Tagebucheintrag des Fotographen:
Bent's new Fort, July 3rd 1859
Since I arrived here two weeks ago things had been rather uneventful and, truth be told, not quite to my expectations. The first days I busied myself taking daguerrotypes of the trading post itself and of the employees working there. Although most plates developed nicely, that was of course not what I had taken the long and arduous journey upon me for. When I asked Mr. Bent when he expected Indians to come in, he told me he couldn't say and I shouldn't be surprised if none would come at all in the next weeks as it was hunting season. I also learned that the Indian trade is generally declining, a fact which Mr. Bent blames on the continuous influx of emigrants and gold seekers who, as he says, chop down the sparse cottonwood timber along the rivers and scare away the game the Indians depend on. Mr. Bent told rather gloomy stories of Indian tribes decimated by white-man diseases and of growing tensions and occasional depredations against citizens in the wider area. Just recently the Army commenced establishing a permanent post in the immediate vicinity. Since then, reportedly not a single Indian has showed up at the trading post. All this is of course very bad for Mr. Bent's business since the Indians are his chief customers. I am taking his lamentations with a grain of salt though because he appears to be too closely associated with the savages, commercially as well as socially, to be an impartial observer. The post smith told me yesterday that my host has been in the squaw-wife business for twenty-three years. Over the years he not only married the daughter of a Cheyenne medicine man but, shockingly, also her two younger sisters! At present his matrimonial commitments seem to be down to just one wife since his first wife succumbed to Cholera in '46 and his second wife wouldn't accommodate to civilized life and is effectively separated from him, having returned to live in a tipi with her fellow tribesmen year-round.
At any rate, my stay at the fort became more and more disappointing as a fortnight passed without any redskin showing up. In my despair I even briefly considered exhausting my travel finances for a wagon and a guide to seek out the Indians in their nomadic camps but such plans were of course wholly impracticable because nobody here could tell me with any sufficient certainty where I might find the Indians and everybody strongly advised me to stay inside the Fort as I am wholly unaccustomed to the customs of the wilderness and unaware of most of its pitfalls. I had to admit to myself that my plan to capture the countenance of the wild Indian on chemical plates had utterly failed for want of Indians.
Thank God the supply train which was to take me back to Missouri yesterday is overdue. Otherwise I would have missed what came to pass today: It was around noon when a sudden commotion in the post finally announced the arrival of a group of Indians. And what a sight they were! About thirty Indians came riding through the post gates and immediately turned the nascent post into a veritable fairground! Gaudily decked warriors on painted ponies, followed by squaws and papooses. Mr. Bent seemed to be well acquainted with our guests as he welcomed several of them cordially, shaking hands and, to my amazement, addressing them in their wholly incomprehensible savage idiom. The Indians turned out to be Cheyennes, and they had come in to barter skins and pelts for the various trade goods of civilized manufacture they have become so accustomed to over the years.
Thankfully, Mr. Bent soon introduced me to the headmen and tried to explain to the savages the nature of my mission. I avidly assisted him in doing so by showing a number of daguerrotypes to the men, which didn't fail to make a mighty impression on the stone-age nomads! To my delight the Indians didn't appear to be disinclined to have their pictures taken later on, and I went into my quarters in high spirits to prepare everything necessary. Soon I had prepared the camera and had converted a corner of my room into a makeshift studio and started soliciting for volunteers to have their picture taken. In the meantime the natives, being entertained by Mr. Bent, had made themselves comfortable in the courtyard. The warriors had shed the colorful blankets into which they had wrapped themselves against the dust during the journey and displayed the rather different norms of modesty that rule outside civilized society. Two of the bronzed warriors, both stripped to their waists and clothed in nothing more than breechclout, leggings and moccasins, were engaged in a lively discussion with Mary, Mr. Bent's twenty years old mixed-blood daughter. On closer inspection I realized that Mary and the two half-naked braves were of the same sex. Mr. Bent explained to me that the Cheyennes are generally very accepting of men who live like women and women who live like men, describing them as a third and fourth gender and even granting them special social roles and functions. My confusion and moral disapproval was soon supplanted by curiosity.
I approached the trio and asked Mary to introduce me to the two warrior maidens and ask them if they would agree to have their pictures taken. The two prairie femmes were wary at first, not knowing what to make of my suggestion. I explained that I would like to paint them with light with the help of a little box which would only require them to sit or stand still for a couple of moments. This triggered a lively discussion among the two woman warriors that, as far as I could glean from Mary's translation attempts, seemed to revolve around concerns of having their soul trapped by my machine and more mundane things like a proper asking price. I dispelled their apprehensions to the best of my abilities and decided to lure them with coffee and sugar, two commodities in high demand by the savages. The two prairie belles turned out to be tough negotiators. When we finally had a deal, a large bag of coffee and another equally large bag of sugar had passed from Mr. Bent's storage room into the possession of the two women, paid by me for an outrageous price of roughly ten times the going rate on the streets of Westport.
Still, I was happy to have an agreement with the two exotic warriors and asked them into my makeshift studio. Once the women saw the camera, they became apprehensive again and I had to ease their shifting spirits with two cups of hot coffee with an ungodly dose of sugar. Finally, the one who was a little less savage looking than the other one, decided to rise to the challenge and took a seat in front of the camera. Things weren't made easier by the fact that the two women wouldn't allow themselves to be touched by me and thus it took some time until I had managed to instruct my model through signs of how to behave. The other one seemed to be standing guard close by as if some evil spirit would leap out of the camera any moment. Finally everything was in place and I started the first camera shot.
Then disaster stuck... At hindsight it would have helped a lot if I had known that the word "vé'ho'e" not only means "white man" in their idiom but also "spider". While my sitting model kept sitting still like a perfect statue, the other one started whispering the word again and again as if to warn me. In my ignorance I only thought that she was muttering to herself that she was standing next to a white man and dismissed her whispering as idle chatter. The sensation of the poisonous creature crawling up my trousers came thus as a total surprise and mortal shock to me. Thus it wasn't the behavior of my model that ruined the picture (as well as my clothes) - she kept sitting through the shot as if nothing had happened - but my panicked leaps, which took more space than I had. Behind me was the shelf with the full coffee pot, in front of me the camera with the easily breakable glass plate... Ah well, it could have been such a great picture...