Lee Moorhouse of Pendleton, Oregon, was a multifaceted and intriguing man. Born in Marion County, Iowa, he came with his family to Walla Walla, Washington, in 1861 on the Oregon Trail. He was a miner, surveyor, rancher, businessman, civic leader, Umatilla Indian Agent, real estate operator, insurance salesman, and Assistant Adjunct General of the Oregon State Militia (this is where he received the title Major, which he used for the rest of his life).
Major Moorhouse also liked to photograph. He was one of the many Americans who took up photography in the 1880s, after George Eastman made an easy-to-use film camera available. But unlike most amateur photographers, Major Moorhouse worked with gelatin dry glass plate negatives, large cameras, and a tripod, the equipment of professional photographers. Major Moorhouse was unlike other amateur photographers in another important regard – his photography quickly progressed beyond family portraits and quaint scenes. From the 1888 to the 1916 Major Moorhouse produced over 9,000 images, which document urban, rural, and Native American life in the Columbia Basin, and particularly Umatilla County, Oregon. So extensive and revealing are Moorhouse’s images that his collection is one of the preeminent social history collections for Oregon.
Seven thousand of Moorhouse’s images now reside in the University of Oregon Library, a generous gift of the Moorhouse family in 1948. Another 1,400 images were given to the Umatilla County Library about 1958, and 300 were purchased by the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnography in the 1930s. About one third of the images at the University of Oregon are concerned with native peoples. These images fall into two broad categories – studio portraits of tribal members and images of native life on the Umatilla Reservation. During his lifetime Moorhouse was most celebrated for his portraits, some of which were known around the world. Many recent scholars find these images somewhat unsatisfactory, however, because they are stiffly posed and inauthentic - Moorhouse supplied the clothing that the subjects wore and the implements they held from his extensive collection of Native American artifacts. Critics also find the pictures troublesome because Major Moorhouse, like Edward S. Curtis and other photographers of the era, held the view that Indian lifeways were doomed to extinction. One of their goals was to preserve on film the last shimmerings of these traditions before they passed into oblivion. This notion, as many have pointed out, presents a selective image of Native American life – an image that extols and idealizes their past but fails to deal with their present experiences, which were often quite harsh.
But this is only part of the story of Major Moorhouse’s Native American photographs. Moorhouse was also very capable of presenting pictures that were reflective of the present experiences of native peoples. His photographs taken on the Umatilla Reservation are revealing documents of Native American life, as it existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. These pictures are reliable sources of information on native clothing and dwellings, and they capture some of the social and cultural transformations that native peoples were going through. It is significant to note that Moorhouse’s images have recently been recognized as valuable for eliciting the memories of the past among tribal elders. These memories might otherwise have been lost to future generations. In addition, these memories have helped to reveal important events that normally escape the attention of academic and official tribal historians.
By far the largest group of photographs at the University of Oregon Library shows scenes of daily life, both rural and urban, of Moorhouse’s Caucasian contemporaries in the Columbia Basin area. The Columbia Basin during Moorhouse’s era was exploding economically and experiencing tremendous population gains among Caucasians, which provided Moorhouse with a rich source of subjects. These images of urban and rural life are very forward looking and celebrate the prosperous development of the West. Moorhouse captured on film over 600 views of ranch life, particularly wheat farming. These images document the ranchers, their homes, itinerant laborers, and their work in the fields. There are also thousands of images of small town and community life. These pictures include views of businesses, schools, churches, and various forms of transportation, such as locomotives and automobiles. Moorhouse was particularly interested in the social life and entertainments of his contemporaries, and he frequently photographed circuses, parades, Wild West shows, and most notably the Pendleton Roundup. Moorhouse made over 600 images of the Pendleton Roundup from 1910 to 1919, and these depict every aspect of the Roundup during its first decade.
Throughout his life Major Moorhouse was very careful to describe himself as an amateur for whom collecting Native American artifacts and photographing the world around him was just a hobby. However, a close look at the full body of his work makes plain that he had a keen eye and an intense interest in his world that went beyond that of a casual observer. Indeed, few hobbyists would have taken the time and effort to master the burdensome photographic process that Moorhouse used, and few would have taken over 9,000 shots. Moorhouse clearly had a deep interest in history and the photograph’s ability to be a lasting record of history. Despite how he defined himself, Major Moorhouse was a serious photographer, and he was sending a message in every photograph. It remains an intriguing question why he maintained that he was an amateur. Perhaps it was to distance himself from commercial photographers whose images were intended for financial gain and were sold to an eastern audience. By maintaining that he was an amateur, Moorhouse established his noncommercial intentions and underscored his position as a reliable and authentic witness to his times. Whatever his motives were, one thing is certain – Major Moorhouse’s photographs are sensitive and revealing reports on his age. Without them everyone’s understanding of this unique period in western history would be diminished.
Steven L. Grafe, “Lee Moorhouse: Photographer of the Inland Empire,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 98, 4 (Winter 1997-98), 426–477.
Martin Schmitt, “The Moorhouse Photographic Collection,” The Call Number 15, 1 (December 1953), 7–9.
Martha A. Sandweiss, “Picturing Indians: Curtis in Context,” in The Plains Indian Photographs of Edward S. Curtis (Lincoln 2001), 13 – 39.
Deward E. Walker, “The Moorhouse Collection: A Window on Umatilla History,” in The First Oregonians, ed. by Carolyn M. Buan and Richard Lewis (Portland 1991), 109-114.
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