In 1886 — more than 20 years after the Homestead Act was signed
— an itinerate photographer in Custer County, Nebraska set out to
produce a photographic history of his county. Over the next 15 years,
Solomon D. Butcher produced 1,500 images, hundreds of stories, and a remarkable record
of a remarkable time in the history of Nebraska and the U.S.
Solomon Butcher in front of his dugout. He wrote on the photo, "My first house in Neb. 1880. Built from ‘Neb. Brick’."
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-5169
When Butcher was 24 years old in 1880, he had homesteaded with his father and younger brother in
central Nebraska. Like many
early settlers, they built a dugout, a one-room house out of sod.
But Butcher discovered he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. He went
back to Minnesota, studied medicine, and married a nurse from the
hospital, but never became a doctor. Instead, he and his wife Lillie came
back to Nebraska. He taught school for a time and then fell back
on his high school training in photography. He opened a photographic gallery in northern Custer County, a gallery that was never really profitable.
Somehow, Butcher hit on an amazing idea — he would produce a
photographic history of Custer County. He must have realized that
he was living in a time and place that were important to the history
of the country. There is also evidence that he thought this was
an idea he could sell. For whatever reason, it was an idea that
"From the time I thought of the plan, for seven days and
seven nights it drove the sleep from my eyes. I laid out plans
and covered sheet after sheet of paper, only to tear them up and
consign them to the waste basket. At last, Eureka! Eureka! I had
fount (sic) it. I was so elated that I had lost all desire for rest. . . ."
Beginning in 1886, Butcher began to travel all across the county
by horse and wagon, taking photographs of his friends and neighbors.
These are the photographs that now illustrate many history
texts about the settlement period (and that illustrate this website). He also collected pioneer stories. As he traveled, he supported
himself with subscriptions and donations that various citizens made
to the project as well as by the sale of photographs. Over the next
seven years, he made over 1,500 images in Custer County.
Pulling together all of his work into a book was difficult. The drought and
depression of the 1890s dried up his finances. A fire in 1899 burned
many of the biographies and narratives he had collected, as well as
many of his slim financial assets. Finally, in 1901, he received the
backing of a wealthy Custer County rancher and created the book Pioneer
History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska.
S. D. Butcher working at his collection at the University of Nebraska, 1916.
Courtesy Library of Congress, 14561v
Butcher continued to photograph, and by 1911, the sheer size and
weight of all of those glass plate negatives — each 6½
by 8½ inches —
was too great for him to continue to maintain and move. So
he offered to sell the collection to the Nebraska State Historical
Society. It took three years to get the funds from the Legislature,
but the collection is now one of the major sources of primary material
of history — documents made and collected during the period of
|Solomon D. Butcher, Frontier Photographer, set out to produce a photographic history of Custer County, Nebraska.|
©2004 NET Foundation for Television, co-produced by NET Television & the Nebraska State Historical Society
Find out more about
the 1850-1874 new settlement of Nebraska.