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the Union Pacific's Nomadic Photographer
by Barry A. Swackhamer
Published in Journal
of the West, Vol. 33, No. 2; April 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Journal of the West, Inc. Reprinted with permission of
Journal of the West, P. O. Box 1009, 1531 Yuma, Manhattan, KS 66505-1009, USA
This revised article contains additional and expanded endnotes.
The following item appeared in an 1874 edition of the Papillion Times (Nebraska):
"J. B. Silvis - he who meanders up and down the U.P. [Union Pacific] in his palatial photograph car, seeking the shadows of us poor mortals...If we can't induce you to settle among us, we are glad...we can occasionally see your smiling countenance and hear your hearty laugh."1
John B. Silvis, obviously well liked by his public, was never one to remain for long in one place. Born with a wanderlust that first took him to California during the Gold Rush, he moved from one mining camp to another. Then, unable to live the rigorous life of a miner, he took up photography and traveled the breadth of the West as proprietor of the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car. In his travels he saw and recorded our great national experience, the settling of the American West.
John B. Silvis was born in June 1830,2the second of the eight children of Henry and Catharine (née Eyster) Silvis.3 He grew up in Lockhaven,4 Pennsylvania, a canal town named for its location on the Susquehanna River West Branch of the Pennsylvania State Canal system. Views of passing canal boats and log rafts deeply influenced his life and he dreamed of far off places. His dreams were fulfilled when news reached the East telling of the fabulous wealth to be found in the goldfields of California. That spring of 1849, at the age of 18, he began the journey of a lifetime by traveling overland to California.5
Silvis' early California experiences were unrewarding. Unsuccessful in the mines, "in company with another young man from Bradford county [Pennsylvania], he started a trading post on Weaver Creek [a branch of the Trinity River] and bought eight mules for transporting merchandise."6 On their second trip from Chester City7 to the trading post, the mules either strayed or were stolen, representing a loss of $1,300 to him.8 Accepting his losses, he moved into Butte County.9 He tried his hand again at mining, only to be "broken up several times" and to suffer with fever and ague for sixteen months.10 Not being "disposed to hire out...[for] five dollars a day," Silvis started farming "two quarter sections of land in a [Concow] valley about five miles from French Town, right in the neighborhood of the Indians." The Indians he reported "can be hired for little and be paid in old clothes."11 He sold the land after one season,12 perhaps because the Indians upon whom he had relied upon for labor began to die from cholera.13 Silvis then made another unsuccessful attempt to strike it rich mining14 before he moved to Chico township in the northern Sacramento Valley. There he took up ranching. Initially, he began raising sheep but later switched to cattle and hogs. Between 1856-1860, tax records15 show he was able to attain some degree of prosperity. He married Virginia Ann Carpenter on June 28, 1856 in Oroville.16 Still he remained a restless spirit at heart, and in 1861 they moved to Diamondville,17 closer to the mining activities.
Grand Hotel, Humboldt Wells, Nevada
In the early 1860s, Nevada became the new focus of mining activity. Investing a considerable portion of his personal wealth, $1,500, Silvis bought an interest in several mining claims located in the Echo Mining District in Humboldt (now Pershing) County.18 Ultimately, these claims proved worthless, and he faced having to start over. The Reese River area (Lander county, Nevada) was just beginning to boom so in September 1863 Silvis moved to Canyon City in the Big Creek mining district, about 12 miles south of Austin, Nevada.19 Canyon City wasn't much, containing "about fifty 'permanent' residents, one hotel, one store, two restaurants, three saloons, one meat market, a Notary Public and Recorder's office, telegraph office, and twelve houses and cabins."20 There, in partnership with Daniel Jewett, he became a storekeeper.21 Silvis continued to maintain his interest in mining activities. With two other partners, he incorporated the Venus Gold and Silver Mining Company with capital stock of $140,000.22 However, the company collapsed the next year along with the rest of the Big Creek mining district. Little did the luckless Silvis know this same area would become valuable for its antimony deposits in 1891.23
Silvis seems to have salvaged something from the district's collapse. He sold his store24 and became a saloonkeeper in partnership with Fred C. Chase.25 They moved their business to Garden Ranch, 375 acres of grass or farming land about five miles southwest of Austin, Nevada. Isolated and without what she felt were the "necessaries of life," Silvis' wife, Virginia, was not happy there. She had already given birth to four children of whom only a son, Charles Henry (born December 1859), survived. In the spring of 1864, she gave birth to a daughter, Eva Lilley. That summer Silvis sold out to his partner, Fred Chase.26 What happened next is lost in the claims and counter-claims of a divorce action. Virginia claimed she was abandoned and left without support when she became ill while on route to California. Silvis denied it. Virginia then moved to Unionville, Nevada where she filed for divorce in April 1865. On September 6, 1865 the judge granted her a divorce and custody of her children.27
The next two years of Silvis' life are a bit of a mystery. A biography of Silvis in the History of the State of Nebraska (published in 1882) states "In 1859 he began the study of his profession [photography], in consequence of injuries received that incapacitated him from active service in the mines."28 However, there is no other evidence to suggest he was interested in photography prior to his divorce. The author has a photograph of a Wyoming stage station, on the reverse of which is imprinted "Silvis, Photographer...Austin, Nev." Austin had at least two photographic galleries at this time, Krause's Pioneer Gallery and one operated by a former Philadelphian, Leo Schumacher.29 Silvis may have learned the craft at either gallery, but neither tax records nor newspaper accounts show that he operated a business there. Another possibility is that he traveled to the East, where he studied photography, and that he was in the process of returning to Austin when he made the stage station photograph. In any case, in 1867 he went to Salt Lake City, perhaps because, at that time, it was the closest source of photographic supplies. There he met Charles William Carter, who had previously been an employee of the photographic firm of Savage & Ottinger.30 That June, Carter had started his own business, Carter's View Emporium, where he sold photographs of the Overland Route depicting Mormon immigration. He also offered to photograph "stores and residences ... on reasonable terms."31 In December 1867 Carter and Silvis formed a partnership.32 They took over the Sutterley Brothers Photographic Gallery on East Temple Street, next door to the Wells, Fargo & Co. stage office.33
Stage Ranch, 37 miles southwest of Byran, Wyoming
In 1866 Wells, Fargo & Co. put together a unified Overland Mail Company with the "Grand Consolidation" of a number of independent stage companies. Two years later their business was threatened by the imminent juncture of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads. A revolution was about to take place: a nation that had taken months to cross would soon be crossed in a matter of days. William F. Horspool, who managed several Utah stage stations for Wells, Fargo & Co., probably recognized that an era was about to end. He commissioned Carter & Silvis to photograph his stage stations.34 Those photographs remain as a rare record of what overland staging was like. Within a year the Pacific Railroad was completed and overland stages ran no more.
