25 September 2013

Dan Dutro: From Drummer Boy to Photographer

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Dan Dutro: From Drummer Boy to Photographer

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
September 25, 2013

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This month’s feature highlights Civil War veteran Daniel Dutro who fought in the war before migrating to Montana Territory where he mined and gained fame as a photographer. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com..

Daniel Dutro was too young to go to war when the Civil War started, but he joined as a drummer boy in 1865. Although he served but one year, he suffered the effects for the rest of his life. His health caused him to turn from mining in Montana Territory to photography. As a result, Dan Dutro gained fame as one of Montana’s greatest photographers.

Born on the Miami River at Taylorsville, Highland County, Ohio on September 17, 1848. He moved with his parents to Bloomington, Illinois, when a child, living there until he was fifteen years old. His father died just before the outbreak of the Civil War, and young Dan offered his services to the Union, but his widowed mother would not give her consent for his enlistment.

During the war the Dutro family moved to Pleasant Hill, Missouri and at age sixteen Dan Dutro, “animated with a flame of patriotism,” determined to become a soldier despite his mother’s continued opposition. He went to Springfield, Illinois to enlist on January 25, 1865 in Company B, 150th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He was made drummer boy of his company. After serving through the end of the war and beyond, he was stricken with pneumonia, thought to be fatal, and was sent home in a box car to die, but recovered so thoroughly that he was able to rejoin his unit in Missouri.

The 150thIllinois was assigned to Reconstruction duty as a sort of vigilance committee to wage war against the activities of Confederate guerrillas in Missouri in the postwar years. These bandits included remnants of the Bill Anderson and Quantrill raiders with men like Jesse and Frank James turning from war to crime. In company with his fellow soldiers, Dan Dutro helped break up this coterie of outlaws, and rendered effective service in pacifying war torn Missouri. He was mustered out on 16 January 1866 at Atlanta, Georgia.

Two years later in 1868 Dan Dutro came to Montana Territory and began his long residence there. He made the long trip by the steamboat Andrew Ackley leaving St. Louis, Missouri April 14th and arriving Fort Benton June 17th. He then continued on to Helena to find work. His first employment at Helena was as a hod carrier. At that time he was so slender that it seemed impossible that he could carry the heavy hod, and his fellow workmen watched him to see that harm did not come to him as he tried to make good. As they expected, his strength proved unequal to the task, and he was caught as he fell from the ladder. The contractor, appreciating the grit of the lad, changed his job to that of stone cutting.

By the time he had learned the trade of stone cutting he became expert in mineralogy, and he added knowledge of mechanics and decorating to his other tradecraft. Once more he overworked, and his health broke down confining him to his bed for two years. When he was able to get out and around he realized that he must keep out of doors, so he began prospecting in the Neihart district in the Little Belt Mountains. He became one of the earliest prospectors in that silver-rich area. There he discovered the “Benton” group of mines and a number of others, which were developed into the best silver producers of the region.

Again his health broke down and he was forced to seek work at lower elevations. Retaining partial interest in the mines, in 1881 he moved to Fort Benton where he returned to stone cutting. During this building boom he provided the stone for foundations of several new brick buildings in Fort Benton. By 1883 his health forced him to give that up, and he took up photography.

In November 1883 Dutro bought the photographic studio and stock of S. Duffin and developed into an artist and practical photographer, gaining fame during the final years of the steamboat trade as Fort Benton boomed and construction flourished before the arrival of the railroads. Dutro’s photographic record of the people, places, and buildings of Fort Benton and central Montana are remarkable. He photographed a range of Blackfoot, Cree, and Gros Ventre at a time when their lives were evolving. He photographed a wide span of Fort Benton history, the river, the historic buildings, the street scenes, and the advances in transportation as steamboats were replaced by railroads. He captured many images of the countryside, ranches, and mines. He took many studio portraits of men, women, and children, and the ethnic Chinese. After the defeat of the Metis and Louis Riel in 1885, Dan Dutro photographed Riel’s military commander, Gabriel Dumont and others of the Metis and Cree communities in exile from Canada. He captured important aspects of history of the Missouri River, the changes in transportation, and the evolution from open range ranching.  Dan Dutro’s photographs are exceptionally important historically and prized by many families in the area.

