Mary Dudley and the Black Sisters, Boulder Photographers

Women in the 19th century had limited occupational opportunities.  Many unmarried women and widows struggled to earn a living and often relied on their extended family for financial support.  Some of the occupations open to women at the time included teaching, sewing, cooking, nursing, running boarding houses and photography.

brother & sister
Mary Dudley, photographer. Laura & Alfred Ellet, 1894-1895. Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder.


Mary Dudley, photographer. Unidentified McKenzie girl, 1894-95. Carnegie Library for Local History/Museum of Boulder.

Mary P. Dudley was born in Wapello County, Iowa, on December 23, 1859, to Charles  S. Dudley and Polly Angeline Dennison Dudley.  As early settlers in the area, the Dudley’s owned property in the city of Agency, Iowa, as well as more than 800 acres outside the city limits.  (The History of Wapello County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, … History of the Northwest, History of Iowa … Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1878, p. 611

According to the 1880 federal census, Mary taught school in Agency. In August of that year Mary’s father died, followed by her mother in 1888.   At least five of Mary’s nine siblings were also deceased by this time.

Mary’s whereabouts are unknown until 1893 when Colorado State Business Directory lists her as a photographer in Grand Junction, Colorado.  She relocated to Boulder in May 1894, purchasing C. W. Biles’ photography studio, over Rachofsky’s millinery store on Pearl St.  Miss Dudley specialized in studio portraiture.  Her advertisements in University of Colorado’s Silver and Gold (October 3, 1894, p. 12) offered  Minnettes ($1.00 per dozen) and Cabinettos ($1.50 per dozen), smaller card formats than the traditional cabinet card.   

horizontal image
Mary Dudley, photographer. E. W. Haskins and Royal Graham, 1895-96. Carnegie Library for Local History/Museum of Boulder.

In August 1895, Dudley hired Frank Oiler to assist her in the studio.  Oiler came highly recommended by Denver photographers F. A. Rinehart and Charles Nast.  In October, 1895, Miss Dudley sold her gallery to the Black Sisters and left for Ottumwa, Iowa, in an effort to regain her health.

Mary Dudley, photographer. Evan Austin, Elmo Maldon, Dan Fisher and Allen Volk, 1894-95. Carnegie Library for Local History/Museum of Boulder.

Sadly, Mary Dudley committed suicide in Agency, Iowa, on November 19, 1895, cutting herthroat with a butcher knife.  Miss Dudley was buried in Agency Cemetery, Agency, Iowa.


young boy in carriage
The Black Sisters, photographers. Richard H. Whiteley, 1892-1899. Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder.

Anna E. Black (1867-1931) and her sister, Mary “Minnie” C. Black (1872-1899) were born in Illinois to Cochran S. Black and Helen Gertrude Wyman Black.  The family moved to Beatrice, Nebraska, in the late 1870s, where Cochran operated a flour mill.                               

Allen with microscope
Black Sisters, photographers. Dr. Henly Wheaton Allen seated at a table with a microscope.  December 24,  1897, Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder.

Anna studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Boulder in September 1895.  She planed to teach oil and china painting, but shortly after she arrived in town, Anna and her sister Minnie purchased Mary Dudley’s photography studio.  The Black Sisters excelled at portraiture.   They maintained their studio until 1898, then both sisters returned to Beatrice, Nebraska. Minnie died the following year.  I have not found any records about Anna’s life in Nebraska.

Woman and baby
Black Sisters, photographers. Unidentified woman and child. Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder.









To see more photographs by Mary Dudley and the Black Sisters, you can search here.   I recommend using a broad search on “Dudley” and “Black Sisters.”

Special thanks to Barbara Buchman and Sarah Vlasity at Boulder’s Carnegie Library for Local History, Stephanie Fletcher, Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, The Art Institute of Chicago and Beverly Brannan, recently retired photography curator, Library of Congress.

John C. H. Grabill Captures the End of the Wild West

John C. H. Grabill, photographer. “Little,” the instigator of Indian Revolt at Pine Ridge, 1890, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LOT 3076-2, no. 3607.

Many 19th century photographers combined their careers with mining activities, moving West with the dream of finding gold.  John C. H. Grabill (c.1850-1903) followed this pattern.  Grabill was born around  1850 at Donnelsville, Ohio, to David and Catharine Kee Grabill.   One decade later, the census shows the Grabills living in Champagne, Illinois.