Promontory, Utah (two parts of a possible panorama; a third part has been found)
[Click to enlarge]
Before the two railroads were joined with the driving of Golden Spike at Promontory, Utah on May 10th, 1869, the Carter & Silvis partnership dissolved. Their partnership had lasted less than a year.35 Carter kept the photographic gallery and became a well-recognized photographer of Utah and the Mormons.36 Working out of a tent, Silvis did portrait photography along the newly constructed Pacific Railroad right-of-way.37 While Silvis was not present at the ceremony that completed the last link in the transcontinental railroad, he arrived at Promontory shortly afterwards. The empty sagebrush plain of a few months earlier was now transformed by track and canvas into, reportedly, one of the wickedest places on earth.38 However, the last "Hell-on-Wheels" town created by the Pacific Railroad construction was short lived. Within a few months, the terminus of the two railroads was relocated to Ogden, and the sagebrush reclaimed the town of Promontory.
Silvis spent the rest of the summer doing portrait photography along the Union Pacific right-of-way. At the same time, William H. Jackson was traveling between Cheyenne and Promontory, taking views for his Omaha-based photography business. Jackson met a number of photographers along the Union Pacific line, including Andrew J. Russell and Charles R. Savage. In September at Wasatch, Utah, Jackson and Silvis met. The brevity of Jackson's entry in his journal suggests they already knew each other, as Jackson usually elaborated when he made the acquaintance of a new photographer. In this case, all Jackson wrote was, "Was in Silvis' tent a good deal getting him straightened out."39 Silvis was having a problem with his photographic chemicals.
Photography, using the wet-plate process, was a tricky business, and conditions in the West made it even more so. Mineral-laden water rendered chemicals unusable. Wind blown dust stuck to the collodion emulsified plate. Cinders showering down from passing locomotives burned holes in the darkroom tent. Supplies of even the most basic chemicals needed for photography were difficult to obtain, and when they were found, the price was dear. Hard cash was scarce among those working along the rail line: after the saloonkeepers, gamblers, and dance hall girls received their share, there was little left for a photographer. Frequently, it was necessary to barter photographs for food or transportation to some other location along the line.40 Given these circumstances, it is easy to understand why Silvis sought a less rigorous way to practice his profession.
The circumstances that brought Silvis, a roving photograph studio in a railroad car, and the Union Pacific Railroad together are not known. Silvis' contact with the Union Pacific surely began when he was photographing along their lines during the summer of 1869. His association with the railroad may also date from this time. The photograph car with the portrait studio, developing and printing facilities, and sales office all in one mobile unit, was an idea whose time had come. Photography has a long history of itinerant practitioners who earned their living by moving from town to town. In the days when photographic plates were developed shortly after exposure, a portable darkroom or photo wagon gave the photographer mobility. Horse-drawn studios had been in use from the daguerreian days of photography.
However, along the transcontinental railroad, the distances were too great and the population too sparse for an itinerant photographer with a horse-drawn photo wagon to make a living. On the other hand, the railroad compensated with speed and mobility. The photographers of the Central and Union Pacific construction, Alfred A. Hart and Andrew J. Russell, were quick to put their photo wagons on flat cars. However, neither photographer took his photo wagon to the ceremony at Promontory. Instead, each operated out of the railroad car that brought him. Still, these men returned to their home-based studios to make prints and conduct sales. It remained for Silvis, or perhaps someone else in the Union Pacific, to put all the elements together, and the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car was born.
