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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Earliest Native Americans on Film

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Native Americans Have Fascinated Photographers from the Onset of Photography

It is one of history’s ironies that just as the modern technology of photography was coming into use, the destruction of Native cultures in North America was reaching a crescendo. The white fascination with Native Americans manifested itself in a rush to capture disappearing Native culture and the frontier, even as white expansion was destroying both. It was as if there was a human desire to preserve in images what would someday be gone.

The concept of capturing images surprisingly dates back to ancient times, when an Iraqi scientist in the 11th century developed a simple apparatus called an atlas obscura. Made of a simple box with a pinhole set inside a tent, the box projected an outside image against the tent wall, but the image was only a projection—and upside down at that—and not preserved in any way.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that the modern technology of photography began in Frances, when Joseph Nicephore Niepce used a portable camera obscura to expose an image on a pewter plate coated with bitumen to light. This was the first recorded image that did not fade.

After Niéce's success, photography progressed very rapidly and daguerreotypes, emulsion plates, and wet plates were developed almost simultaneously in the mid-1800s.The “wet plate” process was less expensive than daguerreotypes and required only two or three seconds of exposure time, much less than daguerreotypes. This made them much more suited to portrait photographs, which was the most common use of photography at the time. Many photographs from the Civil War were produced on wet plates.

The dry plate process was developed in the 1870 and enabled photographers much more freedom because the equipment was portable, the exposure time faster, and plates could be stored and developed at a later time.

The dry plate process also made frontier photography much easier because traveling photographers could carry their camera, plates and a portable dark room on a mule.

Motion picture technology started independently from photography in the beginning but almost at the very same time. About 1832, a rotating drum of drawings

illuminated moving images on a surface. As with still photography, the 1870s saw a dramatic evolution of technology when Eadweard Muybridge , applying still film process, developed motion picture technology between 1872 and 1877, and famously photographed and projected the moving images of a galloping horse.

VIDEO- Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 Film of a Galloping Horse

Nearly as soon as still film and motion picture technology was realized, early photographers began photographing Native Americans. Following is some motion picture footage believed to be some of the earliest moving images of Native Americans.

VIDEO - Oldest Motion Picture Footage of Native Americans

Early still photographers and motion picture producers flocked to the West to capture Native Americans on film. The American public was hungry to view images of Indians and the frontier in their Victorian parlors on stereopticons, then in early movie theaters. Such images--still and moving--immortalized the vanishing world of Native American cultures and the raw wilderness. The early images gave way to one of the most popular and wildly successful genres: the American western. As the 20th century lumbered toward brash modernity, white Americans hungered for the waning nostalgia of the lost frontier.

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-Death Photography on the Trail

-The Magical Lens of Ansel Adams

"Earliest Native Americans on Film" was first published on March 15, 2019 on Facebook / 132,823 views / 1,283 likes / 723 shares


7,644 views2 comments


jan hilborn
jan hilborn
Dec 07, 2021

the “mid 1850’s NA with a pet wolf” is a Siberian man with a Siberian Laika.

Notes From The Frontier
Notes From The Frontier
Dec 07, 2021
Replying to

Jan, Thanks so much for your comment! I have several sources that identify this picture as a North American Native with a wolf. It is true that some Siberian tribes used teepees and the Laika ( a Siberian dog breed) looks very much like a wolf. Have you been able to find any source information on the date and photographer? It is often challenging to research on the Internet because there is SO much false information and misattribution floating around. Also, much of the source information for 1800s archival photographs is lost to the ages. Thanks again for your input.


Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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