A Snapshot of History ~ Solomon D. Butcher

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butcherSolomon D. Butcher arrived in Nebraska in 1880 to farm. Solomon, his father, his brother George, and brother-in-law J.R. Wabel took claims in Nebraska. They dug a hole and pulled their covered wagon over it to serve as temporary shelter. Such was the comfort of Butcher’s farm life. Butcher by his own admission wasn’t suited for the pioneering life. “I soon came to the conclusion,” he said, “that 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.”

Butcher lasted two-week.

Which lends to my theory that Nebraska is not for wimps.

In fact I’ve petitioned the governor to make that the state motto.

Nebraska-It’s Not for Wimps

Governor Heineman hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

cow on roof

Butcher turned his land back to the government and enrolled in medical school. He quit after a year. And thus began a five year strings of failures as his family grew. In 1886 he decided to become a photographer of pioneers. This picture of the cow on the roof (look close, it’s not REALLY on the roof) is particularly well known. And they’ve done painstaking computer studies and can see things inside the sod house through the open door. I’ve left these pictures large in an effort to not distort them by shrinking them and so you can see them better, they almost spill off the page.antlers on sod house

His father loaned him a wagon and Butcher began his odyssey and would end up recording a legacy for the whole nation. Travel was hard. Roads barely existed. Farms were hours apart. Just study these photos for a while. The longer you look the more details you see. It’s really amazing.

family with organ

This family was ashamed of their sod house, but proud of their pump organ. So they settled on this pose. Look how many cows they had. Rich people. Butcher accepted food, lodging and a stable for his horses in exchange for a picture. He supported himself with donations citizens made to the project, as well as by the sale of photographs.

It took him fifteen years to get his book published, including a fire in 1899 that burned all his pictures, but not the glass negatives.

I know how hard it is to get a book published and,  as a writer, I’d just like to pause here for a moment and pity the poor man.

Okay, we’ll proceed with the story.

sod house with family and chickens

Look at this picture. The woman is fat. I’ll bet they were prosperous. Look at all those chickens. Dinner on the hoof, or claw…whatever. Butcher’s book, Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska was his single financial success until the day he sold his life’s work. In fact he was so poor he had to take his wife and child and stay at his father’s house every time it rained, because his house was so decrepit.


Along with his photographs he also collected pioneer stories that endure to this day. I love this one. Sisters who were alone in the west.  They each filed a claim and ended up with their own farm. Can’t you just write that story right now? Butcher’s photographs can be found illustrating  many history texts about the settlement period and are considered iconic.


After Custer County he expanded his photography to other counties but couldn’t raise the funds to publish his books. He continued to move his family and take photographs. The moves began to be massive undertakings because he had so many negatives to haul, each negative was a glass plate 6 ½ by 8 ½ inches.


In 1911 he decided to move to Texas and he couldn’t haul the plates along. He attempted to sell them to the Nebraska State Historical Society and after three years spent trying to raise the money, the Historical Society bought the entire collection for $1000 and they hired Butcher to archive the collection–I guess he’d given up on the whole Texas idea by then.

Butcher his own sod house

Solomon D. Butcher–shown here beside his own sod house–was a truly insightful photographer, but he died before the full impact of his photographs was realized.

Using computer technology, Butcher’s pictures have been restored and are considered among the best depictions of pioneer life in existance.

Still, I’m glad I wasn’t married to him.

Have you ever seen these pictures before? I recognized a few of them, especially the cow on the roof.


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34 thoughts on “A Snapshot of History ~ Solomon D. Butcher”

  1. Wonderful, wonderful post. Yep, I have seen a few, including the cow on the “roof” picture but didn’t know the story of the man who took them. Thanks.

    My fave of all these pictures has got to be the one of the sisters. There has got to be one heck of a story behind them being there, being together. Had me wonder what men might have been strong enough to marry them.

    Thanks for a great start to my day.

  2. wonderful post, Mary! I love looking at old photos, and these are really spectacular. There’s a story in every one. I imagine how difficult it was to get that organ out of the house for the photograph.

    My grandfather lived in a soddy in his early years. Folks certainly made do with what they had or could find. When he was a bit older, his father put an old chicken coop and a grain bin together for their family’s home. I’d love to have a picture of that!

  3. What wonderful photographs!

    Boy, do I miss visiting Nebraska twice a year. My first husband was born and raised in Columbus, Platte County. We’d go back twice a year. His family was large — eight children. By the time the youngest was in high school, his folks moved into town, and rented out the farm house and the five acres around it. Back then, the farm was way out east of town. These days, I’m guessing “town” has reached it, and then some. I haven’t been back since the mid-90’s, so I’m not sure.

