Photography in its infancy
in the Wild West
By Ismail Veli…….
Photography is a fact and part of modern life. As history goes however photography is a new invention. What we take for granted today was until the late 1800’s something relatively unknown or unused by the vast majority of ordinary people. Only the most affluent of people seem to have family photos going back to the 3rd quarter of the 19th century. It seems the USA was one of the few exceptions as their fast growing urban towns had at least one photo studio if not more. Proof of this is the immense number of photos still surviving today. Sadly it seems that war was the impetus for the growth. The American civil war from 1861-65 was the first war to be photographed in such detail as to leave us a vivid image of life for that period. Including of course slavery still in existence at the time. The first known photography to be used widely in a conflict was however during the Mexican-American of 1846-47. It’s sad of course that war itself seems to act as an impetus to such new inventions. Its history however cannot be denied. Sadly most of the photographers names have been forgotten or lost.
It was in 1847 when an American photographer using the daguerreotype joined the American army on its advances. The daguerreotype was used to record the American occupation forces in and around Saltillo in Texas. Due to its very primitive nature, photography during a battle was almost impossible. Many of the surviving images are of the occupation and stationary poses.
Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836. It was an extremely bloody affair however and the stand at the Alamo which lasted from February 23, 1836 – March 6, 1836 cost the lives of an estimated 150 Americans and Mexicans who fought against the Mexican General Santa Anna. Some estimates give the number as 182-189. 600 Mexican troops also lost their lives in the siege.
It was not until 1837 however that The Republic of Texas was officially recognized by the United States, and later by France, England, the Netherlands and Belgium. By Oct 13, 1845 The Texas voters overwhelmingly approved annexation to the USA. This caused immense tension between the USA and Mexico. The US found the opportunity to further its ambitions in other areas like New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Photographers found the opportunity to travel with the army in order to advance their practice. The images they left of the 1846-47 period is simply mind boggling. Considering photography was still in its infancy the quality was extremely good. In the studios photos seem to have been of immaculate quality. The outside photos like the rolling artillery company of Major Lucien Webster and the Virginia Volunteer Regiment on parade in Saltillo to name just two are simply amazing. My favorite photo is without doubt the pose by local Mexicans, in particular the children with an American officer. The Mexicans on the whole were not necessarily hostile towards the Americans as they considered their own government very corrupt and oppressive. The young lad on the right wearing a sombrero with a typical child’s smile and curiosity has left an image that it’s hard to believe the photo is 168 years old. The lad looks about 10 years old which means he was born in the mid 1830’s. What prize would any of us give to have one of our great grand-parents image born at that time? The sad thing is that many ordinary soldiers were also photographed during the war but their names were unfortunately not recorded. These particular photos were by the standard of the day of immensely good quality. Only their uniforms reveal their rank and regiment which they belonged to. A couple seem no more than young lads still in their teens. It is of course a sad indictment of human nature that such lads were recruited to serve in atrocious conditions which often left them dead or traumatized for life. Not that modern warfare in many countries have changed in that respect.
The way of life in the 1840’s offered to the unsuspecting a promise of adventure that made them feel like pioneers and defending the rights and principles they fervently believed in. There were some amusing moments, for example when the American troops were preparing to cross the Rio Grande river which in effect would initiate the war. On the opposite bank was the city of Matamoros, The city by comparison to the last 200 miles of dusty arid land seemed like an oasis. Captain Henry who kept a diary describes the scene as ”a fairy vision before our enraptured eyes”. The city was full of green foliage and tropical trees all around the white houses. There was a large Mexican garrison stationed at Matamoros and many Mexican civilians climbed onto their roofs to view the spectacle. Then a group of young Mexican girls ran towards the river, stripped off all their cloths and began to bathe in full view of the American troops who began cheering. A young officer, Kirby Smith wrote that ”some of our officers were in the water opposite and soon swam towards them.” At that moment the Mexican guards called the women back and the Americans returned ”after kissing their hands to the tawny damsels, which were laughingly returned”. Despite the impending bloodshed there was clearly no personal animosity between the ordinary people. It was of course the calm before the storm.
The Americans were generally surprised at the free and happy go lucky nature of the Mexican women who often shocked them with their open feisty manners which was the opposite of the ordinary American women who were often religiously bigoted, often sterner and ”prim and proper.” The Americans particularly noted that the Mexican women wore dresses higher (above the ankle was considered too high in those days) than their American opposites and lacked the same level of cover on their undergarments also. They were no doubt a free spirited people making the most of the atrocious conditions of life prevailing at the time. On the other hand marriages and preliminary courtships were based on a very strict code of conduct. A trader named William Heath Davis who fell in love with an Hispanic lady complained that during their two year courtship he and his California bride-to-be were allowed almost no chance to speak to each other in private. ”This was an unwritten law of Spanish families from time immemorial,” he commented. The contradictions in life were as common as day and night. Very few photo images of the period of the 1840’s survive, but what has survived has given us intimate images and circumstances of life for that period that few countries in the world can claim to have. For that we should all be eternally grateful.
Sources for this article from my collection of the ”Time Life Books” published in 25 editions in the 1970’s