Into The Face Of History

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I had waited six months to see it. A long-time collector, I loved to roam the monthly swap meet in Long Beach, California near my home. Half a year before, I’d stopped at the booth of a dealer in old photographs and asked if he had anything related to General Custer or to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, both favorite topics of mine. He told me that he had a stereo view of the Custer Battlefield, but he hadn’t brought it with him, and it wasn’t for sale. “It’s by a photographer I’ve never heard of,” he explained. “I think I’ll just hold on to it.” Each month I’d inquire again. Finally he agreed to bring it for me to see.

 
 
 
He had been the first to photograph Chief Joseph after the Indian leaders’ surrender but the portrait had never surfaced.

It was a grimly haunting image; bleached bones and crude wooden burial stakes littered a barren landscape. The imprint read “Photographed and Published by John H. Fouch, Fort Keogh, M.T.” This experienced dealer had never heard of John Fouch; no surprise that I hadn’t either. It would be months before I even knew how to pronounce his name. But my curiosity was piqued. After we chatted for a while, the owner agreed to sell it to me.

Though I still had no idea of its significance, I showed it eagerly to my family. They looked at each other knowingly and mumbled something equivalent to “vuck.” Undaunted, I went through every Custer book I had but found neither this picture nor any mention of John H. Fouch. So I called a friend who is a dealer in books on Custer and the Indian Wars, and he gave me the names and phone numbers of several people who had done research on early frontier photographs. Calling one and then another, I learned that Fouch’s photographs were rare. It was known that he had traveled to the Little Bighorn site in July of 1877 (one year after the battle) and had eventually published two views. These were the earliest ever taken of the battlefield, but no print of either had ever before surfaced. Now I had one in my hand.

You can imagine my excitement. The very first photograph ever taken of the scene of a fabled event in American history. In a lifetime of collecting, one would be lucky to find such an important item. Though an amateur researcher, I decided to try to find out more about it. Flying by the seat of my pants, I made a flurry of phone calls to museums, curators, historians, dealers, and collectors. These authorities confirmed that Fouch was in fact virtually unknown, his images were almost nonexistent, and no one had ever before located my Custer Battlefield view. Officials at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument met my inquiries with enthusiasm and encouragement. Extensive reading, a visit to the Little Bighorn battlefield, and correspondence with numerous experts in the field led to my publishing an article in Greasy Grass, a yearly magazine put out at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. It was well received, and I was inspired to push on.

By now I had become just as fascinated with Fouch himself. All that I knew so far was that he had served as the first post photographer at Fort Keogh, Montana Territory, a remote military outpost at the juncture of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, established in late 1876 after Custer’s defeat. After that he had moved to Minnesota. Again I made a round of phone calls, this time to historical societies in the Minneapolis area. One especially helpful librarian tracked him through various city directories and called me back with the news that Fouch had moved in 1907—here to Los Angeles. No wonder the photograph had surfaced so close to home. I was able to track the Fouch family through the L.A. city directories from 1907 through 1927, but it was a simpler research method that led to pay dirt—current telephone books. I found fifteen people named Fouch in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and I began to call each, patiently explaining who I was and why I was calling. The first ten seemed bemused, though I did learn the proper pronunciation of Fouch (it rhymes with grouch ). The eleventh told me that John H. Fouch was his grandfather.

One descendant led me to another. I reached four surviving grandchildren, who supplied many interesting facts, but none had any of the photographer’s early Western pictures, and all knew little of his frontier work. Although the grandson who was most likely to have preserved anything had died a few years ago, I learned the name of one of his close associates, and I ventured yet another phone call. Yes, this gentleman knew that his friend’s grandfather had been an early photographer. In fact, he had inherited a stack of John H. Fouch portraits of Indian chiefs, and he would be happy to show them to me.

It was known that in addition to having taken the first view of the Custer Battlefield, Fouch had been the first to photograph Chief Joseph after the Nez Percé Indian leader surrendered in October of 1877. Like the battlefield picture, the Chief Joseph portrait had never been located. This was foremost on my mind as I sat down to go through the group of twelve Indian photographs. All were magnificent. The very last one was of Chief Joseph.