18 January 2008

Shooting Fort Benton: The Early Photographers

By Ken Robison

[This article was published in the Fort Benton River Press 31 May 2006, and revised and updated in April 2008. The original article accompanied an Exhibition at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Plains during the summer of 2006 and an Exhibition in the Great Falls Public Library during May-June 2007]

The magical setting of Fort Benton begs to be photographed—the grandeur of the mighty Missouri River, the broad river bottom, the rising bluffs. Yet we’ve never seen the first photograph taken of Fort Benton.

Almost certainly, that first photo was a daguerreotype taken by John Mix Stanley in 1853. Stanley brought a camera when he accompanied the Isaac Stevens Railway Survey Expedition to Fort Benton in 1853, and he took the first photographs of the Rocky Mountains. Stanley left photographs, lithographic illustrations, and paintings from that pathbreaking trip. Regrettably, Stanley’s photographs no longer exist, probably burned in the same Smithsonian fire that destroyed many of his oil paintings. John Mix Stanley’s lithograph is the first visual image we have of Fort Benton. That illustration of old Fort Benton and Stanley’s grand oil painting of Fort Benton founder, Alexander Culbertson, are now on display in the Hornaday Room at the Museum of the Northern Plains in Fort Benton.

Other early traveling artists came to the Upper Missouri bringing along cameras. Talented artist Karl Wimar brought a camera on his trips in 1858-59, although none of his photos are known to exist. In 1860, J. D. Hutton accompanied Captain William F. Raynolds on a topographic exploration of the Upper Missouri. Hutton’s amazing photograph of Fort Benton from across the river taken between 15 and 22 July 1860 is the earliest known surviving photograph of the old American Fur Company post. This important photograph is on display this summer at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Plains as part of a new photographic display from the archives of the Overholser Historical Research Center. This exhibition focuses mostly on early professional photographers who resided in Fort Benton rather than the travelers.

Charles Bucknum, an army man with a camera, spent the summer of 1868 at Fort Benton, apparently with a detachment of the 13th Infantry Regiment. A Bucknum photograph of the old Fort is on display this summer. Charles R. Savage, the famed Mormon photographer based at Salt Lake City, came north to Montana Territory in the summer of 1868. In early August 1868, Savage visited Fort Benton and two of his exceptional carte-de-viste are on display. His photograph of the steamboat Success is the first known photo of a steamboat at the Fort Benton levee.

The earliest known “resident” photographer in Fort Benton was Washington W. Parker who spent the summer of 1877 in Fort Benton. Through his photographic advertisement in the Benton Record, we know of his presence, although we have no photos taken by him. In August 1877, Parker moved north to Fort Macleod. In the U.S. Census of June 1880, Parker was living and working with Edgar Train in Helena. Parker was born in New York about 1844. He returned to Fort Benton briefly in August 1880, but by October had moved on.

Traveling photographers came up the Missouri by steamboat to Fort Benton in the 1870s including Yankton-based Stanley J. Morrow in 1873 and wandering photographer William Edward (W. E.) Hook in 1878, 1879, and 1880. Hook later gained fame as the Pikes Peak photographer with a studio in Manitou Springs.

Two photographers arrived at Fort Benton in the spring of 1880 and spent the summer here. William Culver, who later gained fame as the premier photographer of Lewistown, came to Fort Benton. While his photographic equipment was being shipped up the Missouri River, Culver became partners with George Anderton in a photographic tent studio in Fort Benton. By the fall of 1880, Culver moved on to the new army post at Fort Assiniboine. We know of no Culver photos of Fort Benton during 1880, although he took an early scene of great falls of the Missouri.

George Anderton, formerly of the North West Mounted Police and the founding father of photography in western Canada, came to Fort Benton in May 1880 from Fort Macleod. He took important photographs of the buildings and people in Fort Benton during the boom period of steamboat navigation. One exceptional Anderton photo in our collection shows the Front Street levee in 1880. The backstamp on this image reads: “Geo. Anderton, Photographer, Fort MacLeod, N. W. Ter. Canada.”

The late summer of 1880 also brought Fargo photographer F. Jay Haynes to Fort Benton. Haynes had come up the Missouri from Bismarck on the crowded steamboat Helena with reporter M. H. Jewell of the Bismarck Tribune and 261 civilian contract workers enroute to Fort Assiniboine. At Coal Banks, Haynes, the reporter, and the workers, left the Helena to go overland to Fort Assiniboine. Over the next several weeks, Haynes took photography of the construction of the fort and the falls of the Missouri before arriving in Fort Benton. Inexplicably, Haynes took only four known photos at Fort Benton, before departing by mackinaw to return to Dakota. On the way down the Missouri, he took dozens of photos of the white cliff features, the river, and cloud formations.

