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William S. Prettyman: Frontier Photographer

William S. Prettyman
1858 – 1932
By Don Prettyman

In 1879 William came to Emporia Kansas with 5 cents in his pocket. Which he used to buy a post card to let his family back in Maryland know, that he made it. After doing odd jobs, he found his way to Arkansas City, Kansas, to learn a new profession of photography. He studied under a civil war photographer, I.H. Bonsall.

He opened a studio, but began sensing adventure, and the need to get out of the dark room. So he decided to photograph Indians in their natural state of living, and before civilization took them off of their land. The U.S. army protected the borders, from settlers. So he went out in the disguise as a hunter, on vacation. He hid his camera equipment from them, but took his gun to hunt, and provisions for the (many & long) journeys, that he is about to embark on. In 1883 William went into Indian Territory, following some of the paths that no other white man had been, other than Lewis & Clark. Some nations had never seen a white man before. He quickly became known as “picture man”, (to the natives) whom he soon began to have friendships with. Below is a picture of his custom built buggy.


This was the first picture taken in motion. On September 16, 1893, at noon, the race for the Cherokee Outlet was under way. The weather conditions were dry, so William had a 3 story platform built, early that morning. The carpenters were making jokes & laughed about it, because they where never told what the purpose of the platform was for. When William showed up with his buggy, and started unloading his camera equipment, the laughing stopped.


News reporters and photographers, where looking for good views, and offered large sums of money to get on top of the platform. But William refused. He had 3 of his friends take the pictures, while he raced for land. Leaving them to guess the fraction of a second, of when the cameras shutters would be tripped.

William made over 10,000 pictures, and was responsible for creating news photography. For photography was an unknown profession at his time. He became well known, for his adventures, and the photographic history he recorded.

Over 50 different photographers were reviewed for the book, “Indian Territory”. But the editor, “E. Cunningham”, found no others pictures to tell the story of this generation.



Ref: (Cunningham, Robert E. Indian Territory, A Frontier Photographic Record. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma: 1957).



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