Frontier photographer inspired a new kind of documentary

January 24, 1856 

On this day, pioneer photographer and  “chronicler of the frontier soddy” Solomon Butcher, was born.  His images became a mother lode for historians and would inspire one of America’s premier film makers.    

Called the “George Catlin of the camera,” Butcher (left) was a poor sort of pioneer himself.   But his more than 3,000 images of heartland homesteaders and their ubiquitous shelters, the sod house, captures everyday life on the plains in the 1880s and 90s .

Born in Virginia, he was raised in LaSalle County, Illinois.  Some restless spirit drove him West as a young man and kept him on the move most of his distracted adult life.

Solomon had a penchant for poor planning that was often compounded by bad luck.  He and his father, Thomas, both gave up steady, good-paying jobs in favor of free land in Nebraska.  Accompanied by Solomon’s brother, George, and brother-in-law, J.R. Wabel, they began a nearly 600 mile journey to Custer County, Nebraska, in March, 1880.  They fought late winter snow, cold rains and mud up to the wagon axles most of the way.

And Butcher soon rued the day.  After helping to build a sod house for his father, he concluded “any man that would leave the luxuries of a boarding house, where they had hash every day, and a salary of $125 a month to lay Nebraska sod for 75 cents a day. . . was a fool.”

The sod house complete, he and Thomas headed back to Illinois to retrieve Mrs. Butcher and a younger son.  While the rest of the family soon returned to the prairie, Solomon stayed behind.   

Solomon’s dugout completed in three days

With just three days left to “prove up” on his land, however, he rushed back, hurriedly constructed a crude dug-out shelter to satisfy the terms of the Homestead Act, and was off again.   This time he headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Minnesota to attend medical school.

His yen to become a doctor soon fizzled.  Dropping out after a year, he married a young nurse, Lillie Barber Hamilton, and the couple moved back to Nebraska.  “I had seen just enough of the wild west,” he wrote in 1882, “ to unfit me for living contentedly in the East.” 

After a brief stint as a school teacher, he opened a makeshift photographic studio with a dirt floor and a backdrop made of wagon canvas. It failed to pay the bills.  Butcher finally hit on the one successful idea of his life.   “Eureka,” Butcher declared, deciding to publish an illustrated history of Custer County. 

Butcher’s traveling photo studio

In the Spring of 1886 he loaded his camera equipment on to the back of a buckboard and traveled from homestead to homestead, taking pictures of the prairie’s stalwart pioneers and recording their family histories.

Alas, Butcher’s bad luck came in threes.  Amidst a severe drought in Custer County and the economic collapse of 1892, Butcher’s house burned down, taking all of his historic narratives with it.  The 1,500 photographic glass plates that were stored in a grainery were spared.  It took nearly two decades after his camera captured the first photograph for Butcher’s book to finally see the light of day in 1901. 

Homestead family in Custer County, Nebraska, 1892

With the help of a wealthy rancher and a small town newspaper editor, the  1,000 copies printed quickly sold out.  Its popularity convinced Butcher he should expand to the surrounding counties.  The idea apparently died on the vine when the vagabond photographer got distracted selling post cards instead of taking pictures.  

The Shore family were one of a number of Black homesteaders

Claiming he had become “bored” with photography, Butcher decided his future lay in real estate.  He signed on with a developer to sell land in Texas.  Fortunately for historians, his glass plates were too heavy to take along.   

A deal with the Nebraska Historical Society to buy them for $1,000 ended up far less lucrative for Butcher than he thought.  There was no end of political wrangling between members of the society over the money.  Butcher eventually realized only $600, about $17,000 today.

They languished in the society’s basement until 1958 when researchers at Nebraska Public Television used the images in a groundbreaking documentary on the Homestead Act.  It was the first to wed narration and still photography, changing forever educational TV’s standard stilted “lecture in a box.”  

The format has since been perfected by legendary documentary film maker, Ken Burns. (Right)  His more than 30 films have earned two Oscar nominations, three Emmy’s, two Grammy’s, a Peabody and a host of honors from Foundations and Universities.  His latest film on country music is expected to be released this year.The Custer County Historical Society, 445 South 9th Avenue, Broken Bow, Nebraska, maintains a permanent exhibit of iconic Solomon Butcher photographs of early pioneers and sod house homesteads.  In addition, the museum features artifacts for the 1880 Wescott Gibbons and Bragg General Store of 1880.  Located in downtown Broken Bow, the museum is open afternoons 10 to 5, Monday through Saturday.  For more information go to, e-mail, call (308) 872-2203 or write Custer County Historical Society, Post Office Box 334, Broken Bow, NE 68822.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.