    I still love Nebraska. Sadly, I “divorced” my visits when my first marriage ended. The photos bring back bittersweet memories of my former in-laws and their history there…

    (My current husband is from New Jersey. And no offense to any New Jersey folks reading these words, but — I MUCH prefer Nebraska and the wonderful people there to NJ … ANY day!)

  4. It sort of struck me as an ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ story.
    By the few accounts I’ve found, Butcher considered himself to be a failure.

    And yet, look what he left as a legacy.

  5. Great post Mary, I love these photo’s and I have seen a few of them before but didn’t know the story behind the photo! I love the one with the pump organ in it. My MIL has an old pump organ in her house! Thanks for sharing with us today!

  6. Mary, I’m sure the governor’s office is all atwitter right now, lobbying to change THE GOOD LIFE to IT’S NOT FOR WIMPS. Yes, indeedy.

    I’m afraid if I was Butcher’s wife I’d have had to say, “Get a real job, buddy or I’m outta here.” As much as I love photography, the man must have been traveling most of the time, and moving the rest.

    Can we go see these photos on display somewhere? (I’m sure they’d be prints, not the originals, but it would be awesome to look at them.

  7. I think the one I stared at longest was the one with the old man holding the pitchfork.

    One of the websites I read called it Nebraska Gothic. Which is pretty appropriate.

    But look at that picture a while.
    Is that a WREATH on the side of their house?

    And what’s hanging in their doorway. They don’t seem like the ‘windchime and suncatcher’ types. Nor the wreath types.

    And notice the team of horses in almost every picture. What’s that about? Why would you hitch up your team to take a picture? I wondered if maybe those were Butcher’s horses.

    Anyway, like I said, the longer you stare at the the more interesting they are.

    Is that a watermelon on the table on the cow picture? The cow is so distracting you almost don’t look at the other details.

  8. Well my vote for state motto is either

    Nebraska-It’s not for wimps


    Freezing, scorching, flat

    I think, if you can’t HANDLE the truth, you should just live elsewhere.

  9. Astounding pictures, Mary! As you stated, there’s lots of detail in each one. The picture of the sisters really got my imagination stirring. I can just picture them trying to eek out a living on that land. They must’ve thought a lot of their horses. When a person has very little it doesn’t take much to find a source of pride of some kind. Times were so hard back then and these pictures really demonstrate that.

    Thanks for such an interesting blog! You always find the neatest subjects.

  10. These pictures are of animals, which would’ve probably been moving around.
    When did photography stop being so slow.

    I’ve read that the very first photos … the film had to be exposed for ten minutes.

    So these must’ve flashed pretty fast.
    I did read up on photography…another rabbit trail. But now my interest is caught and I’d like to do more of it.

    Did I once here there was a photographer on the Louis and Clark Expedition? Does that sound right to anyone?

    I need to research photography.

  11. Mary, I loved looking at these old photographs. I especially loved the cow on the roof. The heroine in my 3rd Rocky Creek book is a photographer so I know how hard it was back then to capture the perfect picture. This makes me wonder how they got the cow to stand still long enough to get the right exposure. The horses made me laugh as they looked as grim as the people.

    Did you know that smiles were once thought to be inappropriate for anyone other than peasants, children and drunks? No cultured person would think of showing his or her teeth. Can you imagine what our ancestors would think if they could see today’s photos?

    Thanks for an interesting post. Say cheese!

  12. I’ve seen the cow picture before. The photos are
    a real treasure, but still somewhat sad as was the
    photographer’s life. I noticed the wreath and puzzled over it, especially since the photo doesn’t
    seem to show a Nebraska winter. Thanks, Mary, for
    the history lesson!

    Pat Cochran

  13. Do you suppose the wreath is…I’m trying to think of something practical…like how they weave the stems of hot peppers together to dry?


    Furs of some kind?

    I stared at it for waaaaaaaay to long. 🙂

  14. Mary, this is one of the best posts ever! I agree, having spent four college years in Nebraska…it’s not for wimps. Hence, I returned to California and stayed there. My first winter I reckoned I’d plumb die. Nonetheless, it’s a frequent setting for my stories LOL.

    These pictures totally ROCK. Wow. oxoxoxoxox

  15. I’m sorry you weren’t tough enough, Tanya. Not surprised, but sorry. (joke)

    Remember there are THREE THOUSAND of these pictures in the Library of Congress.

    Surely they’re online somewhere? Surely they’re in Nebraska somewhere.

    I didn’t find all that many. More than this, but no where near a complete catalogue.

  16. I have seen his work before. His work has a character all its own

    By the way, I don’t believe there was a photographer on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It ran 1804-1806 and the first camera obscura nature photos weren’t taken until 1829 and that process took an 8 hour exposure. Several of the Expedition members kept sketch books and were rather good at it.

    I love the picture of the four sisters. There is definitely a book, probably a series, there waiting to be written. You are right about the details in the pictures. So much can be seen the longer you look, and the more it tells you about their lives.

