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Into The Face Of History

June 2024
7min read

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.

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.

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.

I learned that Fouch had photographic studios in a number of locations in the Minneapolis area. Later he owned a photo supply store, which he eventually sold to Kodak, and then he left the photography business. He became a real estate agent after arriving in Los Angeles. The last picture I have of John Fouch was taken on his eighty-fourth birthday. In addition to a splendid mustache, he sports a camera slung around his neck. He died in Glendale, California, on August 7, 1933.

Many puzzle pieces are still missing, and many questions remain unanswered. But John Fouch’s work speaks for itself. He was an excellent photographer, who went into the wilderness when danger still abounded and with his sensitive portraits and landscapes captured the closing chapter of the long struggle for domination of the Great Plains. Yet it seems that his frontier efforts were not commercially successful. Photographs like his are rare because few were produced and sold in the first place. His grandson recalls his saying that he “couldn’t make any money out there selling pictures to the Indians.”

My researches did reveal that John H. Fouch was not totally unknown. The Smithsonian and the Montana Historical Society have several of his images. A few of his photographs have been published over the years but usually without attribution and in some cases bearing the credit of another photographer.

But, so far at least, history has not been especially kind to John Fouch. It still amazes me that a pioneer photographer responsible for such important images could be virtually unknown, and that so many of his photographs could remain so long undiscovered. I am happy to have a hand in correcting that.

Facts (and photographs) are all too easily misplaced or forgotten and, once lost, are very hard to retrieve. But that challenge makes for great rewards, and it’s all a lot of fun. So on I go. John Fouch took two views of the Custer Battlefield, and I found only one. The other is still out there.

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