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Black Hills Expedition Photographer

As Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his thousand-man expedition meandered south and west to the Black Hills in the summer of 1874, there were more than soldiers making the trip. A black woman called Aunt Sally was along as a cook; sixty or seventy Arikaras and Santee Sioux were scouts; five journalists tagged along; an engineering detachment and a party of scientists included a geologist, paleontologist and botanist; there were two prospectors; and also on the trail was William H. Illingworth, the expedition photographer.

Captain William Ludlow hired Illingworth for thirty dollars a month to photograph the Seventh Cavalry and scenery. Illingworth had prior experience with military photography. He was a thirty-year-old studio photographer from Saint Paul, Minnesota, who had also been along for Captain James L. Fisk’s fourth expedition to Montana Territory in 1866.

On this date in 1874, Illingworth took his first images of the Black Hills Expedition. The wagon train was just a few days out from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near present-day Heil, North Dakota. His first two photographs were views of a Cannonball River vista. A Saint Paul Pioneer reporter described his pictures as showing “the handsomely rounded and grassy hills, the perpendicular cliffs, the shining river fringed with box-elder and the cattle herd quietly resting in the green meadow.”

Illingworth produced about seventy photographs from the two-month expedition. Many of these became stereographs – rectangular cards with two prints that created a three-dimensional image when viewed through a hand-held stereoscope viewer.

His expedition photographs became quite popular, and today are valuable documentation of that historic expedition.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, two men followed Illingworth’s footsteps to recreate his images a hundred and twenty-five years later. Their work is now available in companion books, “Exploring with Custer” and “Crossing the Plains with Custer.”

Despite his successful career in photography, Illingworth became destitute and took his own life in 1893.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Horsted, P., Grafe, E., & Nelson, J. (2009). Crossing the plains with Custer. Golden Valley Press: Custer, SD

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