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Orlando Scott Goff


Bouncing across the rutted trails in a four-wheeled rig drawn by a spotted pony, photographer Orlando Scott Goff traveled up and down the Missouri River recording Native American and frontier army scenes. His camera would capture some of the most poignant and important images of the American West.

Goff was born on this day in 1843, the youngest son of a prosperous shoemaker in Connecticut. Only days after his eighteenth birthday, Goff left home to enlist in the Tenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. After four years of fighting in the Civil War, he mustered out in August of 1865 with a gunshot wound to his chest and right arm; a wound that would plague him for the rest of his life. Following the war, Goff briefly studied photography in New York before he decided to seek his fortune out West. Moving to Wisconsin, he met local photographer Stanley Morrow. When Morrow moved to Yankton, Dakota Territory in 1871, Goff followed and was soon exploring the Missouri River area with his camera, eventually reaching Bismarck in 1873. With the Seventh Cavalry stationed nearby, Goff became the post photographer at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

During a short trip back east during 1875, the Connecticut-native married a former acquaintance, Annie Eaton of New York. Back in Dakota Territory, Mr. and Mrs. Goff instantly became a welcomed addition to the frontier post social scene. When it became known that Annie was an accomplished musician, there was an immediate demand for her classes in piano, organ, guitar and choral singing. Meanwhile, Orlando’s camera captured scenes of garrison life and portraits of officers and men of the Seventh Cavalry. With the infamous Battle of the Little Big Horn just around the corner, for many of the officers and men, the pictures taken by Goff would be their last.

Shortly after the Little Big Horn battle, Goff moved to a studio in Bismarck and gained historic fame by taking the first photograph of Sitting Bull after his surrender in 1881. A few years earlier, Goff had also taken one of the first photographs of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, shortly after his surrender.

As a pioneer resident in Bismarck, Goff made his mark on the growing town. Involved in local politics, he made an unsuccessful run for mayor. In 1883 Goff became a partner in the construction of the Dakota Block, a three-story brick business building still standing on Main Avenue. The third floor of the Dakota Block included not only living quarters for the Goff family, but also a spacious photo studio.

By 1884, Orlando Goff was on the road again, setting up short-lived studios in Williston, Dickinson, Fort Assiniboine and Havre, Montana. Retiring from the photography business in 1900, Orlando Scott Goff served one term in the Montana House of Representatives before moving to Idaho where he passed away in 1917.

Sources:Gwen Goff Hobbs, Charles R. McCain & Judy Goff Cook, "Orlando Scott Goff Biography", Goff Biographies & Pictures http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~guinevere60/goff/bio/goff

Vyzralek, Frank E. "Behind the Lens." North Dakota History 72, no. 3 & 4 (2005): 22-24.

Watson, Elmo Scott. "Orlando Scott Goff, Pioneer Dakota Photographer." North Dakota History XXIX, no. 1 (1962): 210-215.