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Background and Scope
The one hundred and eighty-eight photographs sent by John C.H. Grabill to the Library of Congress for copyright protection between 1887 and 1892 are thought to be the largest surviving collection of this gifted, early Western photographer's work. Grabill's remarkably well-crafted, sepia-toned images capture the forces of western settlement in South Dakota and Wyoming and document its effects on the area's indigenous communities.
The collection includes a visual record of railroad development, coaches and wagons, mining, smeltering, and milling, freighting, emerging cities and towns, parades, cattle roundups and branding, sheepherding, prospecting, hunting, and Chinese immigrants, as well as landscapes. A number of the images portray the Lakota Sioux living on or near the Cheyenne River and the Pine Ridge reservations and their contact with U.S. military and government agents, and with William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Some of the photographs were taken only days after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee near Pine Ridge.
Very little is known about this talented, commercial photographer, but the fact that Grabill immediately set up a studio when he arrived in Sturgis, South Dakota, in 1886, suggests that he had previously acquired his photographic skills. Information printed on the photographic mounts indicates that he also had studios in Deadwood, Lead City, and Hot Springs, South Dakota, in Colorado, and possibly in Chicago, and that he was the "official photographer of the Black Hills and F.P. [Fort Pierre] R.R. and Home Stake Mining Co."