homesteader had to live on the land for five years and improve it by building a dwelling at least twelve-by-fourteen-feet in size and growing crops. Then the homesteader could file for his deed of title.
Butcher and his family left in early March, traveling with two covered wagons from daybreak until they ran out of light each day, averaging about 100 miles a week.
Early March still felt like winter, with temperatures below freezing, and the whole group was miserable, according to Butcher’s written account of the trip. He caught a fever early on and wasn’t able to do anything but cook, so he had to wake up at four a.m. every day to make breakfast.
After seven weeks of this, they ended up in Custer County, Central Nebraska, about 700 miles from their home in Illinois. Both Butcher and his father staked claims and registered their land under the Homestead Act. Next, they needed to build lodging.
Settlers usually built small dugouts with walls made of dirt and grass, called sod houses, because there weren’t many trees available for wood on the Nebraska plains. Before the sod houses were built, most settlers just slept in a hole in the ground with a wagon cover to protect them from the elements.
“I soon came to the conclusion that any man that would leave the luxuries of a boarding house, where they had hash every day, a salary of $125 per month, to lay Nebraska sod for seventy-five cents a day…was a fool,” Butcher later wrote in his book, Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska.
By mid-May, Butcher’s father’s sod house still wasn’t complete and they were running out of the provisions they had brought with them from Illinois. For about eight days, the family lived on animal feed that had accidentally been doused by kerosene leak.
Butcher went back to Illinois to get his brother, but he ended up staying for six months. When he got back to Nebraska, he had only three days left to build and occupy a house on his claim, so he constructed a makeshift dugout. But he wasn’t cut out for homesteading. After just two weeks, he gave up and gave his land back to the government. “It was way too much like working for a living for him,” says Carter.
Butcher left Nebraska again, this time to attend the Minnesota Medical College in Minneapolis. He only lasted a year, but he met his wife there, while she was training to be a nurse. He started feeling restless and decided to go back to Nebraska once again. “I had seen just enough of the Wild West to unfit me for living contentedly in the East,” he wrote in Pioneer History.
Back in Nebraska, Butcher and his wife moved in with his father while he worked as a schoolteacher in order to save enough money to buy photo equipment and build a photography studio, pursuing an interest he had first explored as a photographer’s apprentice after high school. The studio failed, and so did the one he opened after that in another town.
By that time Butcher had two children to support and was running out of ways to avoid the physical life of farming. Then he came up with his grand plan: to produce a photographic history of Custer County. “Even though he failed as a homesteader, he admired what the people who were successful at it were doing,” says Carter. “He also had this keen observation that these people were doing something that hadn’t been done before. These people were given the opportunity to carve a brand new life.”
“From the time I thought of the plan for seven days and seven nights it drove the sleep from my eyes,” wrote Butcher. “I laid out plans and covered sheet after sheet of paper, only to tear them up and consign them to the wastebasket. At last, Eureka! Eureka! I had found it. I was so elated that I had lost all desire for rest and had to take morphine to make me sleep.”
But of course, he had no way to pay for this project.
He asked his father to buy him a wagon in order to take his photography equipment around to all of the settlers of the county, but his father was unsure of Butcher’s plan. Butcher went out and, within two weeks, got seventy-five families to agree to be photographed. Butcher’s father was convinced and bought him the wagon.
He began taking his photos and collecting oral histories in June of 1886. This was not easy work because roads, when they existed, were usually not more than ruts in the hard ground. Many families didn’t have money to pay so they offered food and lodging in exchange for their photos. Butcher was able to support himself on subscriptions, basically pre-orders for the future project, and donations for a few years. Things were actually going pretty well. “He was literally taking a look at a country in the state of being born,” says Carter.
Then in the 1890s, a severe drought hit the area and the entire country entered a depression. Many of the settlers who were barely getting by before gave up and moved back East.
In 1892, the drought drove Butcher from his farm and again he was penniless. He moved to the town of West Union, where, as an active member of the Populist Party, he worked as a justice of the peace and election clerk. After three years he had almost made his way out of debt.
On the morning of March 12, 1899, Butcher’s son got up and built a fire before going out to the barn. Not long after, his wife and daughter awoke and went out to the yard. When Butcher himself finally arose, he noticed flames on the roof of the house near the top of the stovepipe.
He yelled for his son to get a ladder and Butcher climbed up to put the fire out. Before he reached the roof, he lost his footing, slipped and fell, knocking himself out on the way down.
By the time his wife and son were able to drag him to safety, the flames had engulfed the house and the family lost everything, including narratives he had been gathering for his photographic history.
