The photographs of the frontier West were lost in the library’s extensive archives for more than 100 years, but, after being discovered, visitors can see the renowned work of John C.H. Grabill again.
John C.H. Grabill knew he had something valuable when he sent 188 photographs for copyright protection to the Library of Congress between 1887 and 1892. It’s a treasure trove that almost wasn’t: The photographs of the frontier West were lost in the library’s extensive archives for more than 100 years.
When they surfaced, the sepia-tone photographs — thought to be the largest surviving collection of the early Western photographer’s work — revealed a transformative time in the West.
The Library of Congress describes the wide-ranging collection as “a visual record of railroad development, coaches and wagons, mining, smeltering, and milling, freighting, emerging cities and towns, parades, cattle roundups and branding, sheepherding, prospecting, hunting, and Chinese immigrants, as well as landscapes.”
One of Grabill’s most famous images is the iconic The Cow Boy. Other photographs capture the Lakota Sioux living on or near the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations. And there’s more historic heft: Some photos show Native Americans with U.S. military and government agents, and with William F. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody. Others were taken just days after the December 29, 1890, massacre at Wounded Knee near Pine Ridge.
In biographical materials about Grabill, it’s often stated that very little is known about him apart from what can be pieced together from his subjects and his photographic mounts. At a certain point, he seems to have just dropped out and disappeared — many of the things written about him end on an “it’s not known what became of him” note.
Born in Ohio in 1849 and relocated with his family to Illinois, Grabill made his way west and got involved in mining and prospecting — and photography. According to Library of Congress documentation, “the fact that Grabill immediately set up a studio when he arrived in Sturgis, South Dakota, in 1886, suggests that he had previously acquired his photographic skills. Information printed on the photographic mounts indicates that he also had studios in Deadwood, Lead City, and Hot Springs, South Dakota; in Colorado; and possibly in Chicago, and that he was the ‘official photographer of the Black Hills and F.P. [Fort Pierre] R.R. and Home Stake Mining Co.’”
What appears to be a well-documented Wikipedia entry on him — it includes many footnotes referencing newspaper accounts and records of the day — could fill in some biographical blanks. If it’s accurate, it solves the mystery of what ultimately happened to Grabill.
Among other events in his turbulent life, he brandished a pistol in public, got in a fight, and ended up in court; one or more of his employees at one of his studios stole from him; his mother was murdered; he became insolvent, was sued, and lost various businesses; his wife left him with their young son and divorced him; he sued the Wild West Show for copyright infringement. His bad fortune piled up until, the Wiki entry speculates, Grabill may have sought anonymity.
Public records show him living between 1901 and 1903 in St. Louis, where he worked as a salesman. In February 1903, an article in The St. Louis Republic indicated the 54-year-old Grabill’s behavior had “led his friends to suspect that he was mentally unbalanced. Grabill has what the physicians term ‘delusions of grandeur,’” causing him to be taken to the City Hospital’s observation ward and institutionalized. His death in August 1903, as noted in the Register of Deaths in the City of St. Louis, was attributed to paralytic dementia (a condition caused by late-stage syphilis or possibly chronic mercury poisoning).
Grabill was buried in St. Louis at St. Matthew’s Cemetery.
See the John C.H. Grabill Collection at the Library of Congress website.