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William S. Prettyman

William S. Prettyman's ancestors came to America in 1638 to be among the first pioneers.  Prettyman's parents lived in Princess Anne County, Maryland, where on November 12, 1858, William was born.  William lived his life as the others in his family had lived, on the edge of civilization, a pioneer, a nomad.  He longed for adventure.

By the time that the Civil War had ended, William was old enough to enjoy stories of "Indians" and pioneers.  Maryland was now populous and was no longer the frontier, but the early residents entertained William with stories of settlement.  The land west of the Mississippi river was unsettled.  As he grew to manhood, William S. Prettyman urged to travel west and experience life.  It was at the age of 21 William stepped off of a train in Emporia, Kansas with only 5 cents in his pocket.  He used the money to purchase a postcard to send home and announce his safe arrival.

William tried a number of odd jobs before he arrived at a profession that he enjoyed and that fascinated him.  William became the apprentice of a Civil War photographer, I.H. Bonsall, who operated a gallery in Arkansas City, Kansas.  This would become his life's work.

Prettyman captured the West as it changed from the frontier to a civilized state.  He photographed the evolution of the Native American from a "hostile Indian" to a civilized white replica.  He not only traveled into Indian Territory to photograph the natural environment of the different tribes, but members of different tribes approached him in his studio.  He photographed all aspects of the West.  He photographed old Civil War Veterans in their fading gray or blue uniforms, pioneer women in their sunbonnets, cowboys and outlaws.  Prettyman photographed Bob Dalton both alive in his studio and dead in Coffeyville, Kansas.  Prettyman also photographed the Boomer leader, David L. Payne [Archived by WayBack Machine] who was one of the major instigators to open the Oklahoma Territory and The Cherokee Outlet for Settlement.  He was also the official camp photographer at Camp Schofield in 1889. It was Prettyman's cameras that photographed the opening of the Cherokee Outlet on September 16, 1893.

Prettyman was a premier photographer.  He photographed history in the making.  He captured an element of the "Old West" that would not have been captured without him.  He produced photographs that tell the history of the area of South-Central Kansas and North Central Oklahoma.  Without these photographs, the history of the area would be lost.  Many of Prettyman's original photographs and glass plate negatives are housed at The Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum.

When the West that he knew began to die, Prettyman sold his business, his home and moved to the Far West in 1905.  He abandoned his priceless plates in his Arkansas City Gallery, he left behind all his collection.  He took only one camera.

It is largely due to his apprentice, George Cornish, that his collection survived. Each time that Cornish moved to larger quarters, he took along the remnants of the work of Prettyman and Bonsall.  He converted all negatives into photos and stored the plates with care.  It is to his credit that the portion of the collection is today housed at the Cherokee Strip Land Rush Museum.  "Never did Cornish attempt to borrow the greatness of his teacher, nor claim the authorship of his work.  Some he protected by copyright in his own name, but these pictures continued to be identified as Prettyman's work.  Prettyman never sought a copyright on any of his pictures.  Long after Prettyman left Kansas, Cornish produced an album of photographs made from choice plates in his collection.  He did not have to include his former partner's name but he titled the album 'Oklahoma Views, by Prettyman and Cornish'.

(Cunningham, Robert E. Indian Territory, A Frontier Photographic Record.  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma:  1957)

Cherokee Strip Museum
Tom Junkins, Director
PO Box 778
Arkansas City, KS  67005
2617 West Fir Avenue
Perry, Oklahoma

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