UPRR Photograph Car imprint
The U.P.R.R. Photograph Car was not much more than a standard Union Pacific caboose fitted with living quarters, a darkroom, and a portrait studio illuminated by a skylight cut into the roof. The skylight also made it possible to print photographs during inclement weather. Elaborately painted on the exterior, signs on its sides declaring "STEREOSCOPIC & LANDSCAPE VIEWS of NOTABLE POINTS on LINE of PACIFIC R.R. ALWAYS on HAND." Trophy horns of elk and bighorn sheep, and sometimes the American flag, decorated the roof. While the car was stationary, Silvis hung examples of his work on the outside. On one occasion, in mourning for slain President James A. Garfield, the Photograph Car was draped with black bunting.41
Surviving Union Pacific records (held by the Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln) do not shed any light on Silvis' arrangement with the company. However, it may have been similar to the one F. Jay Haynes enjoyed with the Northern Pacific. Haynes, the "Official Photographer" to the Northern Pacific (a title which he used prominently in his business), was not a salaried employee of the N.P. Instead, he owned his own photograph car, which the N.P.42 moved on their tracks at a favorable mileage fee. This arrangement was "contingent on [Haynes]...furnishing the Passenger department, free of charge, with views...for illustrating purposes, of new station buildings, passenger trains in motion, views of towns, views of track, river views along the track, views of wheat fields, views of scenery, and such other pictures as [you]...may be able to make that will be suitable for illustrating purposes."43 The Northern Pacific used the photographs it received from Haynes for promotional purposes, particularly in the sale of the company's lands. Assuming the Union Pacific had a similar agreement with Silvis, the Union Pacific probably used his views for similar promotions.
The Union Pacific needed to sell some of the approximately 11.3 million acres of the land it had received as a benefit of constructing the railroad. After the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory, the company was left in a ruinous financial condition as a result of the excesses of its construction. Built through 1,100 miles of sparsely settled territory, there were few commercial markets, other than the Salt Lake Valley, to support it. Anticipated trade with the Orient was lost with the opening of the Suez Canal (November 1869). Much of the California commerce continued to go by sea because it remained cheaper. Only by developing the natural resources along its right-of-way and promoting immigration to populate the West, could the Union Pacific hope to find its financial salvation.
Among the many railroads that received generous land grants, the competition to sell land was fierce. During the 1870s the railroads distributed numerous illustrated (photograph-based lithographs) pamphlets, circulars and magazines, many in foreign languages. The Union Pacific land advertisements appeared in over two thousand publications. The railroads also sent agents to Europe. Armed with stereopticon viewers, these agents gave free, illustrated lectures to attract immigrants to the cheap land available in the American West.44 As a result of this strategy, tremendous changes took place, forever altering the face of the West. The railroads' lands became farms, and the West was settled. Silvis, with the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car, was fortunate enough to be there to record the transformation.
The Platte Valley Independent, Nov. 30, 1872
By the fall of 1870 all arrangements were made, and Silvis and the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car were in business, traveling the Union Pacific tracks.45 As proprietor of the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car, Silvis moved from locale to locale, taking portraits of the local inhabitants. The Photograph Car rolled into a town several times each year, usually advertising several weeks in advance of its arrival. Years later, Mrs. Ida Breternizt recalled, "The great thing we looked forward to...was the photograph car. It...stood on the side tracks where we went to have our pictures taken...I remember so well how we talked of it and planned what we would wear."46 If F. Jay Haynes was any example, business was sometimes brisk; $100 or more could be earned in a single day.47 From advertisements on the side of the Photograph Car, it is known that Silvis' portrait work included ferrotypes (tintypes), gems and porcelains.48 However, he primarily used the wet-plate/albumen print process to make photographs. The carte-de-visite, a paper image glued on a small 2 1/2" x 4 1/4" card, was popular at this time. Most of the portraits taken by Silvis, identified by the Photograph Car imprint on the reverse, are of this type.
Winnemucca Family, Nevada
Artesian Well, Rock Springs, Wyoming
Coal Tipple, Carbon, Wyoming
Photo credit: Union Pacific Railroad.
In addition to taking portrait photographs, Silvis sold stereoscopic and other landscape views. Stereographs were at the height of their popularity, and most homes had a stereopticon viewer in their parlor. Silvis advertised that he stocked a large selection of views "embracing...all the most interesting scenes of Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon &c."49 Whether he sold only his own photographs or also vended those of others is a matter of conjecture. However, he had access to the places he advertised (except perhaps Oregon) by traveling on the U.P. tracks or by making occasional excursions on the Central Pacific, Utah Central, or Denver Pacific Railroads. Traveling up and down the railroad line several times a year, Silvis had splendid opportunities to photograph the natural wonders, as well as the impact upon the land made by the railroad and the population influx it brought. Railroad facilities (sidings, water towers, roundhouses, etc.) were the potential sites for the development of new towns. Mineral discoveries, such as coal, grew into mines and tipples. As a whole, Silvis' views illustrate the changes that took place in the West during the post-Civil War era.
