Chadron: Northwestern Photographic Company, 1890-1891. First Edition. Prints roughly 4 ¼ x 7 inches mounted to heavy card. Most spotted and faded, surfaces soiled, a few with creases, one beginning to tear, cards worn at edges, some with small losses not affecting prints. Generally good condition overall. Good. Item #Cat0101
Many photographs of the massacre at Wounded Knee were not identified until the late 1980s, almost one hundred years after the conflict. Once inventoried, they came to epitomize the power and limits of photographic evidence. Three scholars, Richard E. Jensen, R. Eli Paul, and John E. Carter, spent years exhaustively cross-referencing the images with other primary sources. They were able to overturn many lingering myths and misconceptions generated by the written accounts while also exposing the deceptive potential of photography as witness. Their study, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (1991), is our reference and we use their plate numbers to identify prints in this collection where possible.
Jensen et al. describe the entrepreneurial aim of the photographers who gathered at Pine Ridge Agency in North Dakota in November and December of 1890. They anticipated a conflict between the US army and various Native American groups, mostly Lakota Sioux, who were followers of a new messianic movement known as the Ghost Dance. Their commercial opportunity finally came at the Wounded Knee massacre. On December 29, the US Seventh Cavalry slaughtered approximately 300 Lakotas traveling from Standing Rock reservation to the Pine Ridge Agency. Two photographers, George (Gus) Trager, of Chadron N.D., and a young itinerant photographer, Clarence Moreledge, made hundreds of photographs at Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge during the next two weeks. They documented the battlefield, the “hostile” Ghost Dance groups and their chiefs, and US calvary and Native American encampments.
Sometime in late January, Trager and his business partner, Joe Ford, returned to Chadron and formed the Northwestern Photographic Company to print, market, and distribute these desirable souvenirs of the American Indian’s Last Stand (as the massacre, known at this point as the “Pine Ridge War,” was promoted). Moreledge remained at Pine Ridge with his camera and apparently sold the rest of his negatives to Northwestern Photographic Company sometime in July 1891. Trager and Ford also purchased a natural spring and began marketing its waters and other dubious businesses on the back of their cabinet cards.
Most of the examples in this collection include these advertisements verso and thus can be dated to a period between late January and early fall of 1891.
As we see in this collection of Northwestern Company prints, the subjects and captions were often sensationalized or even fictitious. Dates, names, and locations were changed to coincide with the Euro-American interpretation of events. Most infamously, Trager and Moreledge were responsible for posing the body of Chief Sitanka (known as Big Foot, see no. 24) at the Wounded Knee site.
By the summer of 1891, interest in Wounded Knee had faded and Northwestern Photographic Company was no longer able to sell its views. Despite their initial popularity, very few prints survived; those that did, even in albums, are almost universally in compromised condition, and large groups of this kind are exceedingly scarce. At least a few of the examples in this collection do not seem to have been previously identified. But even within those that have, there are new iterations; small changes in language and framing that reflect and trace the evolving meaning of Wounded Knee.
Inevitably, researchers including Jensen et al. had their own historical biases and their groundbreaking study leaves many questions unanswered. Misinformation and misidentification of Native American names, practices, and lives is so endemic that each variant print remains an important artifact for historical accuracy. Examples in this collection include unrecorded images of misidentified war dances, views of the Pine Ridge Agency encampments, and an image of the Pine Ridge School superintendent Emma Sickels (or Sickles), whose role in the conflict has never been fully explained by historians.
All examples with Northwestern Photographic Company advertisements verso, unless noted. Many with remnants of early stickers either recto or verso, from “James & Perry” of Sheridan, Wyoming, photographers and also vendors of photographic equipment). Most also with manuscript annotation “Property of E.W. Snelling, Lovell, Wyoming.” Earl William Snelling (1891-1980) was a WWI veteran.