“Manual labour . . . is all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden.”
~ Evelyn Cameron ~
Eastern Montana is a harsh place; flat, barren, hot in the summer, cold to the extreme in the winter, and sparsely populated. And that is the description of eastern Montana today.
Imagine what life was like in the 1800s. Can't? Neither could I until I read Donna Lucey's book, Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron
, and traveled to eastern Montana to see for myself.
In the late 1970s, Lucey discovered thousands of Cameron’s photo-negatives stashed away in the basement of Cameron’s best friend, Janet Williams', crumbling home. Coated with over 50 years of dust and dirt were 1,800 glass-plate and film negatives, 2,500 original photographic prints, letters, manuscripts and Cameron's diary. The diary contained a volume from each year except one from 1893 to 1928 which meticulously detailed pioneer life in Montana. Cameron's photographs, together with her daily diaries, provide one of the most detailed records available today of life on the Great Plains. Those glass plate negatives and Evelyn's diaries became the basis of Lucey's book.
Two years ago my husband and I traveled to Terry, Montana, the hub of Evelyn's photographic work. I was disappointed when we arrived to find the Evelyn Cameron Museum closed. As we stood reading the sign on the door, someone walking down the street stopped and in typical Montana fashion, suggested we call the curator at her home. He was sure she'd come over and open up just for us; we called, and she did. I will be forever grateful, as it was a wonderful experience and really brought the book and the woman to life. You only had to step outside the Museum door and survey the area around you to envision the Montana of Evelyn Cameron, it has not changed that much.
Being honest, I could not live in eastern Montana, and how a well-bred Englishwoman in the late 1800s could, is beyond me. Fortunately, it was not beyond the resourceful Cameron. We know that because Evelyn left behind a legacy, a written and photographic record of her life that shows us the remarkable strength and ingenuity of this tough frontier woman.
Evelyn was born Evelyn Jephson Flower on August 26, 1868, at Furze Down Park, a rambling country estate near the small town of Streatham, just south of London. Her father, Philip William Flower, was a successful East Indian merchant. Evelyn was the fifth of six children born to his second wife Elizabeth. Evelyn also had nine half-siblings, born to her father's first wife Mary who had died in 1850.
Almost sixty when she was born, Philip Flower died before Evelyn was four years old leaving her the beneficiary of a fairly substantial trust fund that gave her an income of £300 per year. Wickham Flower, a London attorney and one of Evelyn's cousins, was the trustee for her inheritance.
Evelyn's half-brother, Cyril Flower led a very glamorous privileged life. Cyril became a barrister at twenty-seven having been educated at Harrow and Cambridge. He was considered the handsomest man of his day. His best friend was Leopold de Rothschild, of the banking family, and he married Leopold's cousin Constance. He became a member of Parliament in 1880, served as Whip to the Liberal Party and Junior Lord of the Treasury under Gladstone, and in 1892 was raised to noble rank with the title Lord Battersea. The Batterseas entertained on a grand scale and it is this life that Evelyn left when she married Even Cameron.
In the fall of 1899, Evelyn married Ewen Somerled Cameron, the first born son of Reverend Allan Gordon Cameron. Evelyn's family did not approve of her choice. We can only speculate as to their reasons. Perhaps because Ewen was fourteen years older than Evelyn and in poor health. But more likely was the fact that at the age of thirty-five, Ewen was without either an established career or a substantial inheritance. His prospects for success were limited.
Ewen was an eccentric whose great interest in life was wildlife. Prior to marrying Evelyn he had lived on a virtually uninhabited island among the Orkey Islands where he studied the habits of gulls and turns and amassed an impressive collection of stuffed birds. Ewen considered himself a scholar and scholars required the financial ability to maintain their pursuits. He had no such ability.
Evelyn and Ewen honeymooned in the remote badlands of eastern Montana Territory in 1899. They had come to hunt, a pursuit they both enjoyed. They were accompanied by an English cook and one of General Custer's old scouts as a guide. Montana had been recommended to them by Evelyn's older brother Percy, who had traveled up the Yellowstone to Miles City on a hunting expedition and told tales of the bountiful wildlife.Miles may be traversed with never a sign of man
nor a sound more civilized than the Falcon's angry scream.
~ Ewen ~
Ewen and Evelyn decided to leave London behind and settle in eastern Montana. The British newspapers were filled with stories of striking it rich in America and in Montana in particular. Evelyn had no regrets about leaving England; she could lead the outdoor life of riding and hunting she loved and leave behind her disapproving relatives. They decided to raise horses, as both were excellent judges of horse flesh. Ewen, unfortunately, had no business sense.
They moved to the Eve Ranch (named for Evelyn) with its crude three-room cabin constructed of logs and a stone foundation. Their attempts at raising horses on the open range had been unsuccessful. Ewen now decided to breed polo ponies for sale to Europe's wealthy sportsmen. He entered into a partnership with one of Montana's "cattle kings" and imported two exotic Arabian stallions.
The cost of ranching was more than the Camerons had expected. In one instance, Ewen had written a bad check he could not cover. Evelyn's cousin, Wickham Flower, was contacted to cover the shortfall, but it took a great deal of time to settle the matter between England and Miles City, Montana. The failure to resolve the matter quickly incurred a $1,000 penalty on the Cameron's partnership. Then the bank in Miles City, in which they had all their money, failed.
