About the Exhibit

Lee Moorhouse

Lee Moorhouse himself had a respectable frontier pedigree. He was born in Iowa in 1850 and in 1861 crossed the Plains by ox-drawn wagon. His family settled in Washington Territories, near present-day Walla Walla. As an adult, he was employed variously as a prospector, surveyor, wrangler, shipping clerk, wheat rancher and merchant. Between 1889 and 1891 he also served as agent of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Although the flexible film camera was invented a decade before Moorhouse took up the photographic hobby, serious amateurs still worked with dry gelatin plates, large cameras, and tripods. Moorhouse was an advocate of this older technique. Photography allowed him to meld multiple interests. His love for picturesque views intersected with an abundance of historical subject matter and a burgeoning local economy to produce a dynamic and expansive pictorial record.

Moorhouse's Career

Throughout his life, Moorhouse defined himself as an authority on local Indian culture. His tenure as an Indian Agent encouraged those around him to accept this persona. He believed his success in photographing Indians stemmed from many years of good relations with them. The photographer wrote, "Years of close friendship, associations, and confidence are necessary to secure photographs from the Western Indian tribes. They are extremely superstitious and strangers may spend weeks before getting a picture worth developing…It is well nigh impossible to secure consent to photograph an Indian unless the artist is vouched for by some one in the confidence of the Indian."

Moorhouse's photos of the Indian peoples of the Columbia River Plateau are his best-known images. Like his contemporaries, he accepted the stereotype of American Indians as an ancient, noble, and picturesque race. He also believed that Indian peoples were doomed either to extinction or assimilation. These beliefs informed his photography. On one hand, he considered himself to be an artist and he worked very hard to compose picturesque subjects. On the other hand, his love for history motivated him to preserve a visual record of what he held to be a dying race. A contemporary critic observed that the service which Major Moorhouse has rendered the historian is to "preserve in pictorial faithfulness the wild and majestic attitudes of the best of the Pacific Indians as they lived and flourished in the halcyon days gone by."

Moorhouse's photographic career received an early boost from two 1898 images entitled The Cayuse Twins. These photos of twin sisters strapped into Indian cradles became his signature works and the photographer reportedly sold 150,000 copies of them. He also sold his work as photographic postcards and prints and it further appeared in select periodicals, regional histories, and on the occasional calendar.

Moorhouse began collecting Indian artifacts well before he took up the photographic hobby. Public displays of his collection of Indian curiosities won awards at many regional fairs. The photographer's favorite studio space was in the east side yard of his home. Here he often erected a fabric backdrop and posed his subjects. The arrangement provided ready access to both his curio cabinet and darkroom. Numerous Indians' portraits and compositional studies were made in this location but the backdrop and costume additions used here do not appear in images taken by the photographer when he was working at distant locations.

In addition to the many photos of Indian people that he took in his yard and on the Umatilla Reservation, Moorhouse also recorded activities in other regional Indian communities. He recoded scenes at Indian schools on Oregon's Warm Springs Reservation, on Washington's Colville Reservation, and elsewhere. He further visited and photographed settlements along the Columbia River and on the Nez Perce, Flathead, and Crow Indian Reservations.

Many Indian visitors to Pendleton also posed for him. The photographer first met Chief Joseph in 1890. Joseph then made an extended visit to the Umatilla Reservation while Moorhouse was serving as its Indian Agent. The two men maintained a cordial relationship and Moorhouse made portraits of Joseph on two separate occasions. One of the resultant images was used by the Pendleton Woolen Mills to promote their Indian-design blankets. A second view was adapted into the portrait adorning the stone monument marking Joseph's grave.

Small Hawk and Wife, ca. 1900
Photo by Lee Moorhouse.
From the Division of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Library System.