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Laton A. Huffman


Posted By: Diana Diedrich
Date: 1/28/2013 at 15:34:44

With Camera and Brush, L.A. Huffman Made Authentic Record of Montana’s Pioneer Days

Early Day Photographer Preserved Much of Vanishing West

With camera and brush, Laton A. Huffman, pioneer photographer of Miles city, who died here Monday, made a record more authentic than any historian of stirring epochs of the Montana frontier. Nearly every phase of the life he has pictured has vanished, the buffalo hunts, the hostile Indian camps, the great round-ups of the days of free grass, but not before his magic art had captured the imprints that will outlast the last pioneer.

A farm lad in western Iowa in a land still only partially tamed and on the edge of the Indian country, young Huffman received his first taste of life on the outskirts of civilization.
He rode after cattle and broke horses for a big wheat farmer who was also in the livestock business. He heard of the great ranges and the vast ranches further west and he was eager to be in the midst of big events.

His father had deserted the farm for a photographic gallery in a little town in eastern Iowa and even before his ventures in western Iowa, young Huffman had tried his own hand with a similar shop at Postville, Iowa. After a visit with his father (his mother had died several years before) he went to St. Paul with a small amount of money and a homemade camera.
There he learned that the place of post photographer at Fort Keogh was vacant and with no assurance that he would get the job, he started to see what it had to offer. The Northern Pacific at that time had only built to Bismarck and from that point the trip was made by Star route red buckboards, a pioneer mail route. It was bitter cold weather, getting as low as 40 below zero at night, and young Huffman was without blanket, robe or adequate overcoat, and he suffered considerably from exposure.

At a place known as Tobacco station from the wild mullein which abounded there, Huffman stopped over a day to rest. While he was there a detachment of soldiers arrived on their way from Fort Keogh to Fort Abraham Lincoln as escort for some mule teams, It seems that when Keogh was built in 1877, some window shutters for the new fort were left at Fort Lincoln and for several years at Christmas time officers felt an urgent need for more shutters. A pack outfit would be sent to get them and incidentally to procure goodly quantities of fresh provisions, liquors and other necessities for a merry Christmas at the fort.

The detachment was commanded by Lieut. Hunter Liggett, who became Lieutenant-general in the World war and Lieut. Oscar F. Long, who also arose to high command in the army, Luther S. “Yellowstone” Kelly, noted scout for General Miles was also along as a packer, work which he often followed when not on active scouting duty.

Meets Noted Scout.
As Huffman walked around the camp that evening In some felt slippers, tired from the long overland trip, and bearing a scar on his forehead from a mishap along the way, he was stopped by Kelly who inquired in a kindly way about his plans and then looking at his feet asked, “Haven’t you any boots?”

Arriving in Miles City, in the middle of the night, he found most of the inhabitants still wide awake with saloons, dance halls and gambling establishments doing a big business in the small frame and log shacks of the main street. His first meal was of buffalo meat, canned tomatoes, dough biscuits and coffee for which he paid a dollar. At the fort, he found the government would furnish him with a log shack for a studio and he was entitled to what he could make taking pictures.

Although there was some demand for his services, time began to drag heavily, especially with all the wild and wonderful country about to explore and it was not long before the whole of eastern Montana was his studio. In particular, the romance of buffalo hunting appealed to him and before long he had locked up his shack and with a small camping outfit, was headed into the country between the lower Yellowstone and the Missouri, the region of the Big Dry and Redwater. No other country ever had quite the appeal to him as this Big Open, as he fondly called the region.

Buffalo Hunting Appeals.
On this trip, he caught up in a few days with Dock Zahl a noted buffalo hunter, who was out with his party of skinners and teamsters. After staying with them several days, he became separated from them by accident and wandered about for three days with little to eat but a prairie chicken, he managed to kill. Finally, he found the party again. On his way, he found a Sioux scaffold grave and took as a trophy a wardrum hung on a pole but left untouched the food which had been put before the airy tomb of the warrior.

During the next few years, he took many other hunting trips after buffalo and became acquainted with a legion of buffalo hunters, Dock Zahl, Mike Trip, Jim Heimer, Bickerdike, Jim White and others famous from the Brazos to Canada. During these years, hundreds of skin hunters were still on the prairies.

At first, he went mainly for the excitement and profit of the buffalo hunt but one day as he viewed a number of bleeding carcasses lying about on the frozen snow, the realization came to him that the buffalo in Montana would soon vanish as had the hordes further south. Thereafter at every opportunity he sought to secure pictures of the herds in characteristic groups as well as scenes of hunting, killing and skinning of buffalos. Many of the views were taken from the backs of horses as the right views presented themselves. To the hunters, the taking of pictures to the neglect of the business at hand seemed foolish.

