Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Great Plains Quarterly 33:3 (Summer 2013)


© 2013 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska


In 1886, Custer County photographer Solomon Butcher conceived a plan to create a photographic history of the pioneer era of the county. Though his dream never made him the fortune he had hoped, it did result, in 1913, in the deposit of more than 3,000 glass-plate negatives with the Nebraska State Historical Society. It can be readily argued that in the century since this time, no other photographs have become as ubiquitous in histories of the American West. And yet, in comparison, very little has been written on these photographs explicitly or on their maker. Nancy Plain’s Light on the Prairie joins a handful of other publications to remedy this omission.

Plain has an enviable gift for storytelling; conveying an empathetic sense of just who Butcher was and what his world was like is a remarkable strength of this book. Descriptive passages quietly transport readers to any number of singular, solitary moments that were, until our reading, muted by the distance of time. Such passages beautifully evoke the environment of the Plains, the communal world that settled there, and Butcher’s somewhat misfit character as its recorder. Plain’s story stays close to the participants, with ample quotes from and references to the actual settlers in Butcher’s photographs.