You don’t have to know anything about history to enjoy old photos. But once you start looking at them, you will learn a lot about history whether you want to or not. And you’ll love it.
I did. I do. I didn’t care a twig about history until I started working for this company. But I was hooked from our first photo. The stories behind the images are irresistible. Here are two of the people I met in the collection.
Tom Torlino, Navajo Man
One of the first photos to grab me was a late 1800s photo of a Navajo teen named Tom Torlino. He was a beautiful kid with an aquiline nose set between high cheekbones and somber, dark eyes. He looked proud and strong. His hair was long, well below his shoulders. His jewelry was vintage Navajo: gorgeous, chunky emblems on a silver chain around his neck, large silver hoop earrings in his ears.
I was struck by his wild good looks, only to be stunned by what happened next. The photos above were taken by photographer John N. Choate, soon after Tom arrived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This school originated during an era when the founder of the school, Colonel R. H. Pratt, had decided that the best way to help the American Indian children of the West was to haul tens of thousands of them east and give them a proper schooling, dress them in non-native garb, and make sure they spoke English. Choate was hired to document these children’s “progress” as school personnel attempted to make them over.
This “before” photo (left) of Tom Torlino, Navajo man, in all his glory, was taken when he arrived at the Carlisle Indian School, as it was mostly called, in 1882. Within a short time, there was a new version of Tom Torlino. The “after” photo (right) will make you weep. Tom’s hair was shorn to meet the military standard of the day—not a buzz cut but short enough and flat to his head. In the days that followed, he was made to wear Eastern clothing, forbidden to speak his native Navajo language, and schooled in the subjects of the day, which included baking, blacksmithing, and carpentry. Soon, little remained of the proud Navajo teen who had entered the school.
The Buckley Sisters, Montana Cowgirls
The Buckley sisters—Mabel, May, and Myrtle—were known throughout Montana as the “Red Yearlings” because of their reddish-blond hair and their exceptional horsemanship. The girls were practically born in the saddle and soon had skills to equal those of any seasoned cowboy. They lived on a large ranch and could ride, rope, brand, and break broncs with the best of them.
The photo here was taken by famed photographer Evelyn J. Cameron, who lived nearby. It shows the trio sitting astride their horses in “slit skirts” or dresses that somehow accommodated this position. Quite a break from the female tradition of sidesaddle riding! The first time the Buckley sisters rode through Miles City, Montana, in these culottes-style outfits, they were threatened with arrest for indecency. I’d like to report that they continued to resist public opinion, but after the scandal flared, the girls settled down, mostly wore dresses in public, and donned their slit skirts in private on their working ranch.
As competent as the sisters were on horseback, as much as they became public figures, they turned down all offers to become superstars. They refused insistent Wild West Show invitations and never competed in a rodeo as far as we know. Their wildest claim to a fame that never really happened was an invitation by Teddy Roosevelt to perform at the White House. They turned him down flat, more’s the pity. The White House could’ve used a dash of high spirit and feminine verve!
Depth of Field
The photo of Tom Torlino awakens all sorts of emotion when you know his story. It makes you wonder who those people were back then, with the arrogance to go to such lengths to white-wash these unsuspecting natives of their culture. In a twisted way, they meant well, but the outcome was still tragic. This wasn’t so long after the Indian Wars, so sentiment was irrational in many quarters. I had the opportunity to speak to Tom Torlino’s great-great-great-grandson some years ago and hoped that he felt he was living in better times today.
I would like to have met the Buckley Sisters, back then or now, for the pure pleasure of experiencing their feisty essence. The sisters had the spirit of resistance long before the feminist movement was a sparkle in anyone’s eyes. And they are a fine example of how oddly connected the world was then, that a US president met them out in the way west wilderness and was so taken by the sisters that he invited them to Washington DC.