Treasures from the Basement

Evelyn Cameron
Photographer Evelyn Cameron (middle) poses on her horse with Mabel Williams (front) and Janet Williams (back). Janet inherited Cameron’s personal possessions.
– Photo courtesy Eric Hansen –

For more than half a century, nobody remembered Evelyn Cameron or how she documented early Montana Territory days. Her name didn’t appear in history books and none of her thousands of glass-plate photos were seen. Instead, they were stored in a basement. But thanks to writer Donna M. Lucey, Cameron’s work was uncovered and published, presenting an intimate look at pioneer life in eastern Montana. In her book, Photographing Montana, 1894-1928, Lucey told the story behind the “remarkable pictures” and the “master photographer of the West” who created them.

Evelyn Batterseas was born into a rich family in England that held to strict Victorian standards for women—a life of teas and fox hunts but not education or work. None of that suited Evelyn, who married a Scott named Ewen Cameron in 1889 and took off for America. The couple tried several ways to make a living—raising horses, then cattle, then vegetables for sale, living off Evelyn’s trust fund until it ran out.

She discovered photography in 1894, and soon was traveling the countryside charging $2 for a family portrait. She also took photos for nature articles her husband wrote. As Lucey wrote, “Evelyn was fascinated by what she referred to as the ‘New World type'”, the colorful frontier characters who were drawn to the remote areas, and about the how-to of life in the West—how to ‘thrash’ a field of wheat; how to shear a sheep; how to drive a herd of cattle across the Yellowstone River. She did on-the-scene documentary photography of them all.

Thankfully, the world saw her work through Lucey’s book, first published in 1990, then republished in 2001. Today, Evelyn is remembered in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, and in the Montana Historical Society in Helena, Montana. In Terry, Montana, the Prairie County Museum includes the Evelyn Cameron Gallery.

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