Eyewitness to History

Cavalry Soldiers True West Magazine
Eleven cavalry soldiers encamped on patrol after a practice march outside of Fort Keogh, Montana Territory, circa 1888-89. The photo of the soldiers may be part of a series Barthelmess made near the Tongue River at McDowell’s Ranch outside of Ashland.

Christian Barthelmess was a teenager when he arrived in the United States from Bavaria in 1876. The 1870s was a decade of major immigration to America from Germany and Central Europe, and thousands migrated into the ghettos of the nation’s burgeoning industrial cities, or to the West to homestead and own their own land. Like his peers, Barthelmess first worked as a factory laborer in New York and Ohio. In 1876, he lived in St. Louis, Missouri, enlisted in the U.S. Army’s 6th Cavalry and was sent to Fort Apache, Arizona Territory.

Mule Train True West Magazine
As a photographer, Barthelmess was active in all seasons, and had an artistic as well as journalistic eye for an image, as seen in his photo of a mule train and a group of five Zuni Indians in the snow in Nutria, a historic Zuni farming community, New Mexico Territory, 1881.
Apache Scouts True West Magazine
Five heavily armed Apache Scouts posed for Barthelmess at Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory, circa 1884. According to biographer Maurice Frink, the scout second from the left is wearing “an ancient Apache war cap.”

Barthelmess would remain an active duty soldier in the Army until 1903. In addition to the 6th Cavalry, he served in the 13th, 22nd and 2nd Infantry regiments. His service also took him to New Mexico’s Fort Wingate and Bayard, Colorado’s Lewis and Montana’s Fort Keogh. The dedicated enlisted man, who would rise to the rank of Chief Musician, 2nd Infantry Band, was also sent overseas to fight in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. During his career he joined the Army band and became an Army photographer. He married Catherine Dorothea Hansen in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, in 1886. They had eight children. According to Barthelmess’s biographer, Maurice Frink, and son Casey E., who published Photographer on an Army Mule in 1965, Christian “loved his family, the Army, his camera and music, perhaps in that order…. He was dedicated to his self-appointed task of recording the look of that land and the life of its people. No one knows where or when he obtained the camera that he kept at hand until his dying day. After retirement, he supported his family with his photography, supplemented by day labor.”

Fort Wingate True West Magazine
After hunting rabbits and birds Barthelmess had four soldiers and an Indian scout from Fort Wingate pose with their dogs and game in the Zuni farming village of Nutria on the same day as the landscape photo above.
Cochise Camp True West Magazine
Sixth Cavalry scouts, including two Apache Indian men holding rifles and two white men, were photographed in camp in 1884-86 at Emory Spring, in the Perilla Mountains of Cochise County, Arizona Territory.

This portfolio’s selection of Barthelmess’s images from Yale University’s Beinecke Library, plus the “Opening Shot” image on pp. 6-7 from the Library of Congress, are just a small sampling of his first-person primary work as a frontline military photographer. The ten photographs were taken at the two posts most associated with his photography, Fort Keogh in Montana and Fort Wingate in New Mexico. Barthelmess’s imagery shows no prejudice and reflects his inclusiveness and friendship with officers and enlisted men, white, black or Indian, as well as local Indian residents.

Fort Keough True West Magazine
Barthelmess’s 1888-89 image of soldiers, Indian scouts, women and a young girl (second from right) in front of Fort Keogh’s Pony Trader’s Store reflects the importance of a general store to everyone in the Montana frontier Army post community. Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Gros Ventre Indians all served as scouts at Fort Keogh.

Barthelmess died tragically at the age of 51 following an accident when a sewer trench he was digging collapsed on him outside Fort Keogh Hospital on April 10, 1906. He was buried with full military honors at Fort Keogh. In 1908, with Keogh’s closure, Barthelemess and the others buried at the old Montana fort were re-interred at Custer National Cemetery adjacent to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. His widow and family eventually put Barthelmess’s photos under management of his peer photographer, Robert C. Morrison, of Miles City. Today, over 500 of Christian Barthelemess’s photograghs are part of the Morrison Collection at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana.

Cheyenne Indian Scouts True West Magazine
Cheyenne Indian scouts from Fort Keogh posed with Lt. Edward Casey (a good friend of Barthelmess), sitting on a log in the center of the rear row, at their camp on the Yellowstone River, west of the fort in Montana Territory, 1889. Standing l.-r.: Bull Sheep, Zachary Rowland, Hollow Wood, Sweet Medicine, unidentified scout, Casey and “Old Bill” Rowland. Seated to the right are Hairy Hand and Wolf Name.

Editor’s Note:

Interested in reading more about Christian Barthelmess and his intriguing life as a soldier, musician, photographer and family man on the Western military frontier? I recommend Photographer on an Army Mule by Maurice Frink with Casey E. Barthelmess (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965).

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