Traveling the Union Pacific's tracks from one end to the other was not without excitement, nor hazard. The Photograph Car was fitted with the comforts of home, and Silvis traveled in all seasons, witnessing blizzards and flash floods. On occasion, his second wife, Alice Victoria (née Allen), whom he married in Chicago on June 16, 1873,50 accompanied him.51 One exciting incident occurred in December 1878. The residents of Kearny, Nebraska were enraged over the lynching of Luther Mitchell and Ami Ketchum by I. P. (Print) Olive for the murder of Olive's brother, Robert. Such swift justice was not uncommon. However, the possible complicity of the sheriff in the lynching and the fact that the victims' bodies were burned incensed the townspeople. Silvis made the most of the excitement by selling "Views of the Hanging of Mitchell and Ketchum" and a photographic mosaic of the "Olive Gang."52
Silvis was not immune from violence either. One August night in 1881, while in Evanston, Wyoming he was the intended victim of a potentially deadly robbery attempt.53 Awakened by the sound of a plank being placed against the outside of the Photograph Car, Silvis slipped from his bed and got his pistol. Observing an intruder climbing through an open window, Silvis fired, striking him on the shoulder. The burglar and his partner fled with Silvis in pursuit, firing his revolver, until the pain of his bare feet on the rocks compelled him to stop. Returning to the car, he found a heavy iron bar on the floor. The intruder obviously intended to dispatch him with it.
At the end of 1882 Silvis retired from the Photograph Car and from photography. Business was dwindling because of the increased competition from local photographers who resided in some of the more thriving towns along the track. Grand Island, Nebraska, for example, had three commercial photographers by this time.54 He may also have been influenced by the fact his wife had just given birth to a daughter, Hazel.55 However, even after Silvis' retirement the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car continued to operate on Union Pacific tracks. The business arrangements are unknown, but Charles Tate became the proprietor of the Photograph Car. In 1883, he took it to Hailey, Idaho Territory, on a newly completed portion of the Union Pacific's subsidiary, the Oregon Short Line.56 The purpose of the trip was to take photographs of the scenery and objects of interest for a new Union Pacific travel guide. Tate also took portraits and made stereographs in route. Evidently Tate's proprietorship was short lived as he did not have his own stereograph cards imprinted. Instead he mounted his images on Silvis' remaining unused stock of cards.57 After Tate, W.A. Bradley operated the Photograph Car. By this time, the tracks of the Utah & Northern, another U.P. subsidiary, had been laid to Butte, Montana Territory, and Bradley included it on his route. He continued to use the Photograph Car until at least 1889.58
Before the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car ceased operating, it had inspired a number of imitations. An article in the November 1884 issue of Photographic Times and American Photographer, entitled "A Railway Studio," offered extensive design details for a photograph car.59 The new generation of photograph cars were a vast improvement over Silvis' caboose. The new photograph cars were modified passenger cars with large glass areas for better studio lighting. Some cars even had "carefully fitted darkrooms for the development of negatives," a display gallery, and living quarters offering "every convenience -- excepting a cook."60 The Haynes Palace Studio Car, operated on the Northern Pacific tracks from 1885 to 1905 by F. Jay Haynes, was just such a photograph car. Haynes purchased a Pullman business car from the N.P. and had it converted to his specifications.61 As the years passed, Haynes turned over the operation of his photograph car to his employees. Several photograph cars operated from time to time on the southern transcontinental routes. In 1891 the Boston Railroad Photo Car made a tour through the Southwest to California. Its staff of four cameramen claimed to have taken 13,000 negatives in Albuquerque (NM), 7,000 in Las Vegas (NM), and 3,000 in Flagstaff (AZ).62 While these figures are probably inflated, they do indicate there was considerable photographic business available to photograph car operators in that sparsely settled country. Perhaps one of the last photograph cars in the West was the Sunset Photograph Car. Operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s the car was used to provide photographs for Sunset Magazine, an S.P. publication devoted to promoting the West.63 This is just what the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car and J.B. Silvis had done three decades earlier.
In retirement Silvis lived on his farm, Sunny Side, at Elkhorn (Station), Nebraska. Silvis had begun acquiring property there in 1873, and by the time he retired, he owned three farms totaling over 500 acres. Each of these properties were improved and under cultivation. One farm was said to have the best house in western Douglas County in addition to "a large orchard of bearing trees, and a large grove of forest and ornamental trees."64 Silvis also purchased a thoroughbred stallion and an imported shorthorn bull named Duke of Oxford for breeding. An active promoter of his community, he was a charter member of the Waterloo Immigration and Improvement Association.65 By the late 1880s Silvis had either sold or leased his farms and resided part-time in Omaha.66 Finally, in 1892 Silvis moved to a farm near Tallahassee, Florida (today it is a portion of the Florida A&M University campus) where he lived until his death on July 1, 1900.67
When John B. Silvis left Pennsylvania to join the California Gold Rush the American West was largely uninhabited, except by the Native American Indians. By the time of his death, some fifty years later, an American frontier could no longer be said to exist.68 In between, a remarkable transformation took place; a series of events that resulted in the settling of the West. As a miner, saloonkeeper, rancher, and farmer, Silvis was very much a participant in these events. As a photographer, he was an observer and recorder of them. As proprietor of the U.P.R.R. Photograph Car, he was a wanderer who roamed the West on the track of the Union Pacific Railroad. A wanderer seems to be what he enjoyed being the most.
Today, photographs by J. B. Silvis are quite rare. The largest public holdings, consisting of about a dozen views, are at the Denver Public Library. Two of these views may be seen on the library’s website. The Union Pacific Railroad Museum, where one would expect to find a number of views, has but a single original image. However, they do have several copy photographs. The George Eastman House and the Museum of New Mexico also have single original images. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Church Archives has three copy photographs of Wells, Fargo & Co. stage stations taken by Carter & Silvis. They also hold a number of original negatives taken by C. W. Carter. Perhaps some are the work of Silvis. The Nebraska State Historical Society has a copy photograph of the "Olive Gang." Undoubtedly there are more photographs by J. B. Silvis to be located, lost among the numerous collections filed only by category rather than photographer.
