The book I'm working on right now has led me down the road of researching the Umatilla Indian Reservation during the early years of the 20th century. One of the best resources I've found for gleaning the details I need is through a collection of photographs from Lee Moorhouse.
Moorhouse was a photographer and an Indian agent for the Umatilla Indian Reservation. From 1888 to 1916, he produced more than 9,000 images documenting urban, rural, and Native American life in the Columbia Basin, particularly in Umatilla County, Oregon.
Born in Marion County, Iowa, as a child Moorhouse traveled along the Oregon Trail to Walla Walla, Washington with his family in the 1860s. He worked as a miner, surveyor, rancher, businessman, civic leader, real estate operator and insurance salesman during his lifetime. In addition to acting as an Indian agent from 1879 to 1883, he served as Assistant Adjutant General of the Third Brigade of the Oregon State Militia.
Unlike most amateur photographers of the time, Moorhouse worked with and mastered the cumbersome and finicky equipment of professionals, including gelatin dry glass plate negatives, large cameras, and a tripod.
So many of his photographs exhibit a keen eye and deep appreciation for his subject matter that went far beyond the amateur. His photographs of the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes are not only of historical significance, but also incredibly crisp and beautiful.
Moorhouse owned an extensive collection of Native American "curios" including baskets, weapons, regalia, bags and horse trappings--from a variety of tribal cultures. He exhibited the collection at local fairs and used it to adorn people who came to sit for portraits. Like so many photographs from that era, the posed portraits aren't considered accurate ethnographic documents. However, the images taken on the reservation are important records of tribal clothing and dwellings.
Moorhouse collected so much more than images with his photographs since he commonly inscribed the name of the subject on his negatives. This information has played an important role in identifying members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.
I thought I'd share a few of my favorites from his collection.
Parson became an ardent Presbyterian and served as an elder at the reservation church for many years. He was often seen driving around Pendleton in his Hudson automobile.
This is Ku-massag, also known as Agnes Davis. She appears in several of Moorhouse's photographs. Here, she wears traditional dress, including a woven hat Moorhouse often used as a studio prop.
I, for one, am so glad Moorhouse decided to pursue photography as a passion, if not a career. Thanks to his diligent efforts (and the University of Oregon libraries), the world can get such a wonderful glimpse into a way of life that is no more.
Grafe, Steven L. Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915. University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon
For a quick overview of his work, you can also find many images on Pinterest.
A hopeless romantic with a bit of sarcasm thrown in for good measure, Shanna Hatfield is a bestselling author of sweet romantic fiction written with a healthy dose of humor. In addition to blogging and eating too much chocolate, she is completely smitten with her husband, lovingly known as Captain Cavedweller.
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