Text by Brad Reynolds, Images courtesy of Pamela Morris
Everybody loves the idea of “the West,” the romance of it. But for cowboys on the American frontier, the West was a far cry from the pages of a dime store novel. The life of a cowboy was rough. It was rugged. It took strength of body and character to persist. Only the most resilient of the Old West cowboys made a life of it—men of true, unfiltered love. They saw the West for all her callousness, and they embraced her just the same.
“No one had to tell Charlie Morris to love the land, but that emotion was tempered in Morris by his knowledge of how vicious, demanding, and unyielding that land could be in a January blizzard or in a prairie fire in July—a land that could transform the soul, but at the same time sear that very soul by the extremes of its climatic ferocity,” writes Gene M. Gressley, Founding Director of the American Heritage Center, in the foreword of True, Free Spirit, a biography of cowboy photographer Charles E. Morris. “If the cardinal rule of literary expression is always to write about what you know, a similar truism for any photographer must be to always understand your subject before trying to preserve it. Charlie Morris knew his West.”
Written by Bill Morris, son of Charles, and Pamela Morris, Charles’ granddaughter, True, Free Spirit chronicles the last days of the Old West as experienced through the life and lens of Charles E. Morris. Whereas contemporaries like F. Jay Haynes and William Henry Jackson sought to advertise the West (often on the payroll for companies such as the Northern Pacific), Morris hoped to capture life on the frontier with more truthfulness.
Much like Charlie Russell (who was twelve years his senior), Morris fell in love with life in central Montana. He, like Russell, came out West on his own as a teenager. But quite the opposite of Russell’s charmed upbringing, Morris’ home life was one of continual conflict. At fourteen, with a few dollars and a six-shooter, he trekked southwest on foot, subsisting on wild turkeys, berries, and squirrels. He stowed away in boxcars when he could—journeying ever closer 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.
Writes Bill Morris: “To his delight, Charlie found that here in Montana a cowboy could still ride all day and never see a fence… Charlie longed for a way to capture it forever, for it was capturing his heart.”
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 approved 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.
“It has been my family’s desire to preserve Montana’s heritage,” says Pamela Morris, who is motivated to see both her grandfather and grandmother credited for their contributions to the state. “My grandmother hasn’t gotten sufficient recognition. If not for Nancy, Charlie Russell wouldn’t have been known. If not for my grandmother, it’s doubtful anything would have come of my grandfather’s work.”
Charles Morris met Helen Schroeder in 1899, while attending Toland Business University in Wisconsin. For four years, he rotated between summers in Montana and winters in Wisconsin, his heart torn between the two. While cowboying, he continued to court Helen through letters and photos of his adventures in the West. After his final school term in 1903, Morris returned to Montana a married businessman.
That summer, the newlyweds toured Montana in a portable picture studio—a $300 double harness buggy. From Big Sandy to Chinook and beyond, Morris photographed landscapes, ranchers, and Native Americans.
In the fall, they set up a portrait workshop in Chinook. Helen, who was artistic and clever, proved to be an essential business partner. She was skilled at developing and retouching images to create higher quality photographs, and she was uniquely gifted at hand-tinting. (At that time, only Germany was capable of color processing photographs.)
In 1904, Charlie Russell expressed his admiration for their work, advising that they travel to his hometown of St. Louis for Lewis and Clark’s Centennial Exposition. There, the Morrises entered into the fair’s art show the photo Cowboy on a Bucking Bronco, which depicted Roy Mathieson upon a horse mid-bound.
“It’s believed to be the first photograph to document a horse bucking with all four feet off the ground,” says Pamela Morris with pride.
The photo, hand-tinted by Helen, won first prize in its class, thereby associating the name “Morris” with exceptional photography. Cowboy on Bucking Bronco would become one
of Morris’ most famous photographs, and the couple even used the image of Matheson’s daring ride as their company trademark when they established the Charles E. Morris Company in Great Falls in 1910.
Here, Charles and Helen repaid their debt to Charlie Russell with postcards featuring the cowboy artist. Nancy Russell was so pleased with the publicity that Charlie authorized Charles to market a colorized version of Waiting for a Chinook (aka Last of the 5000) on postcards.
“[These postcards] no doubt did more than anything else to give Charles M. Russell the beginning for his rise to fame as one of the greatest of America’s Western artists,” states Harold McCracken in The American Cowboy.
As Charlie’s fame grew, Charles’ began to fade. The economic downturn of the 1920s devastated the postcard industry, and the Charles E. Morris Company failed. To provide for his family, Charles packed away his pre-1900 camera and glass negatives in a steamer trunk, sold his remaining photographic inventory, and started a stationary and school supply business, which evolved into Morris Sporting Goods in the 1930s.
“I was just old enough to sense sadly the change in him,” writes Bill Morris.
His father worked diligently until 1938, when he died of a heart attack at 62.
In an effort to preserve his parents’ legacy, Bill Morris (with the help of his daughters) published True, Free Spirit in 1997, living long enough to see its warm reception before his own death on February 19, 2000.
Today, Pamela Morris acts as the curator of her family’s history, working to compile and credit her grandfather’s photographs— many of which have been reproduced without acknowledgment.
“[My grandfather] was instrumental in Russell’s success. Charles Morris was comparable to Evelyn Cameron in preserving a record of the West. He deserves recognition,” she says.
Since the publication of True, Free Spirit, she has discovered another 300 some photos and postcards which she plans to include in a sequel, currently in the works.