    Margaret, Interesting comment on smiling. I’ve always wondered why everyone always looked so serious and unhappy in those photos. Of course it is easier to hold a serious pose for any length of time. A smile becomes frozen and rather unnatural after a little bit. If you had to hold it for a few minutes, it would probably look more like a grimace than a smile.

    Thanks for an interesting post and some great pictures. I’ve spent the last 15 minutes searching the web and looking at his photos. When compared to others of his time, his are uniformly of good quality (except for the turkey he painted on one) and give a very true depiction of the subject. His photos of cowboys give a different view than we sometimes get and show the ethnic diversity present in this hard working group.

  17. lol–nebraska is not for wimps…or anyone who suffers from highway hypnosis

    very interesting post
    neat to see what people view as important to put into their pictures
    had to laugh out loud at your comment on the lady–“she is fat.” well–say it like it is sister 🙂

    love the picture of the sisters–would be quite the story–brave girls
    horses are so lean–even their heads are more narrow
    so used to seeing stocking quarter horses for “ranch life”

  18. Yeah, I looked that up too Patricia.

    So what did I read? Some expedition they sent a photographer and a painter on the trip and the paintings became famous and the photographs were never really as successful.


    I’ve got a book to write. I refuse to go research that. Maybe a Yellowstone expedition?

    Oops, sorry, quelling my curiousity.

  19. We’re going to D.C. next spring…I’ll try to remember to check out LOC, if they led plebians in. oxoxox

    It’s okay, Mary. I have admitted publicly many times what a big weenie I am. oxoxoxox

  20. And look at those massive oxen.

    I actually started this blog post writing about oxen.

    I’ll do that later.

    I heard once, probably wrong too, 🙂 that an oxen never stops growing. They just keep getting bigger and heavier through out their lives.

    Of course who has a truly OLD oxen? (well, who has an oxen at all)
    I mean ten years would’ve been a long, long lifespan back then for any cow.

    Anyway, they were big critters. Bigger than the horses.

  21. The Nebraska Gothic picture, with the old man and the pitchfork? Do you suppose they took all their stuff out of the house to get it in the picture? One of those things almostlooks like a treadle sewing machine.

    And, the one with the fat wife (okay, c’mon, she’s beyond having her feelings hurt) She and her husband look old and that child is young. I wonder what the story is there and (this is actually hilarious to me) what’s with that guy sitting on the horse drawn … buggy or whatever. It’s almost like they were ashamed of him.
    And the old man with his rifle and look at the antlers. Even back then he was proud of his fourteen point buck.

  22. Maudie, you let the chickens out and get Junior way, way back from the camera, he’s a frightful looking child.

    I’ll fetch my trophy rack and my shotgun and set it up all purdy on the well.

    Men and their antlers. Always bragging.

  23. If you go to:
    Click on Research, then click on Photographs, then click on Highlights. The Solomon D. Butcher Collection is the second one down. After clicking on this page you get a selection of his collections. The AMERICAN MEMORY site is the Library Of Congress collection. This gives you access to a collection of Butcher photos. There are several hundred including some of him working on his collection in his later years.

    I really need to get some housework done. Another 15+ minutes gone. This is why I try not to get on the computer until after supper. I could do research all day and still not get enough : )

  24. Mary, what a great blog! It got my mind to whirling for sure. I bet he had no idea how many of his footsteps he left on history. Great subject. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Mary, I’m not sure about the wreath, but the other is a bird cage. Would sod houses have the same problem as a mine–bad air? Or did the wife bring her canary along because she couldn’t bear to part with her feathered friend?

  26. Amazing post, Mary. The sisters photo is my favorite, but they all are so captivating.
    Could the wreath be a funereal wreath? Didn’t they hang wreaths with some purple or black on them on the house to indicate a recent death in the family back then?
    The horses and mules look different in every photo so I don’t think they belong to Mr. Butcher. If these were taken today, they would seem like photos for insurance purposes. LOL
    I can’t believe how romantic and emotional these photos are. Maybe it’s because they are in the middle of nowhere (sorry Nebraska!) with so little in the way of belongings or resources.
    I can’t decide if Mr Butcher is a brilliant photographer and historian or a worthless husband.

  27. I can make that be a bird cage, Tracy. Yeah, let’s go with bird cage.

    So, did she bring her canary from the east? Or catch a pheasant once she got to Nebraska and shove it in there? 🙂

    Judy — LOL Insurance purposes. So true. They look like disasters don’t they.

    And I think Mr. Butcher is probably BOTH

  28. Are you sure about the cow on the roof picture? 40 years ago, I saw that exact same sight — sod house built against a slope; grass and cow on the roof — in Field Junction, B.C. Canada. It was very real and something I’ve never forgotten.

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