June 14, 2018

In Search of the Oldest Montana Photograph, Part 1

by Jeff Malcomson, MHS Photo Archives Manager

What is the oldest photograph taken in Montana? This question haunts the staff of the MHS Photograph Archives. Hundreds of thousands of variously interesting, even compelling, historical images, but which are the oldest, and which one can claim that incredible status of being the oldest of them all?  For a repository of historical materials, the oldest items are often some of the most significant, and in many ways, they help us define the most prized objects in our collections. The problem with labeling items as “the oldest” for archivists and historians is almost always in the details.

An ambrotype (C969-001) showing a mining camp scene in French Gulch, dated Aug. 23, 1862.]
Enter the French Gulch ambrotype.  It is a prized cased image showing a small mining camp high in the mountains. Written on the back of the case in handwriting is “French Gulch, Aug. 23, 1862.”  The photograph was donated to the Montana Historical Society Library in early June of 1969 by the grandson of a man who was reportedly a gold prospector in the Rockies during the 1860s.  In the September 1969 issue of the Society’s newsletter, Montana Post, MHS staff reported the interesting news: “this could be it…MONTANA’S OLDEST PICTURE.”  While mistakenly referring to the cased image as a tintype (an easy mistake because the donor referred to it as a tintype) and quoting the wrong year (1863 instead of 1862), the staff gave it tentative status as what they believed to be “the earliest picture ever taken in Montana.”

Nov/Dec. 1969 issue of Montana Post on the status of the French Gulch ambrotype as the 'oldest picture'.
This theory was quickly shot down in the following issue of Montana Post, when the staff reported the comments of veteran Smithsonian ethnologist, John C. Ewers, denouncing the image’s hopeful status as the “earliest.”  Ewers stated, “We know that John Mix Stanley was taking daguerreotypes of Blackfoot Indians as early as 1853.”  And he continued, “we also know that a member of Reynolds’ expedition to the Yellowstone in 1858 took pictures—of Crow Indians if not other subjects.”  He reported that he had not located any surviving daguerreotypes from Stanley’s work, but thought he had found prints from the Crow portraits taken by the Reynolds’ party’s photographer and, yet, did not mention where those were found.

With Ewers’ muddying of the already murky waters, the French Gulch cased image - discovered to be an ambrotype in the intervening years - held a place near the front of the line as likely one of the oldest extant photographs of Montana, certainly from its mining gold rush days of the 1860s.  For many years, we continued to believe it was taken at one of two different early mining camps in Montana known as French Gulch, most likely the one 15 or so miles south of Anaconda.  The date of Aug. 1862 would have been very early indeed since our first major gold discovery was in summer 1862 at Bannack.  We considered this photo perhaps the first photographic evidence of a small, primitive mining camp in Montana.

This past January, I endeavored to finally lay to rest the question about the location of this compelling and significant image, let alone its very early date.  Because the mountains on the horizon in the background of the image are fairly distinct and appear to be above tree line, I thought that they would be crucial to pinpointing the location, or at the very least, to ruling out other potential locations.  After investigating the two French Gulch locations in Montana, I determined that neither of them matched.

Discouraged, I noted that the writing on the back said only “French Gulch” with no state or territory designation.  Why not see if there was a French Gulch in Idaho where mining occurred slightly before it did here in Montana?  I found one possible location in northern Idaho but again the topography of mountains above the tree line did not fit.  Because I attended graduate school at Colorado State University and had studied some Colorado mining history, I next thought of Colorado. Back to Google maps and the only result for Colorado was French Gulch Road in Breckenridge, Colorado.  I switched to the 3D mode and looked along what appeared to be French Gulch. Looking back toward Breckenridge and the ski slopes, the mountain ridgeline came into view.  To my astonishment the peaks right above the ski slopes (now known to be Peaks 8, 9, and 10) fit very precisely the ridgeline in the French Gulch ambrotype.  The date certainly better fits French Gulch, Colorado as well, since the peak of early mining activity was post-1859 and into the early 1860s.

Comparison of French Gulch ambrotype image with Google Maps 3D image.
The French Gulch ambrotype, for nearly 50 years thought to be one of the earliest photographs taken in Montana, turns out to be an early Colorado image.  The search for Montana’s oldest extant photograph continues…