Some of Dutro’s photographic techniques show both innovation and humor. When he photographed the Fort Benton School at recess one day in 1885 he had the children form in front of the building. After this session, he pronounced, “it is as hard to keep them quiet as a lot of calves in a corral.” He devised a “novel invention for catching the happiest expression possible, and for taking the pictures of children it cannot be beaten. It is called the ‘compressed air automatic countenance catcher.’” The mind wonders what that was all about!

Among the many Dutro photographs in our Overholser Historical Research Center 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.
Dutro’s photographic record of the Fort Benton adobe trading post during the 1880s and 90s provides a valuable record of this decaying historic landmark and proved vital to the reconstruction of Old Fort Benton. In May 1886 in the second year of the fledgling Great Falls Townsite, Dutro visited to take photos of the falls of the Missouri and the new town. The next year he was back for more as the growth of “the future great” began to accelerate. When the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba (later Great Northern) Railroad arrived at Fort Benton, Dutro was there to photograph the driving of the silver spike. He visited the Dan Blevins ranch on Highwood Creek to take photos of his well-known race horses. Holiday treats during this period featured collections of Dutro’s famed photographic sketches of northern Montana.
In 1894 the Chinese community of Fort Benton and other towns in the area were required to comply with provisions of a new law, and Dutro was there to photograph them. Twenty-seven Chinese were photographed in Fort Benton, a dozen at Assinniboine, and twenty at Havre. The next year Dutro was back in Havre to photograph the “Wildest West” show aggregation. While there he also captured Cree Indians just ready to commence their famous sun dance.
By the mid 1890s Dutro’s reputation as an exceptional photographer attracted the interest of a young man who was destined to greatness. In early 1896 Roland Reed came to Fort Benton to apprentice at the Dutro Studio. Dutro and Reed formed a partnership with photographic 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.

In one of Fort Benton’s greatest preservation disasters, the priceless collection of Dan Dutro’s glass plate negatives, stored for many years in the Benton Record building, were thrown out when the third story of the Record building was razed in August 1929 to develop Fraternity Hall.  

During his Helena years, Daniel Dutro had married Caroline McBurney, a daughter of George McBurney, who came from Farmington, New York, where Mrs. Dutro was born on October 17, 1849. The 1880 census recorded the Dutro family living in Helena with children: Alice age 8; Flora age 5; George age 4; and David age 2. Living in Fort Benton, the Dutros were active members of the community. In January 1882, Dan Dutro, as a “patron” of the Benton Public Schools publically supported the School Board in their stand to allow African American children to attend the Benton Schools. He served as president of the Fort Benton library association. Dutro was a founding member of G. K. Warren Post No. 20, Grand Army of the Republic, in Fort Benton.

Around 1900 Dutro’s father-in-law, George McBurney, builder of the McBurney House the first hotel in Deer Lodge County, lost his eyesight, and Dan Dutro ended his photographic career to devote himself to the care of McBurney until the death of the latter. Dutro then resumed mining operations in the Helena area and operated a mine at the mouth of Nelson Gulch, where he built a small stamp mill and foundry. Later, he discovered the “Arrow Head” mine of rich ore. Until his death, Dutro continued to operate his mill and take an active interest in mining affairs. Considering the state of his health Mr. Dutro was a remarkable man and his achievements stand out as a practical demonstration of what a man can accomplish if he only possesses sufficient ambition, no matter what his physical disabilities may be.

Mrs. Caroline Dutro survived her husband and lived at Central Park, Gallatin County, Montana. At the time of Dan Dutro’s death their children were: Alice, married to Rev. H. E. Clowes, of San Diego, California; Flora, married to Arthur P. Knadler, of Central Park, Montana; George, married to Helen, daughter of Robert and Lydia Culbertson; and David V, married to Anna Vaughn, of Dodson, MT.

Civil War veteran drummer boy Daniel D. Dutro died May 8, 1918 at Logan, a railroad town in Gallatin County near Three Forks. He rests today in Forestvale Cemetery, Helena.


1.     Dan Dutro prospected and mined whenever his health permitted.
2.     Dutro & Reed’s Photographic Studio about 1896, the studio was located on the site of the Chouteau County Free Public Library.

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