A Mysterious Chicago Photographer’s 24 Images of Life in the 1880s and ’90s
J.C.H. Grabill captured scenes from Deadwood, the American Indian Wars, and life on the rugged frontier. Then he disappeared.
Published Dec. 4, 2013, at 11:58 a.m.
Text by Whet Moser
In 1893, Frederic Ward Putnam, head of the anthropology department for the Columbian Exposition, and his assistant Franz Boas (the “Father of American Anthropology” and a future mentor to Margaret Mead) set up a mock village for fourteen Kwakiutl Indians from British Columbia. The exhibition was a turning point in the history of anthropology, the moment when the concept was introduced to America, though not without stagecraft or historical irony—the fair’s ethnologists had to teach the natives the outmoded practices of their forefathers.
Putnam and Boas hired a Chicago photographer, J.C.H. Grabill (or John H. Grabill), to document the Kwakiutl. He was an felicitous choice; Grabill had recently entrusted 188 photographs of the American frontier to the Library of Congress.
A former miner, Grabill was present as the West boomed, capturing prospectors as they captured the wealth of the land, wealth that Grabill built his name on and likely afforded him his brief career as a photographer.
And as the West boomed, the military finally surpressed the last of the native resistance. Along with his photographs of the region’s brand-new wealth springing from the ground are eerie, sparse documents of the Pine Ridge Reservation after the massacre at Wounded Knee, like the picture above of Miniconjou Lakota followers of Spotted Elk, 153 of whom were killed in the final conflict of the American Indian Wars.
Grabill’s photography career lasted a mere seven years, but seven critical ones, and his legacy is a remarkable document of America in the era of Manifest Destiny. Yet virtually nothing is known about him aside from this. He appears in Colorado in 1880 with a brief notice in the Leadville Daily Herald, announcing that he has “a four foot vein of copperas on Maroon mountain.”
Aside from a brief bout with bilious fever, Grabill’s ascent was fast; a year later, he was described as “one of the most scientific, energetic, and indefatigable mining men in Pitkin County”; in 1882, he was praised for his “swift movements from one county to another to give his many interests personal supervision.” The busy miner began to pop up in the society notes (“made happy by a gents fine dressing cape,” according to the Christmas Notes in the Buena Vista Democrat), for his election to the Good Templars. Late in 1885, Grabill married Maggie Gillespie, “one of our most talented and popular young ladies,” according to the Democrat (one Margaret Gillespie Grabill, 1860-1917, would establish the first kindergarten in Denver).
In December of that year, the Democrat reported that Grabill “will soon be prepared to do business in the photograph line”; the next year, he gave up his assay office and left for the northwest, falling ill in Cheyenne and requiring his wife to leave her position in the Buena Vista public schools.
From there, Grabill’s travels are documented by his subjects and photographic mounts—Sturgis, Deadwood, Lead City, and Hot Springs, and finally Chicago, where he established Grabill’s Chicago Portrait and View Company with $5,000 in capital stock in 1892, advertising “beautiful views of Lincoln Park,” “expert interior or exterior views,” “first-class crayon work,” and photos for Columbian Exposition passes.
And there he would produce the last of his known works, for Putnam and Boaz, shooting a fake Indian village on Chicago’s Midway just three years after the Wounded Knee Massacre all but ended the frontier wars.
Grabill’s trail runs cold in 1893, when he filed a copyright lawsuit against Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show: “Grabill alleges that in 1890 he took a number of photographs of Indian scenes at Pine Ridge and South Dakota and he charges that this year Buffalo Bill has caused pictures to be made and distributed which are copies of the copyrighted photographs named,” the Tribune reported.
Within a couple years, Grabill, Boaz, and Putnam would all be gone. Putnam failed to become director of the Field Museum, but went on to help establish the anthropology department at Berkeley; Boas lasted only a brief time there, moving to Columbia University to train the next generation of anthropologists.
Grabill, the photographer, simply vanished, like the moment he documented: the moment when Manifest Destiny became history, a literal living exhibition.