“Little Shadow Catcher” captured history through his lens

March 6, 1854 

On this day, the “little shadow catcher,” David Francis Barry, was born east of the Mississippi but destined to capture the West with his camera.

Using a pair of portable photographic galleries, Barry (left) and fellow photographer, Orlando Scott Goff, traveled the prairie.  Barry captured images of some of history’s leading men from a front row seat as they crossed the national stage, including General George Armstrong Custer, Russian Grand Duke Alexei on his royal buffalo hunt, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and principle chiefs at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  

Custer, with the Grand Duke (left) following the buffalo hunt

Son of Irish immigrants, his family moved from Honeoye, New York, to Wisconsin when he was just seven.  As a teenager he served as an apprentice to itinerant photographer, Orlando Scott Goff, a man who would shape the rest of Barry’s life.

Goff and his wife moved to Yankton, Dakota Territory, in 1871 and to Bismark two years later.  Barry was either summoned by Goff or chose to follow his old mentor.

It was Barry’s close relationship with some of the most feared and famous  Native American leaders that accounted for his success with his subjects. 

Among them was Rain in the Face (Ité Omágažu), (left) alleged killer of Custer.  He had been imprisoned at Fort Abraham Lincoln, captured by Thomas Custer, the general’s younger brother.  The elder Custer ordered the chief held for killing Dr. John Honsinger at the Battle of Honsinger Bluff.  The wily Rain in the Face escaped two days later. 

His return to the Standing Rock  Reservation may have sparked the gathering storm sealing Custer’s fate three years later.  Considered one of the most treacherous of the Lakota by his foes, Rain in the Face would be called a true friend by Barry, saying he “possessed a good heart,” according to the Army’s account,

Barry’s relationshipship with Hunkpapa leader, Gall, (right) however, was less amicable, nearly ending in disaster.  An ally of Sitting Bull, Gall and his band accompanied the Lakota chief to Canada.  But following a dispute with Sitting Bull he returned to Standing Rock in 1880.

 Shunning contact with Anglo-Americans for another decade, he was finally persuaded to pose for Barry.   Angered when the photographer rearranged some of his clothing during the sitting,  however, he demanded that he be given the glass plate. 

The argument had dissolved into a shoving match when Gall drew a knife.  At which point, the diminutive Barry reached for a gun.  The feisty Irishman remained wedded to his position and the stand-off finally ended without bloodshed.  The pair apparently kissed and made up over the years, both men later acknowledging their friendship.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Exposition put many of the West’s most iconic figures all in one place, including Buffalo Bill himself, Chief Sitting Bull (right) and Annie Oakley.  For a time Barry traveled with the show, acting as an official photographer.

But the Lakota’s “little shaddow catcher” continued to correct the record regarding the country’s wars with the Native Americans.  He contributed their accounts to numerous books and periodicals, putting his finances in peril.  As a result he was forced to sell portions of his photographs and artifacts.

Eventually returning to Wisconsin, Barry opened a gallery in Superior, which he operated until his death on his 80th birthday, March 6, 1934.  His wife, Margaret, had died two years earlier and the couple apparently had no children.

Barry’s gallery in Superior, Wisconsin

By the third decade of the new century, the nation had largely forgotten the struggle for the frontier.  The great chiefs were dead, their descendents, caught between two worlds, were living on reservation and the Army had long since retreated from its dozens of prairie outposts.  Miraculously Barry’s more than 150 historic photographs survived and are preserved in a number of museums and university archives as a permanent record of our past. 

The Custer Battlefield Museum, 4185 Garryowen Road, Garryowen, Montana, is currently home to more than 100 Barry photographs .  One of the largest exhibits of his work, included are images of Custer, Major Frederick Benteen, Sitting Bull and Gall. 

The Battlefield Museum is open daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, 9 to 8 and September through May, 9 to 5.  Admission is $7.50 for adults, children under 12 are free.  For more information go to custermuseum.org,  e-mail info@custermuseum.org, call (406) 638-1876 or write Custer Battlefield Museum, Townhall PO Box 200, Garryowen, MT 59031.

 More Barry photographs can  be found at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.  For more information on the Buffalo Bill Center go to centerofthewest.org, call (307) 587-4771 or write 720 Sheridan Avenue Cody, Wyoming 82414

© Text Only – 2019 – 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.