Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

CAMERON, EVELYN (1868-1928)

An English aristocrat who settled in Montana in 1889, Evelyn Cameron spent more than three decades documenting the settlement of the Great Plains with arresting photographs and diaries. Cameron was born Evelyn Jephson Flower on August 26, 1868, near London. She married Scotsman Ewen Cameron, and they honeymooned in 1889 in the United States, hunting in the Great Plains. The Camerons were smitten by the badlands and undulating prairies of southeastern Montana. They decided to stay and raise polo ponies for export to Great Britain, eventually settling on a spread near Terry, a rough-and-tumble town that Evelyn described in her diary as "rather lively of late, cowboys shooting here, there & everywhere."

Making a living was tough in the hardscrabble hills. The Camerons' polo-pony enterprise failed, and they lost the rest of their money during the Panic of 1893. To make ends meet, Evelyn sold vegetables and took in boarders. She did all the domestic chores as well as jobs considered "man's work": branding cattle, breaking horses, chopping wood, and cleaning stables. Ewen had persistent health problems and was of little help. He spent most his time observing and writing about wildlife.

Despite the hardships, Evelyn loved ranch life. Photography, which she learned from one of her boarders, became a passion. Soon she was focusing her camera, a plate Kodet, on the sweeping Plains and its inhabitants, including wildlife. She had no telephoto lens, so she had to sneak up on many of the wild animals she photographed. Ewen used her photographs to illustrate his articles. Evelyn's great achievement, however, was to capture the immensity of Montana's space in a small photographic print. She would use a line of cattle or a string of horses on the horizon to measure the vastness, or she would let a small scene in the foreground, like a corral, contrast with the openness beyond. Evelyn also recorded the hardness of pioneer life on this twentieth-century frontier, the settlers' small plain shacks dwarfed by the surrounding landscape.

As the Camerons' financial situation worsened, they relied increasingly on income from Evelyn's photography. She charged a quarter apiece for pictures or three dollars for a dozen. Using a new Graflex camera with a nine-inch Goerz lens, which she bought in 1905 for the princely sum of $225.50, Evelyn worked on commission for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, making the harsh land of eastern Montana look seductive to homesteaders.

The Camerons moved to several different ranches in search of more bountiful land. They started their fourth and last ranch in 1907 within sight of the Yellowstone River. Ewen's condition grew worse, despite Evelyn's patient care, and he died of cancer in 1915. Evelyn continued on alone, "as busy as a one-armed man with hives," as she put it. Her fortitude, resourcefulness, and independence were widely admired. An Englishwoman who met Evelyn described her as the "most respected, most talked of" woman in Montana. Evelyn became a U.S. citizen in 1918. Ten years later, on the day after Christmas, she died of heart failure.

Evelyn might have faded into the mists of history had not Donna Lucey, a New York editor who visited Montana in 1978 in search of photographs for a book on pioneer women, discovered a huge stash of Cameron's negatives and diaries in the basement of a neighbor of the photographer. Evelyn's photographs, negatives, diaries, and other personal effects were donated to the Montana Historical Society in Helena. The Prairie County Museum in Terry, Montana, also has a gallery of Evelyn's photographs.

Gayle Shirley Montana Secretary of State's Office

Lucey, Donna. Photographing Montana, 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.

Raban, Jonathan. Bad Land: An American Romance. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Shirley, Gayle. "Evelyn Cameron, Frontier Photographer." In More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women. Helena MT: Falcon Publishing, 1995: 74–83.

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