Solomon D. Butcher
Sampling of his Photographs
This is the most requested image in the photograph collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society: Solomon D. Butcher's photograph of Sylvester Rawding and his family in front of their sod house north of Sargent, Nebraska, in Custer County. We call it the "Cow on the Roof."
Over the years several myths grew up about Sylvester Rawding and his family. Rawding claimed that the lump visible on his forehead in the photograph was a bullet that struck him while he was a Union soldier in the Civil War, and which had never been removed. Rawding also claimed that his stepson (the tallest of the three boys in the photograph) had evicted him from his farm and forced him to move to an old soldiers' home in Kansas. He told these stories to a newspaperman in 1897 and this account became the basis for later interpretations of this famous photograph.
Research in Civil War pension records and Nebraska newspapers revealed that neither of Rawding's tales was true. The lump on his head was a cyst or wen, while Rawding moved to the soldiers' home by his own choice after a disagreement with his stepson. The story of Sylvester Rawding's life, along with more information about the photograph, is found in James E. Potter's article, "A Cow on the Roof and a Bullet in the Head?" Nebraska History 84 (Spring 2003): 42-47.
See what digital technology has enabled us to learn about this well-known photograph.
In 1998 the Nebraska State Historical Society received an award from the Library of Congress and Ameritech to digitize the entire glass plate portion of the Butcher collection. This collection is now available online at American Memory.
Learn more about the American Memory Project
Read John E. Carter's book, Solomon D. Butcher, Photographing the American Dream, available from our Museum Store. Write to NSHS Store, Nebraska History Museum, P.O. Box 82554, Lincoln, NE 68501, for mail order, or just call the toll-free number, 800-833-6747. You'll get postage and handling information when you call.
The photograph depicted on the cover of the book is the James Pierce home.
Pierce had, as a youth, run away to sea. For twelve years he sailed the Pacific in pursuit of sperm whales. He abandoned sea life to take a homestead in Minnesota. Those efforts proved unsuccessful, and in 1880 Pierce moved to Custer County, Nebraska. He established the Somerford Post Office, named in honor of his English wife's hometown.
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