Justus Fey, a German immigrant, came to Fort Benton in October 1881 from Deadwood City, Dakota Territory. Opening the City Gallery on Main Street, Fey immediately began recording the building boon that was underway. Don and Kathy Lutke used Fey’s photograph of the Pacific Hotel, taken in late 1882, as a guide in their restoration of the famed hotel. Among many other important photos, Justus Fey took an exceptional photograph of the steamboat Josephine on its arrival at the Fort Benton levee on 3 May 1882. Fey was a wandering man, and by 1883, he had equipped a wagon to use as a traveling photographic gallery. Over the next five years, until his death in Helena in 1888, Fey roamed moved through the Sun River valley, Great Falls, Butte, Marysville and Helena taking photographs of people and places.

On 27 June 1882, Simon Duffin and his wife arrived in Fort Benton from Winnipeg on the steamboat Butte. By December, Duffin opened a photographic gallery on Main Street opposite the I. G. Baker store. He gave half of his building to the city for a library. The Duffins remained in Fort Benton just one year, departing in the fall of 1883 for the States and eventual return to Winnipeg. Only a handful of Duffin photos are in our collection, and all of them are portraits signed "S. Duffin.

In November 1883, Civil War veteran and wandering miner Dan Dutro bought Duffin’s gallery. Dutro had served as a drummer boy in the 150th Illinois Volunteers in the war. His health suffered from the war years, and in June 1868 he came up the Missouri River on the steamboat Andrew Ackley to the Montana frontier. Over the next decade he worked as a miner and stonecutter, until his health forced him to seek less demanding work. By the early 1880s, Dan Dutro and his family settled in Fort Benton. Over the next two decades, Dutro remained in Fort Benton, compiling an exceptional photographic record. He photographed a wide span of Fort Benton history, the river, the people, the buildings, the scenes, the Native Americans, the ranches, and mines in the area. Among our collection of Dutro photos are two “hanging” photos taken of convicted murderers before their execution. The hangings were public events, and the photos posed the doomed man with various law enforcement and legal community officials.

Toward the end of Dutro’s photographic career, young Roland Reed came to Fort Benton. He apprenticed at the Dutro studios in Fort Benton and Havre during 1896-97. In 1897, Reed went north to photograph the Alaska Gold Rush. He then went to national prominence during a long career photographing Native Americans, especially the Blackfoot Indians. Many of his photographs were published in association with the Great Northern Railroad.

John G. Showell, another wandering man, spent time in Deer Lodge and Great Falls before opening a photographic studio in Fort Benton in 1899. We first learned of his presence in Fort Benton from an ad in the 1900 Montana Brand Book. Within two years, Showell was on the move again to Hamilton, Missoula and Stevensville. We have several photographs from Showell’s time in Fort Benton including two of his daughter Lois and one of a Chinese resident of the town. Written on the back of the latter is a wonderful inscription that this man with several other resident Chinese learned English from the wife of the Methodist minister in Fort Benton. John Showell spent his later years in Utah.

A final photographer among the early residents of Fort Benton was young Walter Dean. In July 1903, Dean arrived in Fort Benton to work in D. G. Lockwood’s jewelry store as an apprentice optician. Over the next year, Dean displayed exceptional talent as a photographer. His most famous photograph was taken in September 1904 when Charles M. Russell came to Fort Benton in company with the Third Cavalry on an overland march from Fort Assiniboine to Great Falls. Walter Dean and his camera were waiting as Charlie and two Cavalry officers posed outside Joe Sullivan’s Saddlery. Our photo of Charlie and the Cavalry is hand tinted, reportedly by Dean’s friend L. A. Huffman. Thanks to the generosity of Dean’s grandson, Gordon Dean, our Research Center has a strong collection of Walter Dean’s photographs from his year in Fort Benton including many views of the Third Cavalry in encampment on the grounds of the old fort. By 1905, Dean moved on to the new eastern Montana town of Forsyth where he became a prominent booster and photographer.

Samples of the amazing work of Fort Benton’s early photographers will be on display throughout this summer at the entrance to the Museum of the Northern Plains. The exhibition is built from the broad collection of imagery and memorabilia held at the Overholser Historical Research Center. This community collection of photography belongs to the people of Fort Benton, and it will continue to grow through your generosity. If you have photographs of the town, ranches, farms, river, and people stop by the Center. If you can part with them, we will add them to the collection. If you can’t part with them, but are willing to share them with the community, we’ll scan them into our new digital photographic archives. Meanwhile enjoy the exhibition this summer when you visit the museums.


(1) First known photograph of Fort Benton taken in 1860 by H. D. Hutton. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(2) Charles R. Savage photographed the steamboat Success at the Fort Benton levee in August 1868. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(3) Army Scout Charles Bucknum photographed the old fur fort in 1868. [From Overholser Historical Research Center]

(4) Talented Canadian photographer, George Anderton, spent the summer of 1880 in Fort Benton. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(5) Justus Fey photographed the steamboat Josephine at the levee in 1882. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(6) Dan Dutro’s “hanging” photo of murderer John Osness in 1894. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

(7) Young Walter Dean’s photo of Third Cavalry Encampment at Fort Benton in 1904. [Overholser Historical Research Center]

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