Killing Made Business.
Buffalo were hunted almost entirely for their hides and tongues. The parties consisted of a hunter with five or six men, known as strippers or skinners. The professional robe seekers worked quietly with a view of killing as many animals as possible without alarming the herd. After the animals had gone to water and returned to higher ground to rest after grazing, was the time selected for killing. The hunter then slipped up to the leeward side and shot the lead cow through the lungs with a 45-120 Sharps rifle, the animal usually bleeding to death without moving. The hunter then went on to another isolated animal until he had killed from a dozen on up. The skinners with wagons followed up and fell about their tasks.

Before the days of the railroads, the hides were loaded on river boats and shipped down the Yellowstone and Missouri river. At various river towns great warehouses were built where buffalo hides as well as skins of other animals were corded up until the steamers arrived.

At one time, according to Mr. Huffman, J.C. Tellinghast & Co. had purchased a large quantity of pelts to be shipped to Chicago and two steamers, one of them the Josephine, famed for Capt. Grant Marsh’s trip in it to a point above Billings, were at the mouth of the Big Horn river to receive them. The shipment was handled by Al Campbell and John Smith who had gathered a bunch of roustabout and checkers to help with the loading. The skins were folded separately with the hair inside to keep out bugs that would injure the hides and they were then piled in ricks. A roustabout would then take a packet on his head and shoulder and take it on board, with bugs falling about him until the gangways became slippery with the crushed insects.

Brockey Tom Aped.
“Brockey” Tom, a famous character on the river was the captain of the boat. The captain’s face was adorned with a protruding and menacing goatee unlike anything ever worn by man. There was a barber on board the ship and the workers, who all wore shaggy whiskers, led by Big John Smith, each has his beard trimmed exactly to resemble the facial adornments of “Brockey” Tom. When the men all filed in, for the dinner to which the captain had invited them, “Brockey” Tom gave one baleful look as he surveyed his guests. For a moment they expected one of the terrible explosions of wrath and “cuss-words” for which the captain was famous, but he evidently decided they were more than he cared to tackle together and he did the honors as if nothing had happened.

When Mr. Huffman left Fort Keogh to set up a photographic establishment at Miles City, the steamer F.V. Bachellor was loading an immense lot of buffalo hides at the steamboat landing. In order to get all the hides on board, the upper works had to be torn out. Mr. Huffman bought the lumber and also the glass doors, window sashes and other discarded material of the upper deck to build his studio. As some of the material was “cut on the bias” and in the odd shapes necessary in ship architecture, it was a real task to match lumber and some bizarre effects resulted.

While Mr. Huffman was at Fort Keogh, there was a large village of Minneconioux Sioux, whose head chief was Spotted Eagle, about two and a half miles up the Tongue river from the fort. Another large camp of Northern Cheyenne’s, Sioux and Assiniboine was some distance above the fort on the main Yellowstone. These camps were the last clans of “unreconstructed” hostiles in eastern Montana. They had been concentrated around Fort Keogh after having been forced by hunger to come to terms with General Miles and his soldiers. The Indians still lived on buffalo meat, used the robes for blankets and lived in leather lodges.

Rain-in-the-Face Poses.
Some of the more dangerous Indians including the celebrated Rain-in-the-Face were held under military supervision. Mr. Huffman had taken many pictures of Indians of different tribes who visited the fort and he gradually extended his activities into the hostile camps where he was soon on friendly terms with the chiefs. Finally, one day, he persuaded Rain-in-the-Face to go to his studio. With the aid of an accommodating guard, he drove him to the cabin in a delivery wagon, where a number of exposures of the noted savage in full regalia were taken.

Some of the Indians got excited at the long absence of their leader, fearing that he had been spirited away by the soldiers and hanged or shot. There was a great commotion in the camp until Rain-in-the-Face was brought back after several hours, quite unharmed. When General Miles got wind of the incident, he called Mr. Huffman in and reprimanded him, advising him not to repeat the performance. The removal of the several thousand Sioux to the Standing Rock reservation in Dakota by steamboat was an episode of the Yellowstone that made a deep impression on Mr. Huffman because of its pathetic elements. The Minneconjoux like the Mandans followed a primitive type of agriculture and the name of Pumpkin creek bears witness to their efforts in Montana. Several of their number had died at the camp. Most of them desired to remain on the Tongue river and there were many demonstrations of woe as they were forced to abandon the site and go aboard the five steamboats sent to convey them down the rivers.

In the early days of his life at Fort Keogh, “Yellowstone” Kelly frequently came to his studio. Often he came in from long scouting trips, undertaken alone and would lie down on a pile of buffalo robes in a corner and go to sleep. He was a great reader, especially on historical subjects and the conversation was mainly about the things he had read.
One day when Kelly had just come in from a long trip, he noticed some new photographs of officers that Mr. Huffman had just finished. “I would like to have a nice picture to send my mother but I don’t want it in these clothes,” Kelly who wore a buckskin suit and a cap of coyote skins, remarked. There was a Stetson hat and a conventional coat of those days in the studio and he was given these for the picture which Mr. Huffman made.

Catfish Sandy Escapes.
A character about Miles City known as Catfish Sandy, from his usual occupation as a fisherman once was caught by a band of “lariat” Sioux, as the bands had come sneaking into the country trying to steal horses were called. He managed to escape from them and got back to Fort Keogh. Kelly with a detachment of soldiers was sent after them. Their preparations were made in the middle of the night close by Mr. Huffman’s shack and he was kept awake by their efforts to catch their mules and pack up. One of the men was killed in a skirmish with these Indians and Kelly had a narrow escape.

At another time, Mr. Huffman went with Kelly and Jeff Phillips, a boss packer, on a scouting expedition to see if any Sioux had slipped over in the Crow country looking for horses. They went up the Rosebud across to the Little Big Horn and then to the Yellowstone about 15 miles west of Billings and then into the Musselshell and Big Dry country, covering more than 400 miles before they got back to Fort Keogh. They kept a constant lookout for “lariat” parties of Indians and kept away from every bush or thicket where an Indian might be hid.

Early in the eighties, Mr. Huffman turned his hand for a few seasons to cattle raising. With a partner named Danphere, he established the first ranch in the Lame Deer country and was there when the Northern Cheyennes were given a reservation in that section. He became a friend of Two Moons, the Cheyenne chieftain as well as many others of the tribe in his sojourn there. While he had left the section before the trouble which resulted in the burning of the Alderson ranch buildings after a cowboy had creased a chieftain’s skull with a bullet on a dare, he was well acquainted with all the actors, both Indian and white in the episode.

He had the first recorded brand the H. Lazy L. in the Cheyenne district. He wore a stickpin with the brand engraved upon it, even in his later years.

Mr. Huffman was acquainted with all the early cattle kings of eastern Montana, John R. Tingle, Granville Stuart, Pierre Wibaux and the owners and foremen of such large companies as the Niobrara ranch, the N Bar, on the Powder river, the Capitol syndicate with the XIT brand and many others. He also met at district round-ups, representatives from more distant sections including the Little Missouri country where Theodore Roosevelt, and the Marquis de Mores were getting on each others’ nerves and where Col. John Simpson, with the Mill Iron or Hask Knife brand, ranged 100,000 cattle many of whom wandered far into Montana.

Miles City was in the very center of the cattle industry and the annual cattlemen’s convention brought cowmen from every direction. It was at one of these conventions, that Huffman first met Theodore Roosevelt, who was a delegate from the Little Missouri country. Roosevelt had heard of Huffman’s pictures and visited his studio while at Miles City.

The Capitol Land company furnished the medium for most of Mr. Huffman’s photographs of large scale cattle operations. This company, organized by the Farwells, Chicago merchants, secured land grants in Texas for the building of the state capitol years before their Montana operations. Mr. Huffman was with the company in the last big clean-up of the old beef herds from Texas, O.C. Cato, a powerful figure in the cattle days and afterwards state senator was foreman and appears in several of the Huffman pictures.

Many other phases of pioneer life were also the subject for Mr. Huffman’s ever-busy camera. Street scenes in Miles City including the arrival or departure of the Diamond R. freight outfits, pictures taken in Yellowstone park, many of them now in park museums, photographs of sheep camps, stage outfits and many other picturesque details of life in Montana in the eighties and the nineties furnished material for his studies.

Railroad Is Built.
From his quarters at Fort Keogh, Mr. Huffman saw the arrival of the first wagon train with the Northern Pacific railroad engineers who were surveying the final location of the line as it emerged on the fringe of the timber on the Tongue river. He also saw the building of the ice bridge and the transfer of the railroad’s locomotive and material for the construction of the road across the river on ice.

During these days, he became acquainted with H.W. Rowley, then a civil engineer with the construction crews, later to become a leader in many Billings financial enterprises. In later years, Mr. Huffman was often a guest of Mr. Rowley at the Northern hotel and the most complete collection of his pictures including a large set which dramatizes the whole range of eastern Montana development is to be found in its lobby.