By late 1880 John Grabill was mining near Aspen, Colorado, later expanding his holdings to mines in Chaffee and Gunnison counties.  He purchased an assaying outfit from Chicago that allowed him to distinguish the properties and value of his finds.  Grabill opened an assay office in Buena Vista, Colorado, that was known as one of the best in the state (Buena Vista Democrat, March 15, 1883, p3, c3).  A fire on March 9, 1883, likely caused by a defective flue, destroyed  the entire business block that housed Grabill’s office  (Gunnison Review-Press,  March 9, 1883, p1, c2).  Later that month he opened a new brick office, continuing to offer his indispensable services to the miners.  He also provided electroplating services for cutlery and jewelry.

Mining Exchange
J. C. H. Grabill’s Mining Exchange and photograph gallery, 1886, Buena Vista, Colorado, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LOT 3076-6, no. 1449.

In December 1885 Grabill announced that he would open a photography studio in Buena Vista, Colorado.  The studio, located on San Juan Avenue, opened in March 1886, next door to his assay office.  One of his early photos shows both of his businesses (see left).  

Grabill moved his studio to the wild west town of Sturgis, Dakota Territory, in the fall of 1886.  His photographs capture the day-to-day life of the area– a street crowded with ox teams and rounding up cattle on the Belle Fourche River.  In 1888, Grabill added another studio, about fifteen miles west of Sturgis in Deadwood, splitting his time between the two locations.  The new studio was an elegant space in the Nye building, at the corner of Gold and Main streets.   He photographed historical landmarks, such as the famous Deadwood Stage Coach’s last trip before being superseded by the railway, the recently completed Deadwood Central Railroad, and Deadwood’s July 4th celebration.

Deadwood’s holiday festivities included events for the Chinese immigrants who came to the city in the mid-1870s in numbers large enough to form their own Chinatown neighborhood.  The immigrants supported the town’s mining industry, running businesses like restaurants and laundries.  Two Chinese fire hose teams, both from Deadwood,  competed in the world’s first Hub-and-Hub race by Chinese teams.  The teams, outfitted in fancy uniforms,  ran a 300-yard dash, pulling their equipment.  The  team under the direction of Hi Kee, a Chinatown merchant, was the first to couple their hoses and pump water, winning the contest.  This race was followed by eight White hose teams with a purse of $500.00

Hose Team
John C. H. Grabill, photographer. Hose team. The champion Chinese Hose Team of America, who won the great Hub-and-Hub race at Deadwood, Dak., July 4th, 1888, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LOT 3076-18, no. 1204.

In the early 1890s, Grabill produced extensive documentation of Native Americans, including views made at Pine Ridge in January 1891, just weeks  after the Battle of Wounded Knee and the death of Sitting Bull.  

Grabill incorporated The Grabill Portrait and View Company in 1891 with studios planned for Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Omaha  (The Black Hills Daily Times, April 4, 1891, p4, c5).  But the company was soon bankrupt and Grabill’s pictures were auctioned off to cover a $340.43 debt (The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times,  March 8, 1892, p3, c2).  The firm of Locke & McBride took over Grabill’s Deadwood studio. 

In 1901, Grabill lived in St. Louis and worked as a salesman for a mining supply company.  His mental health deteriorated and by early 1903 he was a resident at the St. Louis City Insane Asylum.  Grabill died there on August 23, 1903.  He is buried at Saint Matthew Cemetery in St. Louis.

Devils Tower
John C. H. Grabill, photographer. Devil’s Tower or Bear Lodge (Mato [i.e. Mateo] Tepee of the Indians), on the Belle Fourche, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LOT 3076-14, no. 343.
Grabill submitted more than 180 photographs for copyright protection to the Library of Congress.  In addition to his photographs, perhaps Grabill’s lasting legacy is his work to protect Devil’s Tower in northeastern Wyoming.  He collected signatures for a petition asking congress to establish Devil’s Tower as a National Landmark  (The Sundance Gazette,  November 7, 1890, p1, c3). Unfortunately, Grabill died a few years before the creation of the park in 1906.




The Library of Congress collection of Grabill photographs.

Additional biographical information: