- Historic Sites
Into The Face Of History
Starting with a single, haunting battlefield image, an amateur photo detective managed to reconstruct a forgotten photographer’s life and uncover a treasure of Indian portraits.
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
I found fifteen people named Fouch in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and I began to call each, explaining my mission.
Like Custer, Joseph has taken on nearmythic proportions. In an epic journey the Nez Percé people crossed more than seventeen hundred miles of wilderness as they stood off the United States Armv over and over again before finally being run to ground forty miles from the Canadian border and freedom. The campaign ended with Joseph’s famous words “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Once again John Fouch’s camera had been there first, to capture the great chief’s image within three weeks of his surrender. I was looking straight into the face of history.
I renewed my research efforts, this time focusing on the Chief Joseph portrait. Did an earlier one exist? And had this one ever been published before? I was eventually to learn that it had indeed appeared in a magazine article some years before, with a tentative attribution to John Fouch. Now the credit would definitely be his. But a far more surprising story was to emerge. When I inquired at the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution. I was told that within its enormous collection of Indian photographs were eight of the twelve Fouch portraits that I had found, but not the Chief Joseph. The photo archivist, Paula Fleming, an authority on North American Indian photographs, had been helpful throughout my research, and now she agreed to look for other early images of Joseph. Among a group of copy photos in the Smithsonian files, one in particular caught her eye. She went back to retrieve the original picture, turned it over, and found a handwritten inscription on the back: “Compliments of John H. Fouch, Photosrapher, Tongue River, M. Try.”
Fouch had taken two photographs of Chief Joseph, not surprisingly, as he knew he had an important subject before his lens. This second one had been at the Smithsonian since 1946, and though there was a notation in the files that it was the earliest-known portrait of Chief Joseph, there were no details, and no attribution to John Fouch. Now the full storv was known.
My search went on. I learned to utilize a mvriad of resources, including birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and probate records. Military and pension records were available from the National Archives. Genealogical sources included federal and state censuses. Each time I found a new location where Fouch had lived or worked I would contact that state’s historical society and order old newspapers on microfilm for the relevant time and place, then spend hours in the library scanning them for a clue (an effort that led my wife to joke that by now I knew more about John Fouch and his family than I did about my own). Above all, my major tool was the telephone. Without any hesitation I would pick up the phone and call anyone who might have the remotest chance of supplying a lead. While most turned out to be blind alleys, everyone was pleasant and cooperative, and without the unselfish help of many of these people I’d have gotten nowhere.
His grandson recalled his saying that he couldn’t make any money out there selling pictures to the Indians.
As with a giant puzzle, when some of the pieces began to fall into place, others followed, and I began to get a better view of John Hale Fouch’s . life, the bad as well as the sood. He was born in Morgan County, Ohio, on July 9,1849, the youngest of six children. While he was still an infant, his father abandoned the family, and five years later his mother was granted a divorce so she could remarry. John Fouch’s niece later wrote: “The men all served in the Civil War, except John, who was too young. However, he ran away and came to [brother] Aristides’ regiment. I read in Aristides’ war diary how worried he was about little John.” Aristides survived the Civil War; another brother, and John’s biological father, did not.
As a young adult John Fouch lived in Minnesota, where at the age of twenty-five he married Jane C. Tennis of Cass County. Tragedy struck the following year. Returning for the birth of their first child from a winter trip to the YeIlowstone country, he found his wife ill and the baby stillborn. Two days later Jane died. Within a month Fouch was on his way back to the frontier for the year-and-a-half stay at Fort Keogh that would yield his most important work. In 1883 John Fouch was married again, to Celeste Read, a descendant of John Quincy Adams. The couple had six children. One died in childhood; the rest were recorded by their father in a series of endearing family photographs.