Butcher did have a rare moment of fortune, however, because his photographic glass plates, each measuring six-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half inches, were too large to be stored in the house and instead kept in his granary and undamaged in the fire. But he had no insurance, so he was broke again.
He offered subscriptions to his yet unfinished book in order to try to recoup his losses. By 1901 he had completed the text and ordered the engraving of 200 printing plates. But he didn’t have enough money to actually print the book, and his financial ineptitude scared away backers. Finally, Ephram Swain Finch, one of the area’s wealthiest residents and an active member of the Populists, put his money and prestige behind the project and the book was published.
Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska was a hit in the area. The first edition of one thousand copies sold out before delivery so a second edition was ordered before Christmas. Butcher had finally tasted a bit of success and started planning books for nearby counties.
In 1902, he moved to Kearney and opened a studio in order to start working on a book for Buffalo County, but his restlessness prevented any progress. Instead of working on the book he traveled around selling postcards. “Like so many things in his life, he got ’em a good start, had a big dream for them and then they would just fall apart on him,” says Carter.
By 1911, Butcher was sick of photography. He had failed to gain the recognition and fame he thought he deserved and so, at sixty years old, decided to move on to real estate. He started working for a company selling farmland in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. He hoped to move down to Texas himself, but his collection of nearly 3,000 photographs on glass plates was too large and heavy to take with him.
So he decided to sell his photos to the newly formed Nebraska State Historical Society, signing a contract with Addison Sheldon, head of the Legislative Reference Bureau, for $1,000. Butcher received one hundred dollars down with the understanding that the rest would be paid once the legislature approved the appropriations. Sheldon assured him that it would pass easily, so Butcher spent the money he hadn’t yet received, paying off debt and buying a car. But it did not pass easily and was held up in the legislature for years. Finally a compromise was reached for $600, which Butcher reluctantly agreed to because he needed the money. The icing on the cake, however, was when Sheldon asked Butcher to pay back the $100 down with $11 in interest.
Of course, Butcher’s land deals in Texas never materialized. So he went back to working as a traveling salesman – first of grain and flour, then of his own inventions, an “electromagnetic oil detector” and a cure-all medicine he called “Butcher’s Wonder of the Age,” which he clamed healed all sorts of ailments, but which was mostly just alcohol. When none of these schemes gained him the fortune he expected, he moved to Colorado in 1926 to be closer to his daughter.
On March 18, 1927, Solomon D. Butcher died at the age of seventy-one, considering himself a failure.
His photos sat untouched in the Historical Society for nearly fifty years, before they were rediscovered as one of the only visual documentations of the Great Plains during the Homestead Act.
In 1958, University of Nebraska Television came up with idea of creating a documentary using Butcher’s photographs. The documentary was groundbreaking because educational television at the time was thought of as a lecture in a box, usually a professor standing in front of the camera explaining some abstract theory or moment in history for an hour. Instead, this documentary used Butcher’s photographs and paired them with the letters of the Oblinger family, which settled in Nebraska in the 1870s. This was one of the first times historical photos were paired with words from the time period in a television documentary. National Educational Television (what is now PBS) remade the documentary for a national audience in 1962.
In 1968 Roger Welch used the photos in his book Sod Walls, which chronicled the process of building a sod house, and Carter wrote his book on Butcher in 1985. In 1996, Ken Burns featured the photos in his documentary series, “The West.” Since then, Butcher’s photos have become a primary representation of the American West in numerous history books. Over the last ten years, the collection has been digitized, which has allowed historians like Carter to get an even closer look at what is really going on in these photos.
What makes Butcher’s photographs so unique is that unlike many other photographs of the time, shot merely for friends and family, the people in Butcher’s photographs knew that the photos were meant to document history. Because of this, the poses many of the subjects take were not meant to look pretty, but to tell future generations what it was like to be a homesteader. One of the most striking features of these photos is the pride the homesteaders show. Many of those photographed were the first landowners in their family and it was important for them to show that they owned this land; it may not have been pretty, but it was their land.
Homesteaders often lined up their most prized possessions in order to show how much they really owned. One woman was embarrassed of her sod house but the proud owner of a pump organ and requested that the family be photographed with it instead. They dragged the organ out into the yard — farm animals and wagons can be seen in the background — and then dragged it back into the house after the photo was taken.
“These are folks who look at the world around them, see the sweat they’ve put into it and think, ‘yep, this is pretty good,’” says Carter.
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Shannon Geis is a freelance writer, multimedia producer, and oral historian. She is a Nebraska native living in Brooklyn, New York.