History Features

The Sodbusters’ Historian

Solomon D. Butcher, Nebraska’s pioneer photographer, captured the most complete record of the sod house era ever made.

sodbuster-family-historian_solomon butcher

In 1886, Solomon Butcher had his eureka moment, the biggest idea of his life.

He would compile a book, a photographic history of the pioneers of Nebraska’s Custer County.

Butcher had moved to the county, named after the U.S. Army officer George Armstrong Custer, in 1880, leaving Illinois behind in order to claim some of the government land being given away as part of the 1862 Homestead Act.

Along with pictures, he would include in the book his neighbors’ biographies and recollections. He called the plan his “history scheme.”

The same year that he thought of his history scheme, the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad came to Broken Bow, the county seat, for the first time. Every day, the train brought in more people and goods from the outside world. The era of sod houses in the wilderness was disappearing fast, and Butcher wanted to tell its story while there was still time.

With his camera and portable darkroom stowed in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, Solomon began to roam. In the clear prairie light, he posed the people of Custer County with the things that were important to them. In his photographs, farm families stand in their fields or in front of their soddies, flanked by their household possessions, their horses and usually a dog or two. Ranchers are pictured on horseback with their cattle or flocks of sheep. His subjects were everyone and everything that was part of life on the plains. And always, behind Solomon’s people is the wide land itself, reaching far into the distance.

“Some called me a fool, others a crank, but I was too much interested in my work to pay any attention to such people,” he wrote.

On his quest to photograph the pioneers, Butcher would visit more than a dozen Nebraska counties and even other states. But he concentrated mostly on Custer County, his home. The scenes that he recorded there represent well the larger pioneer experience. Life throughout Nebraska and on the plains of Kansas and the Dakotas was very much the same.

In Nebraska about half of the...

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