A pioneering woman on the Wyoming frontier made her place in history with a camera.
In the little village of Big Horn, Wyoming, on September 11, 1886, Jessamine Spear was born to pioneer parents Willis and Belle Spear. Her love of photography began in 1897, when her mother, Belle, bought a glass-plate Kodak camera. When Belle put that camera in Jessamine’s 11-year-old hands, her life changed focus forever. Jessamine assisted her mother throughout her childhood in taking and developing photographs.
Jessamine went to grade school in Big Horn and high school in Sheridan, then married cattle and sheep rancher Will Johnson in 1906. For Jessamine to find time to work with her photos often required great determination. Her love of creating images necessitated different priorities from the usual housewife and mother. During her lifetime she raised seven children, assisted her husband in running three different ranches, and finally, from 1930 until retirement in 1943, with the help of her husband and growing children, managed her father’s Spear O Wigwam Dude Ranch in the Bighorn Mountains outside of Sheridan, Wyoming. Unfortunately, her photographic contribution to the history of Southeast Montana and Northeast Wyoming has been mostly forgotten.
July 1925, Iris and Charles Rising Sun, Crow.
Taking cues from her father’s friend from Miles City, Montana, frontier and Native-life photographer L.A. Huffman, Jessamine concentrated first on her ranching life. Huffman took photos of the Spear Cattle Company’s operations from 1905 to about 1915. Many of Jessamine’s wide-ranging images of cattle herds and horses reflect an admiration for Huffman’s technique. She also closely studied the paintings of Sheridan artist William “Bill” Gollings, who had studied composition at the Chicago Academy of Art for three winters, while employed many summers by the Spear brothers. To emphasize action, Gollings’ cowboy and rodeo subjects entirely filled the space in his paintings; Jessamine paid close attention to his skillful compositions and began moving in on her subjects.
Two photographer friends, Charles Belden of Meeteetse, Wyoming, and Fred Miller, clerk at the Crow Reservation, were comrades with cameras. Belden’s photos inspired several of Jessamine’s takes on similar subjects, and they exchanged ideas on how best to color some of their black-and-white images. Belden’s photo Call of the Range inspired Jessamine to capture a photo of a bawling bull. Her photo Montana Roundup was produced as a travel poster for the Northern Pacific Railway. Miller and Jessamine shared photos and a personal interest in the everyday life of the Crow people. Jessamine and husband Will leased many acres for summer pasture from the Crow and Cheyenne tribes, and she became close friends with many of the families they leased land from.
She was in the right place at the right time to meet and discuss with other local artists and photographers lessons on perspective, composition, use of light and shadow, horizontal and vertical lines to accentuate her subjects, and the search for that simple background to highlight her subjects. Often leaving her kids in the care of their older sisters or the ranch cook, Jessamine preferred to be out riding the range with Will, her camera ever-ready for the next action shot.
October 1, 1929, Annabelle Johnson Moody.
“I rode horseback, as wild as any of my children ever were,” she wrote in her diary. “My father never permitted me to ask the men to saddle my horse for me. I had to wait on myself always. Grandpa drove a team of ponies hitched to his buckboard. They were called Buck and Johnny. Buck was buckskin in color with black mane and tail and a black stripe down his back. Johnny was a strawberry roan. I rode Johnny to school sometimes. He was my favorite horse. One-time Ruth and Ruby Stevenson and I were riding Johnny who shied and threw us into allot of thorn bushes. We were very much scratched up, but we climbed right back on.”
The independent spirit cultivated in her youth would serve her well as an adult hunting for photographs on the Montana frontier. Her diaries reveal a woman both of her time and ahead of her time, working diligently at not just her craft but at the business of it, fitting it in to her domestic life and enlisting family to help with hearth and home and even her photography. “Mother was always out helping father drive cattle, visiting Indians, or working over her photographs,” her daughter Annabelle commented. “I helped raise my younger brothers and sisters. Phyllis baked bread and I did most of the other cooking.”
Jessamine’s diaries reveal a woman seemingly as dedicated to photography as to anything else in her life. Saturday, February 19, 1921: “Last night [oldest daughter] Annabelle was shown how to develop pictures and when she got tired I had to do it. Printed 127.” Thursday, January 3, 1924: “Miss Milne is visiting Mrs. Rugg and will come down and visit me a few days next week. I took her the pictures I had colored. She was very much pleased with them. I also showed her my Kodak book of enlargements and they were quite enthusiastic over them.” Wednesday, January 23, 1924: “Colored the pictures Marian Russell sent me in last night’s mail. They’re beautiful. Four enlargements and a lot of small pictures.” Thursday, March 27, 1924: “I believe I got some grand pictures today. We went through lots of snow. Selim [her horse] behaved like an angel and worked like a Trojan. When we came home, he snorted at the smell from the pig pen!” She had been riding the north Rosebud pasture. There were four cows or heifers with tiny calves. One just born was carried by one of the cowboys on Prince.
1920s, Young Crow Girl in Elk Tooth Dress.
The entry from Friday, January 25, 1924, simply reads “Colored pictures all day.” Though color photography was attempted as early as the 1840s, color film would not become widely available and affordable till the 1950s. In the absence of color film, the popularity of color images gave rise to the art of hand-coloring monochrome prints. Jessamine often hand-colored her photos using oil pencils and oil colors. “I had the Sheridan studio color some pictures of the children about four years ago, and I asked them how they did it,” she wrote in a letter from February 1928. “They got me a box of colors, and I started out to color the pictures myself.” Self-taught and fearless in learning new things, she became quite accomplished at it. Eventually, cowboy photographer Charles Belden would hire her to color some of his black-and-white images.
It was more than Jessamine’s well-practiced skills and tomboyish adventurousness that combined to distinguish her photography. She in fact had a “photographer’s eye,” coupled with a special warmth and love for her subject matter. Her photography embraced her love of cattle, sheep, and dude ranching, the local Little Bighorn and Crook battlefields, landscapes and wildlife, her Crow and Northern Cheyenne neighbors, rodeos, and the wonders of the Bighorn Mountains. Jessamine’s ease with the people in her portraits, the emotional depth of her feeling for the land and its history, drew people to her images during her lifetime and continue to do so today.
Eileen Johnson Sargent, Spear O Wigwam Doorway.
Her viewpoint was sensitive, accessible, and feminine. She paid attention and photographed how women were more and more involved on a daily basis in running the local ranches. She also had access to the Crow and Cheyenne women because she knew them and she was a woman. Some of her photos are actually on the woman’s side of the tepee, a rare perspective that indicated access a male photographer would have found near-impossible.
Over time, Jessamine forged her own independent vision and created an individual style that not only reflected her artistic sensibilities but conveyed her personal insight into the advancements and challenges faced by the ranching and reservation communities of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming from the 1910s through the early 1950s. With little formal training and with a critical eye, she produced an unforgettable legacy of 16,000-plus images to delight and inspire future generations of photographers. Jessamine’s photos, letters, and diaries are currently held by her son Torrey’s descendants, who are exploring an appropriate future home for the collection.
Author and historian Tempe Johnson Javitz is the granddaughter of Jessamine Spear Johnson. Her article “Transitions in the Changing West: The Photographic Legacy of Jessamine Spear Johnson,” published in Montana: The Magazine of Western History by the Montana Historical Society, won the 2021 Western Heritage Award. She is at work on a book about Jessamine, due out this year from the South Dakota Historical Society Press.
From our February/March 2022 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Jessamine Spear Johnson