Drawing the Western Frontier: The James E. Taylor Album

hroughout his career, Taylor collected photographs — many of them commercial stereographs — and kept them in a scrapbook along with descriptive accounts and letters. These provided him with instant access to visual references for depicting the increasingly diverse cultural and geographic life of the West or for illustrating events to which he was not an eyewitness. Given his broad social connections, Taylor was able to obtain many unique items. These make his scrapbook an important historical resource of value well beyond its original use.

Page 54 of the Taylor Album


n the early 1870s, the idea of a Wild West show became popular and several plays were produced using recognizable Western figures. Headlining these dramas were such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Texas Jack Omohundro, Josephine Morlacchi and Wild Bill Hickok. The plays recreated various Western adventures in a loosely organized form. Hickok was especially interested in keeping people on their toes and liked to shoot off live ammunition when he got bored. Eventually these productions evolved into the famous outdoor Wild West Shows staring Cody, but on Taylor’s "Border Drama" page (above), one can glimpse the cast of an early and now forgotten play. Of particular note is the unique original tintype of Wild Bill Hickok (right), cropped from a group portrait of the rest of the troup.

While we do not yet know if Taylor used these images in an illustration, he certainly used other rare portraits in his collection. His scrapbook includes two other tintypes, one of Miss Josephine Meeker, Mrs. Flora Price and her children, and another of Major Thomas Thornburgh. All were involved in a brief but bloody conflict with the Ute Indians in the region of present-day Utah.

In 1879 Nathan Meeker, a government agent for the Utes, repeatedly attempted to persuade the Indians to become a farming community with little luck. Fearing trouble, Meeker asked for military assistance and, in response, Major Thornburgh and his troups were dispatched. Upon seeing the military, the Utes believed they had been sent to take their lands and a battle ensued. Thornburgh and many of his men were killed. At the agency outpost, Meeker and eleven others were killed and several hostages were taken including his daughter Josephine. Their lives were spared only because of her appeals to the Indians. As can be seen on these pages, Taylor used the tintypes to illustrate these events, accurately copying the source images.

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Did you know?
Taylor grouped many of his images by theme. One of the most interesting is "The Border Drama" (left). At first glance, the page appears to be a random collection of portraits, but with a little research, they become a unified group and the document even more valuable

Here are some other album pages grouped by theme:

  Indians
 Battle of the Washita
 Meeker Tragedy
 Gold Mining
 Mexican Life
 Frontier Life

 

Tintype of Wild Bill Hickok

This original tintype of Wild Bill Hickok, cropped from a group photo, appears on the page at left. Here it has been digitally enhanced to bring out details in the original photo.

 

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National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution