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The Brulé Sioux of the Rosebud Agency came to accept their neighbor John Anderson and appreciate his body of work—mostly photos of them.

John Alvin Anderson, pioneer photographer, stood on a rise near the Rosebud Agency at the Great Sioux Reservation, Dakota Territory. The young man focused his camera on a group of Brulé Sioux sitting quietly in a creek bed below. The Indians looked up and saw a man with his head under a dark cloth, pointing a large box at them. As Anderson took aim, the Sioux sprang from their council meeting and rushed about, clearly agitated. Perhaps they wanted to flee or to attack—maybe both. Friends of Anderson quickly intervened, trying to calm the Sioux. Anderson meant them no harm, they told them. He was new to the West and, while he had learned about camera technique, flash powders and glass plate negatives, he did not know his subjects. The Swedish-born 16-year-old photographer did not know this group of natives had never seen a camera. It was 1885, and though the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee were a few years away, there was plenty of tension between the homesteaders and the reservation Indians. For all these Sioux knew, the hidden stranger meant to shoot them with a newfangled gun.

Donald Hogg, John Anderson’s great-nephew, said that John saw his subjects coming toward him and “fled.” But he did not flee far. The young photographer’s new home was a log house on the Nebraska prairie across the border from the Rosebud Agency. After that shaky beginning, Anderson and the Brulés became friends. Unlike the photographers who traveled the West arranging props and romanticizing images of exotic natives, Anderson took pictures of his neighbors. He learned their names, witnessed their hard times and shared in some of their celebrations. His photographs of the Sioux, or Lakotas, are a visual reminder that hostility and distrust did not extend to all; homesteaders and Indians were not always at each other’s throats.

John was 14 years old when he first met the Brulé Sioux. He would say goodbye to them, and mean it, more than 50 years later at age 67. During his life on the Plains, he married Myrtle Miller, raised a son, Harold Roscoe, and made numerous photos at Fort Niobrara and the Rosebud Agency. His photos of the Sioux, particularly during the early years, provide an honest record of late 19th-century reservation life.

The Andersons’ family had sailed from Stockholm in 1870. Andrew and Anna Anderson brought their six children, including 1-year-old John, to Long Island, but soon traveled with other Swedish families to Limestone, Pa. Two more children were born there. After Anna’s death at 48 in 1879, 10-year-old John lived with his sister Amanda and her husband, Gus Carlson.

Four years later, in 1883, Andrew Anderson and his four sons, including John, traveled on the Sioux City–Pacific railroad line to Stuart, Neb. They claimed 80 acres in Cherry County, near Fort Niobrara. Father and sons hollowed a “soddie” into a hillside and put a cook stove beneath one of their few nearby trees. The next year they built a log house, said to be the first in Cherry County. They sent East for their furniture, including a dining room set and a piano. John’s sister Amanda and her family soon arrived from Williamsport, Pa., to claim adjoining land.

The Andersons’ log house was near newly incorporated Valentine. The railroad arrived there in 1883, and the land distribution office opened in 1884. Valentine was rough, tough and growing. John, working as a novice carpenter, earned enough money within two years to help financially at home and to buy the camera that later so alarmed the group of Brulé Sioux. For a short time, John had returned to the East to study, and while there, he became interested in photography as a career. Upon returning to Cherry County, he immediately focused on his goal. Everyone and everything provided photo opportunities—scenic views, soldiers, military activities and the Sioux who were his neighbors. Soldiers at Fort Niobrara offered John his first paid job—as a civilian photographer.

Four other photographers, William R. Cross, A.G. Shaw, James Wagner and a man named Godkin, also worked in the Valentine–Fort Niobrara area between 1883 and 1891. Anderson apprenticed himself to Cross in 1886 at Fort Niobrara and traveled with him to Fort Meade in western Dakota Territory. He opened his own studio for the public briefly in 1888 and again in 1891, while continuing as a civilian photographer for the Army. Anderson collaborated with Shaw during 1891, but most of Shaw’s work has been lost. Cross is represented in a small collection at the Nebraska Historical Society in Lincoln, where most of Anderson’s negatives and prints of the Brulé Sioux are collected. A fire that destroyed the Anderson home in 1928 wiped out much of Anderson’s material, but, fortunately, many examples of his early photographs remain.

Henry W. and Jean Tyree Hamilton, who wrote the text for the 1971 book The Sioux of the Rosebud: A History in Pictures (photographs by John A. Anderson), first discovered Anderson’s photographs of the Sioux while going through the papers of Remington Schuyler. An artist and friend of “Johnny” who also lived near the Rosebud Agency, Schuyler died in 1955, leaving 16 original Anderson prints and five postcard reproductions among his papers.

The Hamiltons, intrigued that this graphic historical legacy was produced by somebody they had never heard of, investigated further. They interviewed John Anderson’s friends, family and associates and also gained permission to see two surviving diaries: John’s diary covers March 25, 1889, to February 25, 1890; Myrtle Miller Anderson’s journal was written during 17 days, January 1 to January 17, 1930. The Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, S.D., now owns both documents.

After viewing the collection of photographs, the Hamiltons divided Anderson’s work into three periods—1885 to 1900, when he concentrated mostly on spontaneous shots of group activity on the reservation (the Rosebud Reservation was born when the Great Sioux Reservation was split up in 1889); 1900 to 1910, when he produced formal portraits of prominent families and chiefs; and after 1911, when he posed his subjects among props, with backdrops. Occasionally his male subjects wore borrowed medals or other unearned symbols of leadership.

An addition in some of Anderson’s photographs can be disconcerting for the viewer. Anderson usually used a blanket as the backdrop for his studio portraits. However, on more than a few occasions, he went with the latest style popular with city photographers—a painted background of an Italian garden scene. Those Anderson pictures of American Indians suggested that the natives had been photographed while touring Italy.

John Anderson’s early and later outdoor work, however, both in group and individual studies, is unmistakably real. His earliest photographs are “as it was.” His later carefully composed scenes accurately re-create everyday life on the Rosebud Reservation. Away from his studio, he moved through the reservation by horse and wagon, hauling a tripod, a bulky camera and perhaps as many as a dozen heavy glass plate negatives. Everyone there apparently came to trust the man who hid his head under a dark cloth to “shoot” them.

In The Sioux of the Rosebud, the Hamiltons write that during their own visit to the reservation in 1940, the Indians, particularly the women, were reluctant to have their pictures taken. Yet the Sioux permitted John Anderson to photograph both men and women as early as 1887. An 1887 photograph taken at Fort Niobrara features the Oglala Sioux Standing Bear (Mato Najin) posed in the back, with Long Pumpkin and Long Pumpkin’s wife and daughter in the foreground. In another photo, Nellie Good Shield (Wahacanka Waste), an elderly Sioux woman, sits serenely facing the camera for her portrait shortly before her death in 1890. Mothers with daughters, grandmothers and toddlers, newlyweds, friends and four generations of women in one family are all represented in Anderson’s work.

Little Bald Eagle (Anuka San Citka) appears in a photo with his family, all posing in front of his tepee on the Rosebud. One of his sons is holding an 1873 model Springfield carbine, a firearm carried by most of the soldiers at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Although capturing movement was not easy in those days, Anderson succeeded in a photo of a young woman hurrying along with a load of firewood, a dog trotting by her side.

Anderson lost his first camera to a charging Longhorn during the issuance of government beef to the Sioux. The “white man’s buffalo,” as the Sioux called the cattle driven up from Texas to replace the slaughtered buffalo herds, were allowed to roam freely on the reservation. Sioux on horseback hunted them. When Anderson focused his camera on a hunting scene, he saw a steer running straight toward him. John jumped out of the way in time, but his camera did not survive.

Anderson’s second camera, an 8-by-10-inch Premo view camera of beautifully inlaid mahogany, patent date 1893, resides safely with the Nebraska State Historical Society. It weighs about 6 pounds, can be tilted up and down as well as swiveled, and is capable of taking horizontal or vertical pictures. A 3-foot red leather bellows extends the camera to 40 inches. The extra focus length permits small objects to be photographed larger than life-size.

When Maj. Gen. George Crook arrived at the Rosebud early in 1889, he chose John Anderson as his official civilian photographer. Anderson’s diary says only that he “obtained some interesting negatives” and that “General Crook bought $20 worth of landscapes.”

While Anderson and his camera traveled, befriending and photographing Brulé Sioux, Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne visitors, many other homesteaders trembled at every encounter with Indians and panicked at every rumor. Anderson’s diary entry on May 27, 1889, says: “A report was circulated through the country that the Indians had broken out, and were making depredations in Crookston [Neb.]. I at once hired a horse and took my camera and went to the scene of the massacre, which was not to be found. I returned to Valentine and stayed there awaiting news of further trouble, which did not come. As the sun was setting in the West, the citizens of Valentine were surprised to see hundreds of frightened settlers coming into town for safety, scared almost to death. One farmer left their home forgetting a small boy who was out in the field somewhere at the time of departure and were so scared that they had forgotten their boy. They returned to find him waiting for them unharmed. One woman near Norden was scared to death, she died in the wagon while fleeing for some place for safety.”

Although Sioux police monitored their own people, the reservations were porous. Sioux warriors and nervous homesteaders would occasionally meet on the rutted streets of Valentine or even share an American holiday. John’s diary entry of July 3, 1889, reports, “266 Indians on their way from Rosebud to Fort Niobrara [to celebrate July Fourth] camped on the banks of the Mineakaduze river put on their War Paint, mounted their steeds and with a rush, warwhoop and shooting came into town nearly scaring many people to death.”

The year 1889 was not a good one for the Sioux. They parted with 9 million acres of their Great Sioux Reservation, rations were cut and many Indians were hungry and sick that winter. Over in Nevada, an Indian messiah named Wovoka was teaching a new religion, the Ghost Dance, that spoke of the complete disappearance of all white men. Some of the Sioux liked the sound of that. Meanwhile, John Anderson’s brief diary entries suggested his own unrest:

December 29, 1889. Printed my last at Fort Niobrara.

December 30. Packed to Quit business and go East.

December 31. Left Fort Niobrara for good.

Jan. 8, 1890. Left the wooly west for Pennsylvania.

For whatever reason, Anderson had seemingly left the Sioux forever. But he returned 17 months later, without giving an explanation. During his absence, the Ghost Dance became popular among the Sioux, Indian police killed Sitting Bull and the bloody confrontation took place at Wounded Knee.

In June 1891, an ad in The Republican, a Valentine, Neb., newspaper, informed its area residents that “Shaw’s Art Gallery will be conducted by John Anderson who took lessons under a superior French artist this last winter.” In July, Shaw’s Art Gallery ran another ad in The Republican: “Indian photographs and views taken during the late Indian War and views of the last Sun Dance for sale.”

In 1893 Anderson moved even closer to the Sioux, into the Rosebud home of Colonel Charles P. Jordan and his wife, Winyan-hcaka (the True Woman, Julia), a full-blooded Oglala. Jordan, a cousin of the late George Armstrong Custer, owned the Jordan Trading Post. Anderson worked for Jordan, first part time, and later bought an interest in the trading post. He helped his Rosebud community whenever he could. Charley Eads, a contemporary who worked at the Jordan Trading Post, observed, “I’ve seen hungry old Indians with no money come in and go back and talk with John and he would give them things to take home and eat and then charge them to himself.”

Anderson returned East periodically to visit family. While in Pennsylvania, John took on a childhood friend, Charles A. Schempp, as a photography partner, and they remained partners even after Anderson returned to the Rosebud. Once while in Bradford, Pa., Anderson attended one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West extravaganzas. Among the performers were Rosebud Sioux Indians, fresh off a European tour. Anderson’s great-nephew Don Hogg said that the crowd was astonished after the performance when Anderson began chatting with the Indians in their own language.

Anderson was 26 in 1895 when he married Myrtle Miller. Born in Williamsport, Pa., she had to adapt quickly to the West. Years later, she wrote about her buggy journey to her new log home: “I noticed a small bunch of cattle running and said to Mr. Anderson, ‘Why are those big dogs chasing them?’ ‘Dogs nothing’ John answered. ‘They are gray wolves. They won’t bother us as long as they have cattle to chase.’” Before long, she had a visitor at the house: “I was scrubbing the floor in our little one window bedroom. I looked up and there was a large painted Indian leaning against the window and trying to look inside. It frightened me but when I told Mr. Anderson about it, he said, oh that is nothing, he was just curious.”

Myrtle Anderson, though, learned to adapt to her new environment. “When Mr. Anderson asked me if I would be willing to come West for no more than three years until we got a start, little did I know that I would be in South Dakota for 40 years,” she later wrote. They raised their son, Harold Roscoe, on the reservation and later mentored Benjamin Reifel, who became a U.S. congressman from South Dakota, (January 3, 1961, to January 3, 1971). Reifel (Wiyaka Wanjila) was born on the Rosebud to a full-blood Sioux mother and German-American father, lived as a teenager with the Andersons and worked for John at the trading post. He also posed as an Indian flute player in a later Anderson photograph.

John and Myrtle Anderson permanently said goodbye to the Rosebud Reservation in 1936, moving to Rapid City, S.D. They opened their own Sioux Indian Museum, displaying artifacts that John had collected during their years among the Sioux. His collection remains in that city today as part of the Sioux Indian Museum, administered by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, U.S. Department of the Interior.

In 1939 the Andersons retired to Atascadero, Calif., where John died on June 26, 1947, still thinking of the Plains. “John never liked it here,” Myrtle later wrote a friend after his death. “He always longed for the wide open spaces of South Dakota.”

Of the more than 1,000 glass plate negatives taken during John Anderson’s career, 400 survive. All of these, except for one taken at a Nebraska trading post, were produced in natural light. Other indoor photographs were posed under a skylight supplemented with reflectors.

When the Hamiltons visited the Rosebud Reservation while preparing The Sioux of the Rosebud: A History in Pictures, they found Anderson photographs that had been torn and repaired with transparent tape many years earlier. “Some had spent many years with their owners in Brulé Sioux cabins,” they said. “The edges of some had frayed from many years of handling.” Anderson’s photos were considered “keepers” by his subjects, and today we’re fortunate that so many were kept.


Kansas author Barbara Stern says Anderson’s original work can be found at the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, S.D., and the Nebraska Historical Society in Lincoln. The Sioux of the Rosebud: A History in Pictures, with photos by John A. Anderson and text by Henry W. Hamilton and Jean Tyree Hamilton, is recommended for further reading and viewing.

Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.