BUTCHER, SOLOMON (1856-1927)
Solomon D. Butcher's photographs made the sod house an American icon. No other photographer captured settlement in the Great Plains with such insight into the experience of homesteading.
Butcher was born on January 24, 1856, in Burton, Virginia. His father moved the family to Illinois four years later, and it was there that Butcher spent his childhood and first learned the science of photography. Butcher spent one term at the Henry Military School in Henry, Illinois, but soon gave that up to work as a traveling salesman.
In 1880 Butcher's father again moved on, this time to Nebraska. Solomon gave up his job as a salesman and went along. It took them approximately six weeks to reach the northeastern corner of Custer County, where Butcher's father, Butcher himself, and his brother George, who also made the trip, filed homestead claims. It took Butcher only two weeks to realize he was not made for homesteading, and he returned his claim to the government. There followed a brief attempt at the study of medicine in Minnesota, marriage, and his return to the Sandhills of Nebraska.
By the fall of 1882 Butcher was teaching school and trying to amass enough money to purchase land and photographic equipment. Shortly thereafter he opened what became the first photographic gallery in Custer County, Nebraska. Over the next few years, Butcher moved his family from town to town, never quite escaping from financial ruin. But in 1886, possibly driven by depression over yet another financial crisis, Butcher struck on an idea: he would produce a photographic history of Custer County, Nebraska. For almost three decades, he traveled across the Nebraska Sandhills photographing homesteaders in their environment. He did more than take portraits of people; he placed them within the context that defined their existence. Butcher understood the commitment it took to homestead, and he also realized that this experience was short-lived and would never happen again.
The sheer volume of images produced by Butcher offers an unparalleled look at the life of homesteaders. Butcher's care to include the landscape, the sod house, and the saplings so carefully tended speaks to his desire to record the space, not just the face, of homesteading. He recorded the impact of homesteading, not just the act. Butcher practiced environmental portraiture at its finest. In some photographs the people are such a small part of the image that they are barely detectable. In others they take center stage but are surrounded by the material trappings of homesteading: stoves, birdcages, tables, chairs, photographs of absent family members.
Butcher created a detailed and comprehensive view of homesteading, but his images also offer insight into the craft of photography in the late nineteenth century and open the door to countless stories about the settlers themselves. Through his images we are transported to the mud and sweat that was the settlement of the Great Plains. Solomon Butcher died in Greeley, Colorado, on May 26, 1927.
Jill Marie Koelling Nebraska State Historical Society
Butcher, Solomon D. Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska. Broken Bow NE: Solomon D. Butcher and Ephraim Swain Finch, 1901. Carter, John E. Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.