He was around here before there was a city, and he took photographs of the area residents.
William S."Will" Soule, foremost photographer of Native Americans in the late 1860s and early 1870s, was born on Aug. 28, 1836 in Turner, Maine to John Soule and Mary True Soule. In his 20s, he served in the Union Army, and was wounded, in the Civil War.
After the War, Soule became familiar with the art of photography at a gallery in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he took soldiers’ portraits; and through his brother, John P., who had set up a studio in Boston prior to the Civil War.
In a quest to recuperate from his war injuries, Soule headed west in 1867. Arriving at Fort Dodge, he served as a clerk at trader John E. Tappin’s post store. His real intent was to photograph landscapes and portraits indicated by the fact he brought with him photography equipment. At Fort Dodge, Soule busily took portraits of Cheyennes and Arapahoes years before the founding of Dodge City.
His first published photograph appeared as an engraving in the January 16, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly. It is one few of his taken during the time period that had no images of Native Americans. The picture is of soldiers with the body of a scalped buffalo hunter near Fort Dodge.
In the spring of 1869, Soule left Fort Dodge for Indian Territory (Oklahoma). He moved in late 1869 or early 1870 to Fort Sill, which served as an agency for several tribes, including the Kiowa, Wichita and Comanche. Here, he was the official Post photographer and served as a concessioner with his own studio. Most of Soule’s Indian portraits were taken at Fort Sill between 1870 and 1874.
Around early 1875, Soule moved back east and continued as a photographer. In 1882 he formed the Soule Art Company with his brother, John. He worked with his brother until his retirement in 1900. This was fortuitous as his brother preserved Will Soule’s legacy by getting copyrights for many of his Indian portraits with the Library of Congress.
Numerous prints and glass negatives survive. Dozens are in Belous and Weinstein’s book, "Will Soule: Indian Photographer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, 1869-1874." Others are in collections around the country, including the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History; the Denver Public Library; and at the Fort Sill Artillery and Missile Center Museum. The Fort Sill collection belongs to the Bureau of American Ethnology and was once owned by A. A. Hyde of Wichita, inventor of the famous ointment, Mentholatum.
Soule photographed Indians during a time when they were adjusting to Western culture, but still retained many of their native characteristics. This allowed Soule to take posed portraits of Native Americans dressed in their preferred attire. He did his work in that sweet period between the Indians’ defiance of and conformity to European ways.
William Soule died on Aug. 12 1908 in Brookline, Massachusetts, leaving behind his wife Ella Augusta Blackman Soule and daughters Lucia Augusta Soule and Mary Eliza Soule.
Kathie Bell is a curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.