Nebraska’s First Photographer: Solomon Butcher

Born just 30 years after the first photograph was ever captured, “Nebraska’s First Photographer” dedicated his life to documenting the history of white settlement in central Nebraska and the Great Plains region.

Danielle Gibson
Aug 21, 2020 · 6 min read
The Rawding family sod house located in Sargent, Custer County, Nebraska. Photo taken by Solomon Butcher in 1886. — Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

On January 24, 1856, a baby boy named Solomon was born to Thomas and Esther Butcher in Wetzel County, Virginia. During the Civil War, this region became part of West Virginia. However, by the time of this territory change, the Butcher family was already settled nicely into LaSalle County, Illinois. Solomon Butcher would spend his formative years in Illinois, moving there as a 4-year-old in 1860 with his family and staying in the region until around 1880.

After spending 20-years planting roots in the Illinois area, Thomas Butcher was once again restless and looking for a change. The west was calling him. In 1880, Thomas Butcher announced to his family that he was giving up his secure job with the railroad and moving west to establish a homestead. His destination was Custer County, Nebraska.

While Solomon Butcher was 24-years-old and had his own secure job as a salesman at the time of his father’s announcement, he too was ready for a new challenge. With the decision made, in March 1880, Thomas Butcher, his two sons, and one son-in-law, began the journey west in two covered wagons. Little could he have known at the time, but Solomon’s decision to relocate to Custer County, Nebraska, would have profound effects both on the region and on the retelling of the homesteading era for years to come.

Settling in Nebraska Under the Homestead Act

While Solomon Butcher had an idealistic view of what moving west would be like, he was soon brought down to reality. Under the Homestead Act, any adult citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. The stipulation of receiving this land was that the land must be improved. To be considered improved, the claimant had to build a dwelling and cultivate the land.

The Chrisman sisters, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth, in front of their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. Photo taken by Solomon Butcher in 1886. — Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

After helping his father construct the family sod house, Solomon had seen just about enough of Nebraska. Solomon had yet to develop his own homestead and was already rethinking his decision of moving to the Great Plains. During his time out west, Solomon wrote,

“I soon came to the conclusion 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.”

After the initial sod house was completed, Thomas and Solomon journeyed back to Illinois to collect Esther and the younger Butcher children. However, instead of returning to Nebraska with the rest of the family, Solomon decided to stay in Illinois and abandon his homestead in Nebraska.

A Restless Soul

Rather than returning to Nebraska or staying in Illinois with the majority of his family gone, Solomon decided to head for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He remained in Wisconsin for a short while before finding himself in Minneapolis.

A portrait of Solomon Butcher taken in 1886. — Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Solomon had enrolled in a medical college in Minneapolis and attended the school between 1881 and 1882. Here he met a young widowed nurse by the name of Lillie M. Barber. The two married after just months of knowing each other in May 1882. Rather than finishing his schooling, Butcher decided it was time to head back to Nebraska. In October 1882, Solomon and his new bride moved into his parents’ Custer County homestead.

A portrait of Lillie Butcher taken in 1901. — Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Rather than trying his hand at the homesteading life again, Solomon worked as a school teacher after returning to Nebraska. He used his teaching salary to save up money for photography equipment. Butcher’s new vision was to become a successful photographer.

Luckily for Butcher, some of his vision was soon achieved. After a few short months of teaching, Solomon was able to open the first photography studio in Custer County. The studio wasn’t much, containing a dirt floor and measuring 18 x 28 feet. However, it was a step in the right direction for the restless Solomon Butcher.

Discovering His True Passion

Solomon’s first photography studio proved less than lucrative. However, opening the studio allowed him to discover his true passion, photography. Despite his love of the craft, Butcher couldn’t find a way to make photography pay the bills. He ended up opening a post office in the studio alongside his photography equipment. Solomon also still did farm work for his father to provide for his family, which now included two children.

After struggling to make the photography studio work, Butcher concocted a plan in 1886. Through this plan, he believed he would finally be able to make his photography skills profitable. Butcher’s grand plan was to produce an illustrated history of Custer County, Nebraska, and sell his constructed book for profit. Between 1886 and 1892, Butcher captured over 1,500 photographs of Custer County homesteaders and recorded over 1,500 narratives.

Omer Kem, Representative to the United States Congress, and his family in front of their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. Photo taken by Solomon Butcher in 1886. — Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Unfortunately, in 1899, Butcher’s home burned down, taking the one-of-a-kind pioneer narratives and photographic prints. Butcher was left penniless. The only good news from this unfortunate event was that Butcher had kept the glass negatives of his photos in a granary, all of which escaped the fire. From his preserved glass negatives, Butcher was ultimately able to produce a book titled, Pioneer History of Custer County and Short Sketches of Early Days in Nebraska. The first edition of the book was printed in 1901, and Butcher was able to sell over 1,000 copies within the first year.

After experiencing a great deal of success with the first photo book, Butcher decided to branch out beyond Custer County. His new goal was to create similar photographic histories of the neighboring counties of Buffalo and Dawson. On this new route, Solomon opened up a photography studio in Kearney, Nebraska, with his son Lynn. However, Butcher ended up abandoning the photographic history projects of Buffalo and Dawson counties after having poured thousands of dollars into the project.

Left Feeling Defeated

The failure to produce profit through the Buffalo and Dawson county projects left Solomon Butcher feeling defeated. He had continuously made money and then lost it all throughout his lifetime. While he loved photography, he decided to call it quits. In 1911, Butcher decided to hand his Kearney photography studio over to his son and went to work as an agent for the Standard Land Company.

While well-intentioned, practicality didn’t last long for Solomon Butcher. Between 1911 and 1927, Butcher muddled through a variety of jobs. He continued to dabble in photography and was on the hunt for funding to go on a photographic expedition in Central America. Butcher also worked as a grain salesman for a short time and even tried to patent medicine towards the end of his life. Sadly for Solomon Butcher, none of these plans came to fruition. Butcher died on March 18, 1927, in Greeley, Colorado, believing his life to be a total failure.

The Reyner sod house located in Custer County, Nebraska. Photo taken by Solomon Butcher in 1904. — Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Unfortunately for Solomon Butcher’s psyche, his work did not receive the recognition that it deserved until long after his passing. The over 3,000 photographs that he captured of Nebraska homesteaders between 1886 and 1912 received little notice outside of Nebraska during his lifetime. Butcher only came to receive recognition for his work when historians began to study and write about the settlement of the Plains decades into the future.

While Solomon Butcher never got to enjoy the fruits of his labor, his work has ultimately become the most important chronicle of the American homesteading saga. Today, Solomon Butcher’s photos of sod houses, gritty settlers, and the homestead lifestyle live on in the pages of textbooks and histories of the American West.

History Through the Lens

Highlighting Photographers Who Captured Historical Treasures

Danielle Gibson

Written by

Writer | Storyteller | Poet | Historian | Entrepreneur | M.A. History • Modern American and Modern European Studies | Writing about History, Culture, and more.

History Through the Lens

Photographers are the ones who allow us to go back in time in the visual sense. They help to tell the history of our world through pictures. These are their stories.

Danielle Gibson

Written by

Writer | Storyteller | Poet | Historian | Entrepreneur | M.A. History • Modern American and Modern European Studies | Writing about History, Culture, and more.

History Through the Lens

Photographers are the ones who allow us to go back in time in the visual sense. They help to tell the history of our world through pictures. These are their stories.

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