Story by Sue Hansen
My friend Tom Roose found a box of old photographs in an antique shop in Corvallis, Oregon. When Tom opened the box, he saw black-and-white images of cowboys and cattle in Eastern Montana in the 19th century. Numerous photographs of three cowgirls roping, riding and branding calves on the open range intrigued him.
These young women of the West had exceptional skills for that time period. Tom sensed a special story inside the cardboard box and bought it for a few hundred dollars.
It turns out that Evelyn Cameron, an English expatriate who photographed pioneer life in Montana, had shot many of the images in the box. Taken between 1894 and 1928, her images, especially those of frontier women, are considered prized collectibles. A little Internet research told Tom that the cardboard box was worth much more than he had paid for it.
Still, Tom had lots of questions. Who were the three cowgirls in the photos and how did the box end up in the Pacific Northwest?
Seeking answers, Tom journeyed to Terry, Montana, where Evelyn Cameron had led her extraordinary life. My husband, Eric, and I went along with him.
Evelyn, who was born into English wealth in 1868 as Lady Evelyn Jephson Flower, had a unique way of capturing the people and the land of Eastern Montana. Her photos depict cowboys tending large cattle herds, manning round-up camps, sheepherders amid their flocks, the spacious beauty of the Badlands, and cowgirls mounting horses in split skirts, which Evelyn introduced to the area at the turn of the 19th century. (The skirts caused a sensation among women and consternation with men who threatened to arrest Evelyn if she wore the skirt in nearby Miles City.)
Evelyn had grown up on her family’s estate, which was south of London. She was an accomplished sidesaddle horse rider with a spirit for adventure. In 1889, she married Ewen Cameron, an eccentric Scottish aristocrat living in genteel poverty who was 14 years her senior. They hunted and fished in the Terry Badlands on their honeymoon.
Family disapproval of their marriage sent Evelyn and Ewen back to Montana in 1893. A year later, Evelyn became interested in photography and bought her first camera by mail. She photographed ranchers and farmers for extra income.
Neighbors May, Myrtle and Mabel Buckley were regular models and the cowgirls in Evelyn’s photographs. They were nicknamed “Red Yearlings” because they had strawberry-blond hair and were “born in the saddle.”
While their father was busy with other business ventures, the sisters ran the 160-acre ranch with their mother and younger brother, Mark. Evelyn’s photos of the sisters were published with an article on Montana cowgirls in the 1914 issue of the English magazine Country Life.
Childless, Evelyn bequeathed her ranch and belongings to close friend Janet Williams, who stored more than 2,700 prints, 1,800 glass-plate negatives, a Graflex camera, Evelyn’s trademark pith helmet and 35 diaries in her basement for 50 years. After Janet died at age 99, her heirs worked with the Montana Historical Society, Terry’s Prairie County Museum/Cameron Gallery and Evelyn Cameron Heritage to share Evelyn’s contribution to Western history with the public.
Before leaving Terry, Tom wanted to see Evelyn’s land. Of the three Cameron ranches, the last overlooked the Yellowstone River. And five miles south, an old wagon on the Buckleys’ former ranch at Cabin Creek was a monument to Montana long ago.
Tom went to Terry searching for Evelyn and the three women in her photographs. Visiting Evelyn’s grave in the town’s cemetery, with her beloved Badlands beyond, Tom found more than he had hoped. In addition to historical pictures, Terry’s other treasures are the people still protecting their town’s colorful past.