Again, Evelyn contacted Wickham and asked for an advance on her money. Wickham responded that no advance was possible. It was Evelyn's money, but because she was a woman, she had no control over it. Ewen, discouraged, wanted to return home. Evelyn wanted to stay. In an effort to remain in Montana, Evelyn started taking in wealthy boarders. This too was not a success. The boarders only created more work for Evelyn and often failed to pay their rent.
The polo pony breeding came to a disastrous end. The horses that didn't die in the railroad cars, died on the docks waiting to be shipped to England, or died on the long voyage aboard ship. Only two horses made it to England and their buyer found them wild and hard to handle.
Evelyn's next venture was raising vegetables for sale. She received no assistance in her business venture from her husband, as she had not with the boarders. She raised the vegetables, loaded hundred of pounds of her produce into wagons and drove over great distances to sell her valuable commodity. She sold to cook wagons on the range, cowboys in saloons, remote ranches and railroad section houses. It was a tiring day spent in the elements, but Evelyn could earn as much as $5.10/day (cowboys were making $30 - $45 per month).
Evelyn demonstrated the minutest details of her life through her meticulous diaries. The following is one of my favorite passages - a toothache so painful she finally had to do something about it:
“Ran wire round [tooth] . . . , her diary reads. “Hung by [wire] from rafter but it broke. Put stronger wire round the tooth, joined ends again to rope which [I] threw over rafter. Stood on trunk [and] let self down easy. This pulled the tooth out.” She describes running into the house to show her husband the tooth--and then, she writes, “Breakfast [I] got merrily.”
Evelyn's most successful money making venture was to become her photography business. She took up photography and took thousands of wonderful pictures of friends, neighbors, their children, and the wildlife of the high plains.
She was encouraged in this pursuit by one of her boarders and purchased her first camera by mail. She decided to wrestle with the intricacies of the dry plate glass negative, unwieldy, 5x7 Graflex camera at a time when most people were using the new smaller easier to handle Kodak film camera. She later purchased a No. 5 Kodet that was designed for 5 X 7 plates or film, as she liked the tonal quality of the plates.
Ewen wrote articles about Montana wildlife for publication that were accompanied by Evelyn's photographs. Evelyn wrote articles that she illustrated with photographs and sold her photographs to other authors.
Cowboys and passing ranchers stopped by the Eve Ranch to be photographed by Evelyn and she often traveled on horseback for hours or days to reach remote ranches or an eagle's eyrie to take a photograph. Cowboys and sheepherders were some of her favorite subjects as were the wildlife she adopted and tamed. She made albums as gifts for friends and relatives. For her professional photographs she charged per the number of prints ordered, with the caveat that the buyer be pleased with the photograph.
She was not an instant monetary success, as she had to keep going back to retake photographs until her customer was pleased. This required a great deal of time and photographic materials."Ewen posted photographic accounts & makes me $4.95 in the hole yet. Made $31. Spent 35.93."
~ August 4, 1899 ~
As I pay tribute to Evelyn Cameron, she also paid tribute through her photography to the oft ignored women pioneers she encountered. Those of us who search for bits of information regarding our female ancestors know historians and photographers would fore go information on these women in favor of their male counterparts, perhaps because so many historians and photographers were men.
As a woman, Evelyn brought her unique perspective to their struggles and accomplishments. Evelyn wrote an article in the June 6, 1914, issue of Country Life
that illustrated the women whose company she sought and enjoyed. It was about the Montana Cowgirl and was illustrated with action photos of the Buckley sisters, know in the area as the "Red Yearlings" because of their manes of red-blond hair and their expertise as horsewomen.
All three sisters may be said to have been born in the saddle, and are accomplished in the incidental work of branding cattle, breaking horses and throwing the lass0. . . A book might be filled with their exploits and hair-breadth escapes when riding "broncos," Evelyn wrote.
The sisters became famous and were sought after by Wild West shows. Shy by nature they declined the theatrical life and an invitation to perform before Teddy Roosevelt.
Many of the women of Montana during this period are known to us today only through the extraordinary efforts of Evelyn Cameron.
Her beloved husband, Ewen, died in 1915 leaving Evelyn to run the ranch alone for the next 13 years until her death. Evelyn left the ranch and all of her belongings to her best friend, Janet Williams, who leased the ranch land and packed the Evelyn's belongings into her basement where they were discovered by Donna Lucey.
"I wish I would lead a life worthy to look back upon," Cameron wrote not long after moving to Montana. "I am far out of the path now." How wrong she was and what an amazingly worthy life she led.Sources:Official Home of Evelyn Cameron and The Evelyn Cameron Foundation.
Lucey, Donna M., Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana, 2001.
Wilson, Kurt, The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century. 43. Evelyn Cameron, Special for The Missoulian Online.
Remarks of Lynne V. Cheney, The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, November 2, 2001.
National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Library and Research, Evelyn Cameron.
Montana Historical Society, Archival Sources at the Montana Historical Society, Cameron, Evelyn and Ewen Manuscript Collection 226.
Prairie County Museum and Cameron Gallery, Evelyn Cameron Story, Museum Brochure. [Museum located at 101 Logan Avenue, Terry, Montana].Photographs:
Evelyn Cameron, 1899 © Mountain Press
Montana Landscape, Courtesy Mountain Press
Evelyn - Eve Ranch - Courtesy Montana Historical Society
Evelyn Standing on Horse - Courtesy Montana Historical Society
Janet Williams - Courtesy Evelyn Cameron.com