1 Reprinted in Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, 5 (Feb. 1875): 53.
2 Twelfth Census of the United States (1900), State of Florida, Leon County, Precinct No. 14, E.D. 88, Sheet 16, Line 15. Taken on June 22, 1900, Silvis is listed as age 69. In the 1850 Census, taken in late September or early October, Silvis is 20. The 1860 Census, taken July 7th, lists Silvis (under the name Silvey) as being 30. In the 1880 Census, taken June 15th, Silvis is listed as age 50. No birth record for Silvis has been located, nor has the location of his birth been identified. The town in which he claimed to have been born, Lockhaven, PA, was not founded until three years after his birth. The 1830 US Census lists a Henry Silvis family in Turbut Township, North Unberland County, PA. Information in this census is limited, but the family profile matches what the Silvis family would have been like at that time.
3 Henry Silvis was born in Reading, PA on November 9, 1798. He died in Lockhaven, PA on December 31, 1879. He was a tanner, butcher, farmer and lumberman by trade. Clinton Democrat, 1 Jan. 1880.
Catharine (née Eyster) Silvis was born in Rockland, Venango Co., PA on January 1, 1803. The exact year is uncertain as she was reported to be between 92 and 97 at the time of her death on September 18, 1900. Clinton Republican, 29 Sept. 1900.
The children of Henry and Catharine Silvis were Francis (b. ?, d. 1851), John (b. 1830, d. 1900), Ellen (b. 1833, d. after 1900), Catherine (b. 1836, d. after 1900), Lucy (b. 1838, d. Feb. 8, 1869), William (b. 1843, d. April 20, 1858), Malinda (b. 1841, d. Aug. 1 1850), Emma (b. 1845, d. after 1900), and Etherelda Hope (adopted 1866).
4 Lockhaven was laid out by town founder Jeremiah Church in 1833. Its name is derived from its location by a "lock" of the Susquehanna River West Branch Canal and wing dam, which provided a rest-"haven" for log rafts. It became the county seat when Clinton County was formed in 1839. The Henry Silvis' had one of the earliest homes in town and may have pre-dated the town's founding.
5 The statement of overland travel to California is taken from Silvis' questionable (see comments in endnote 28) biography in History of the State of Nebraska (816). Events described in Silvis' August 28, 1850 letter from Chester City, CA (Clinton Democrat, 19 Nov. 1850) place him in California too early to have been a part of the 1850 overland migration. The author has examined numerous 1849 overland journals, including C.W. Haskins' The Argonauts of California, but did not find Silvis listed. Hovever, even by the best estimates, the names of only about a quarter of the California 49ers are known. It is possible that Silvis went by sea, including Panama, but, again, his name does not appear on any published list.
6 Clinton Democrat, 19 Nov. 1850. Silvis' partner may have been Matthew Stuart, one of the founders of Weaverville.
7 Erwin Gudde in California Gold Camps (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975) does not list Chester City. Judging by Silvis’ description Chester City is probably a phonetic spelling of Shasta City.
8 John Carr in Pioneer Days in California (Eureka: Times Publishing Co., 1891) reported that mules were quite scarce in the Trinity area, costing as much as $300 apiece, and were stolen frequently. The punishment for stealing a mule could be quite severe, including public whipping, and, in one case, the thieves were "shot and killed...then scalped and the hair pieces nailed to the corral gateposts as a warning to others." (99-120).
It is appropriate to comment here on the anti-Gold Rush vies of the Clinton Democrat. The newspaper was very much opposed to the California venture. Most of its comments reflected on the lawlessness there, the high price of goods, and illness (cholera) found on the trail and in California. The newspaper even took to reporting several (false?) gold strikes in Pennsylvania to dampen the enthusiasm. Silvis’ first letter, written 29 August 1850 and published 19 November 1850 supported the paper’s views. It concludes, "I advise my friends to stay home and my enemies to come to California." Two years latter the Clinton Democrat abruptly reversed its position and started writing more positive things about California. The reason for this is not entirely clear, however, about this time John Bigler was elected governor of California. The Clinton Democrat, a highly political newspaper, was supporting William Bigler, John’s brother, for governor of Pennsylvania at this time.
9 Seventh United State Census (1850), Butte County, California, page 24(83), line 21. The census was taken in late September or early October. John Silvis, age 20, miner, is listed as sharing a cabin with J.B. Nelson of Indiana, age 20, trader, and Tron Priceau of France, age 24, miner.
10 Clinton Democrat, 20 April 1852.
11 Ibid. As reprehensible as Silvis' behavior may seem, paying California Indians with food and clothing for their labor was common among the Anglo-whites of California. The practice had its roots in "the system of Indian peonage which had existed on the ranchos of Hispanic California." (Rawls, 30). Indian labor was also common in the mines during the first year after the discovery of gold. A number of early California pioneers became wealthy by employing Indians. However, Indian laborers were soon driven from the mines by newly arriving whites who viewed such cheap labor, including slaves and Chinese, as an unfair advantage to the employer. Also, the experiences of the new arrivals with the Indians back home differed sharply from the Hispanic California system. James J. Rawls, "Gold Diggers: Indian Miners in the California Gold Rush," California Historical Quarterly, 55 (Spring, 1976): 28-45.