There was hardly an angle of Montana life in which Mr. Huffman did not take an active interest at one time or another. He was secretary of the grand jury, famed in Custer county annuls, which undertook the task of investigating county affairs which resulted in several county officials hastily leaving to avoid prosecution. A member of this grand jury was Bill Stillar, who followed the humble calling of bone picker as the prairies were scoured for the last evidence of the buffalo to be made into, lime. Stillar left his name, slightly changed, on the map as Stellar creek.

Admired Early Sheriffs.
Of the tragedies and the rough course of frontier justice of which there were many episodes at Miles City as well as in other towns of the west, Mr. Huffman sometimes spoke although he believed that many of the incidents should be left unchronicled lest they hurt someone still living. He had a high admiration for some of the early Custer sheriffs and deputies, men like Tom Irvine, Jack Johnson, the Conley brothers and others. He also knew that some of those who met death at the hands of vigilantes and others in the stern days of 1883 and 1884 were not men of unmitigated badness.
In the days when men were handy with a trigger, a man of conviction at some time or other, had to show that he could face a gun unflinchingly if the occasion demanded and Mr. Huffman was threatened several times and at one time was shot at from a distance of only a few feet.
Mr. Huffman was keenly interested in the development of Montana farming and industry. In the legislature, he introduced some of the first bills for the development of irrigation. At one time, he was financially interested in the development of the New World mining area at Cooke City and was secretary of a mining company.

In 1886, Mr. Huffman was elected county commissioner of Custer county and in 1893 he was a member of the legislature. While at Helena, introduced a measure for the payment of taxes in two installments although it was not until many session later that it became a law. Mr. Huffman also served as school trustee and in other civic capacities at Miles City.

For a year or two about 1896, Mr. Huffman ran a photographic gallery at Billings, which he had purchased from a Mr. Rumsey.

He had previously taken pictures of the struggling town of Billings in its first year, but later sold out and returned to Miles City.
Early in the eighties, Mr. Huffman had begun to realize the historic value of many of his photographs and started advertising and selling his pictures of Indians, buffalo and Montana scenery. About 25 years ago, he closed his photographic gallery to casual trade to devote his entire attention to the reproduction and developing of his historic pictures.

From old and often defective negatives, Mr. Huffman with oils, water colors and other processes produced by authentic coloring, made possible by his years of study of Montana scenes, and by creative additions where the pictures were blurred or imperfect, as near the actual scene as photography and the trained eye of an artist and eyewitness could duplicate. Thousands of the pictures have been sold to private individuals while more extended collections are to be found in railway headquarters, libraries, schools, museums and state capitols. His pictures have also been used in illustrating many books and articles on the west.

Some of the pictures most widely copied in which Mr. Huffman took special pride were “Spotted Eagle Village,” “Buffalo Grazing in the Big Open” “The Round-up on the Move at 4”30 a.m.” the photograph of Rain-in-the-Face, “The Cheyenne Sweat Lodge” and “Old Piper Dan’s Ranch.”

Mr. Huffman’s studio was frequently visited by those who were intent on studying various phases of Montana life while Mr. Huffman himself was a mine of information in regard to its early history.

Perhaps the most fertile of his many friendships with men of prominence was that with Dr. William T. Hornaday, zoologist and a leader in animal life conservation. For many years, Mr. Huffman took a personal interest in pushing the sale of Dr. Hornaday’s books and he visited him a number of times in New York City. On his eastern trips, he also made many friends in Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Fossils Are Found.
While on a camping trip with Dr. Hornaday about 1900, they discovered the horn of a fossil triceratops under a ledge near Jordan where they had sought refuge from a storm. The discovery led to the American Museum of Natural History sending Barnum Brown on an expedition to that section which began seven years of exploration that uncovered one of the richest fields of fossil remains in the west.

Mr. Huffman took a keen interest in animal life of all types. He knew much about their habits and habitats and was keenly interested in plans for the preservation of antelope and other disappearing forms of plains’ life.

In 1883, Mr. Huffman went east and returned with a bride. His wife had been Miss Eliza Ann Skinner, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Skinner. Her father as a young man had been advance agent for Joseph Jefferson and was afterwards for many years owner of the Mansion house at Chicago.

There were two daughters of the marriage, Mrs. Vernon L. Scott of this city and Mrs. W. R. Felton of Sioux City, Iowa. There are four grand-children, two boys and two girls, the children of Mr. and Mrs. Felton.

~Source: The Billings Gazette, Sunday, January 3, 1932
~Transcribed by Diana Henry Diedrich / Proofread by Richard Diedrich


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