Legacy Inductee (1876-1938) MCHF District 5
At fourteen, with a few dollars and a six-shooter, Charles Morris trekked west on foot, subsisting on wild turkeys, berries, and squirrels. He stowed away in boxcars when he could—journeying to a life on the range.
In the early 1890s, he worked his way north from Texas, serving as a chore boy and wrangler for a number of cattle outfits. While cowboying for the Bloom Company, Morris helped herd thousands of cattle from Wyoming to the Circle Diamond Ranch, six miles north of Malta.
By the century’s end, motion pictures were coming into popularity. Short and silent at first, movies—as they became more lucrative—advanced the cowboy myth for the purpose of promoting ticket sales. Meanwhile, Charles Morris invested in his first piece of camera equipment to show the West for what it was. As he taught himself by trial and error, it dawned on him that rarely was seen a candid cowboy photo. The subjects always knew the flash was coming. They were posed, and so the photos lacked authenticity.
One day, while riding for the McNamara & Marlow IX Brand, Morris got the nerve to draw his foreman, Sam Miller, aside and ask him for a favor; if Charlie could be privy to the outfit’s day-to-day plans, he might be able to arrange his equipment to record the day’s action as it occurred. He argued that this would benefit the company as well as himself, for the crew would never know when the pictures were coming and thus be more inclined to stay in peak performance throughout the workday. Miller agreed to Morris’ request on the understanding that he was a wrangler first and a lens man second.
Through this technique, Morris developed photographs that were more than portraiture; these were history—a sincere depiction of life in the open West.
In 1899, Morris met Helen Schroeder while he was attending Toland Business University in Wisconsin, and the two were married in 1903. Helen began hand-tinting his photographs, which further made them stand out.
In 1904, Charlie Russell expressed his admiration of their work, advising that they travel to his hometown of St. Louis for Lewis and Clark’s Centennial Exposition. There, they entered into the fair’s art show the photo Cowboy on a Bucking Bronco (believed to be the first photograph of a bucking horse with all four feet off the ground). The unique photo won first prize in its class. In 1906, the couple registered its copyright and even used it as a trademark stamp for their burgeoning postcard business.
To this day, collectors delight in Morris’ images of cowboys at work and play, Native American traditions, and life on the open range. These photographs and postcards are more than souvenirs; they are mementos of the great American West.