According to the Clinton Democrat, 20 April 1852, Silvis’ partner in the enterprise was a "Dr. Thompson of Iowa."
12 Silvis filed a pre-emption claim on the Concow Valley property (Pre-emption Claims Index 1850-1875, Butte Co., California, Meriman Library, California State Universtiy at Chico.). The property, 158 acres, was sold to Preston Brown for $260 on October 11, 1852 (Deeds, Book A, Butte Co., California, 82.).
13 David Wooster, The Gold Rush: Letters of David Wooster from California to the Adrian Michigan, Expositor 1850-1855 (Mount Pleasant, The Cumming Press, 1972), 69.
14 Weekly Butte Record, 18 July 1856. "The claim of John Silvis & Co., yielded last week, with seven men, three days washing, $810."
15 Assessment Rolls, Chico Township, Butte County, Meriman Library; California State University at Chico. Silvis' personal property total for 1857 was $1,750; for 1858, $1,330; for 1859, $2,046 and for 1860* (under the name J.B. Silvey), $3,000. Silvis' does not appear to have owned any real estate at this time. *Eighth United State Census (1860), Chico Township, Butte County, California, page 567, line 11
16 Silvis v. Silvis, Civil Court Case 76, Humboldt County Clerk, Winnemucca, NV. Virginia Ann Carpenter was born November 1838 in Mississippi, the daughter of Dangerfield and Ellen (née Randall) Carpenter. The Carpenter family moved to California, arriving in San Francisco aboard the Winfield Scott, June 15, 1852.* The Carpenters were ranching in Chico Township by 1854. * Louis J. Rassmussen, San Francisco Ship Passenger Lists (Colma: San Francisco Historic Records, 1967), 3:214.
17 According to Gudde (96) Diamondville was northeast of Chico on Butte Creek. Founded in 1857, and originally named Goatville, it was renamed in honor of James Diamond, a miner.
18 Deeds,B: 373-4, Humboldt County Recorder, Winnemucca, NV. The Echo Mining District is on the western slope of the West Humboldt range of mountains. Silvis' bought "one-third of one-fifth interest" in the American Co., Miou Ledge; Washburn Co., Winfield Scott Ledge; Oregon Co., Noloeneeu Ledge; Dounel Co., Morning Star Ledge; Miou Co., Constitution Ledge; Echo Co., Washington Ledge; Independent Co., Pacific Ledge; Iowa Co., Arkansas Ledge; and the Wisconsin Co., Empire Ledge.
Note: Perhaps not worthless, but in need of the right technology. Upon personal examination of the area, the author found active mining in the vicinity
19 Silvis v. Silvis.
20 History of Nevada, 1881 (1881; rpt. Berkeley: Howell-North, 1958), 472.
21 Internal Revenue Assessments Lists for the Territory of Nevada, 1863-1866 (Washington: National Archives, 1981, microfilm), Annual List, 1863: 27. "Silva [sic] and Jewett" are listed as "Retail Dealers."
22 Certificates of Incorporation, Box 31, file 52, Nevada State Archives, Carson City, NV. Silvis' partners were H.C. Merritt and J.T. Monroe.
23 Francis C. Lincoln, Mining Districts and Mineral Resources of Nevada (1923, rpt. Las Vegas: Nevada Publications, 1982), 109.
24 Deeds. 16:64, Lander County Recorder, Battle Mountain, NV. Sale of store and property to G. Bowkofsky on 12 October, 1863.
25 Internal Revenue Assessment...Nevada, Annual List, 1864: 18. Silvis and Chase are listed as "Retail Dealers in Liquor." This represents a change in Silvis as he had been a member of the Lockhaven Temperance Society. Clinton Democrat, 2 Feb. 1849.
26 Deeds. 22:409-10, Lander County Recorder, Battle Mountain, NV. Sale of Garden Ranch to Fred C. Chase on 22 July, 1864.
27 Silvis v. Silvis. Virginia was also given the use of her maiden name. On December 11, 1865, Virginia married William R. Usher** of Unionville. The next year they moved to Silver City, Idaho Territory, where they lived for five years. After moving to Utah, then Nevada, in 1880, they settled in Eagle Valley, Oregon. There they platted and founded the town of Richland. * Of Virginia's six children only Charles Henry survived to adulthood. He never married*** and lived with his mother until her death in 1924. Charles died in Baker, Oregon in 1936. *Illustrated History of Baker, Grant, Malheur and Harvey Counties...State of Oregon (Western Historical Publishing Company, 1902), 299.
** It is a matter of speculation, but Virginia may have known Usher earlier. The Eighth United State Census (1860) shows a Wm. Usher, Saloon Keeper, living in Kinshaw Township, Butte County. Tax records show Virginia’s father, Dangerfield Carpenter, residing there in 1861.
*** I admit to taking some liberties with this statement. On 15 October 1829, Henry, at age 71, married Bee Alice Ralston, 50, of Whitney, Oregon in Baker, Oregon. (Marriage Certificate No. 6900, Certification of Vital Records, Oregon Health Division) At Henry Silvis’ death she is not listed as having survived him. However, I have not been able to locate a death certificate for her, nor any divorce records.
28 History of the State of Nebraska (Chicago: The Western Historical Company, 1882) 1:816. The History of the State of Nebraska is one of those histories popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which the subscribers could include their own biographies. Silvis' biography is full of exaggerations, inaccuracies, and falsehoods, the most glaring of which is the statement claiming he served in "Company F, Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry" during the Civil War. No record of any such service can be found in the files of the National Archives nor does Silvis' name appear on any unit roster. Also, the Special Schedule of Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, etc. (gathered as part of the Eleventh United States Census, 1890) and Nebraska's Enumeration of Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the War of the Rebellion, Residing in Nebraska June 1st, 1887 indicate that Silvis was a major in the 1st California Cavalry, but no record of this service can be found.
29 Reese River Reveille, 17 Oct. 1867.
30 The Salt Lake City Directory (G. Owens, New York, 1867) for 1867 list C.W. Carter as an employee of Savage & Ottinger. C.R. Savage's diary (Archives & Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT) for 30 May 1869 mentions Savage meeting "Carter my old employe [sic]."
31 Nelson B. Wadsworth, Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992) 143. Salt Lake Daily Telegraph, 2 July 1867.
32 Application for Licenses: Internal Revenue, Utah Territory, DeGolyer Library, Dallas, TX. Listed as "Carter & Silvas [sic]."
33 A photograph in Nelson B. Wadsworth's Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992, page 152) shows Carter's banner draped over a barely discernable Sutterley Bros.
34 Francis L. Horspool, Wells Fargo State Stations in 1868 (Salt Lake City: Francis L. Horspool, 1946), np.
35 Application for Licenses. Carter applied for an annual business license under his own name in March 1869. Between February 13 and August 5, 1868 Carter & Silvis was listed under "Photograph Galleries" in the Salt Lake Telegraph. Although their partnership may have dissolved at this time, discontinuation of the advertisement appears to have been more a change in format of the newspaper than anything else.
36 The History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, UT houses approximately one thousand original glass negatives by Carter. Many were taken about the time of the Carter & Silvis partnership; perhaps some were taken by Silvis himself.
37 Silvis' whereabouts during late 1868 and early 1869 are not entirely clear. The Union Pacific Museum at Omaha Nebraska has a copy photograph, X186, which shows Federal Railroad Commissioners Clements and Blinkendoffer sitting on the pilot of the locomotive "Falcon," covered with a buffalo robe, on an inspection trip. The photographer is credited as being "Silvis of Reno." The photograph was taken at Argenta, Nevada, February 9, 1896.
There have been some references to Silvis being a member of a "photographic corp" headed by A. J. Russell. Gerald Best in Iron Horses to Promontory (San Marino: Golden West Books, 1969, page 144) says, "After Andrew J. Russell and his assistant S.J. Sedgewick had returned to New York in 1869, another member of Russell's group, J.B. Silvis, made a number of trips over the Union Pacific [in the Union Pacific photograph car]." However Best cites no reference for this statement. William D. Patterson in "Westward by Rail with Professor Sedwick: A Lantern Slide Journey of 1873." (Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, 42 (1962): 338,348) said "he [S.J. Sedgwick] was never on the Union Pacific payroll [as a member of the "photographic corps of the U.P.R.R."], unlike Russell, a Brooklyn photographer named O.C. Smith, and one J.P. (sic) Silvis.8 [Endnote] 8. See construction records, Union Pacific Railroad, Omaha." However, neither Don Snoddy, director of the Union Pacific Museum (Omaha); Susan Williams, who did her dissertation on Russell (contact Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA); Maury Klein, author of Union Pacific, the Birth of a Railroad, 1862-1893 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1987); nor the author have found any record of the U.P.'s employment of A.J. Russell or Silvis' membership in Russell's photographic corps among the Union Pacific Railroad records (now in the hands of the Nebraska State Historical Society).
38 Newspaperman John H. Beadle characterized Promontory as being "4900 feet above sea level, though, theologically speaking, if we interpret scripture literally, it ought to have been 49,000 below sea level; for it certainly was, for its size, morally nearest to the infernal regions of any town on the [rail]road." Barry B. Combs, Westward to Promontory (New York: Promontory Press, 1969), 68.
39 William H. Jackson, 2 Sept. 1869, William H. Jackson Papers, New York Public Library, New York, NY. This is the original journal entry. The entry was later expanded in the typescript copy of his diary, done in preparation for his autobiography. The entry was expanded further in his autobiography, Time Exposure (1940; rpt. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico, 1986), where it reads, "Silvis, photographer [for the Union Pacific] [sic] is here with tent doing portrait work. Spent some time with him helping to get his bath and collodion in better condition." (183).
40 The experiences of William H. Jackson as set down in his autobiography, Time Exposure, and his journals (held by the New York Public Library) offer excellent examples of the trials and tribulations of the photographer in the West.
41 Ralph C. Wilson, "J.B. Silvis: Union Pacific Photographer With Area Ties," The Post-Gazette, 21 Jan. 1986. This article was based primarily on the History of the State of Nebraska (see Endnote 28) as is incorrect in many places.
42 As stated in endnote #37, no reference to the employment of A.J. Russell, J.B. Silvis, or any other photographer has recently been found in the remaining files of the Union Pacific Railroad. However, Maury Klein, author of Union Pacific, the Birth of a Railroad, 1862-1893 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1987), has located a letter among the Union Pacific files by Sidney Dillion in which he questions the need to employ a photographer. Telephone conversation with the author.
43 Edward W. Nolan, Northern Pacific Views: The Railroad Photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876-1905 (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1983), 20-22. Charles S. Fee to F. Jay Haynes, 1 Nov. 1901.
44 Dee Brown, Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977), 245.
45 The Platte Valley Independent (Grand Island), 22 Oct. 1870.
46 "First Girl Born in NP Awaited Photo Car," Telegraph-Bulletin, 17 Sept. 1973. Reprint of a 1939 interview.
47 Nolan, 20.
48 Gems were small 7/8 inch by 1 inch, postage-stamp size, tintypes made with multiple image cameras. Some were cut to fit lockets, cufflinks, and rings, even garter clasps. Porcelains were made by floating a collodion image from its glass base onto a chinaware surface, then sealing it with glazes and heat treatments. George Gilbert, Photography: The Early Years (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 72, 164.
49 Platte Valley Independent (Grand Island), 30 Nov. 1872.
50 Marriage Licenses, Certificate No. 10292, Cook County, IL (LDS microfilm #1030082). This certificate is made out to John B. Silvis and M. Ella Allen (sic). All other records indicate that Silvis was married to Alice Victoria (née Allen). This discrepancy has not been resolved.
51 Ralph C. Wilson. From an article in the Waterloo Weekly Gazette (9 July 1881), which reported that, Mrs. Silvis was with her husband in Evanston, Wyoming and ill with pneumonia.
52 A copy photograph of the "Olive Gang" (O48-13) is in the collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln. Information taken from the reverse. An account of the Mitchell and Ketchum affair appears in Pioneer History of Custer County by Solomon D. Butcher (1901; rpt Broken Bow, Purcelli's Inc., 1976, 43-62). A photograph of the charred remains of victims appears in the book (56). While no photographer is credited with the picture, based upon Silvis offer of "Views of the Hanging of Mitchell and Ketchum," it might be concluded that he took the photograph.
53 Waterloo Weekly Gazette, 26 Aug. 1881. Reprinted from the Evanston Chieftain.
54 Tom Anderson, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. Letter to the author August 1991.
55 According to the 1900 Census (Twelfth Census of the United States, State of Florida, County of Leon, Enumeration District 88, Sheet 16, line 16) Mrs. Alice Silvis had given birth to 7 children. Only a daughter, Hazel, survived to adulthood. The passing of one of these children was noted in the Nebraska State Journal, 31 July 1878.
56 Bruce Hooper, "Gems of the Mountains," Stereo World, 16 (July/August 1989): 35.
57 Stereographs in the collection of the author.
58 Photograph in the possession of Nelson B. Wadsworth. New Northwest, 1 March 1889.
59 Nolan, 18.
60 John Gruber, "Rolling Studios: Company Photographers Tour in Photo Cars," Mid-Continent Railway Gazette, 23 (Feb. 1990): 12-13.
61 Nolan, 20.
62 Bruce Hooper, Ralph M. Bilby Research Center, Northern Arizona University. Letter to the author September 1992. Based on information in the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner, 16 Sept. 1891, and the Conconino Sun, 1 Aug. 1891.
63 Arizona Republican, 24 June 1907.
64 Waterloo Weekly Gazette, 13 Jan. 1882.
65 History of Nebraska, 813.
66 Omaha and Douglas County Directory (Omaha: J.M. Wolfe & Co., 1888) 791. "Silvis, John B. res 3002 N. 16th."
67 Letters of Testamentary and Administration, 2:207-8, Leon County Circuit Court, Tallahassee, FL. The obituary of Silvis' mother, Catharine, indicated that he died of heart disease. Daily Democrat, 18 Sept. 1900. There is no death certificate on file for John Silvis. The State of Florida had only begun requiring them in 1899, and Silvis may have slipped through the cracks. Also, there is no Tallahasee newspaper for this time period available on microform. In addition, Silvis’ gravesite has not been located.
Alice V. Silvis and her daughter, Hazel, sold the Silvis farm on 9 April 1901 to Mrs. Annie Thompson of La Salle County, Illinois for $3500 (Deeds [Leon County], 2:442, Tallahassee, FL). Alice is last heard from on 26 March 1902 in Cook Co., Illinois, when she notarized a document (deed) disposing of he mother-in-law’s estate (Deeds [Clinton County], 66:655, Lockhaven, PA).
It has been difficult to follow Silvis’ daughter, Hazel. In the sale of the Silvis farm she is presented as "Hazel Silvis Shumway" (Deeds [Leon County], 2:442, Tallahassee, FL). On 24 September 1901 she is called the "wife of Ralph S. Wood" (Wills, B:321 (Affidavit of the Widow), Leon County Circuit Court, Tallahassee, FL). Finally, in settlement of her grandmother’s, Catherine Silvis, estate (Deeds [Clinton County], 66:654, Lockhaven, PA) she is presented as "Hazel Silvis Shumway Wood (Widow) [sic] of Spartenburg [SC?]". Hazel notarized this deed in Douglas County, Nebraska on 22 April 1902.
68 In 1890 the Superintendent of the Census reported "the unsettled area has been so broken up by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." Ray A. Billington, Westward Expansion (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967), 753.
Courtesy Barry A. Swackhamer and Carol A. Williams,
Publisher, Journal of the West.