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Thomas McKee, Photographer

Thomas Michael McKee was born in Scary Creek, West Virginia on March 17, 1854. When he was a baby, his parents traveled to Louisville, Kentucky by steamboat and from there took a stagecoach to Nashville, Tennessee, where the family remained for several years. During his boyhood, his leisure time was spent traveling throughout the South and painting landscapes along the way. He went to St. Louis to become a photographer's apprentice and later traveled to Texas to work as a railroad express messenger.

After a jaunt to Sitka, Alaska in 1887, Mr. McKee received a letter from family friend A. E. Buddecke, who owned an opera house in Montrose, Colorado. When learning the town had no photographic studios, he and his family moved again and settled in the small southwestern town. There, Mr. McKee had no shortage of subjects to photograph - the scenic valleys, the ranchers, the miners, and the Native Americans. Long fascinated with science, he experimented for oil shale and discovered their commercial potential. He also was one of the first scientists to employ uranium nitrates instead of gold and to use carnotite, a radioactive ore, as a source of light. Mr. McKee is also believed to be one of the first photographers to take X-ray pictures. In 1892, when the Rio Grande Southern Railroad began laying tracks in the Lost Canyon region between Dolores and Mancos, Mr. McKee resumed his earlier job as express messenger. This provided the amateur paleontologist with an opportunity to collect fossils well as to capture images with the wet-plate camera that was always by his side. Always the innovator, he also introduced the region to motion picture equipment, taking the first moving pictures of Western Colorado in 1895.

As the twentieth century dawned, Mr. McKee began concentrating on what had become his favorite photographic subjects - the Ute Indians. He befriended them, gained their trust, and then painstakingly documented their everyday lives. Mr. McKee became an authority on Ute culture and customs, and in an interview with a local newspaper, he admitted, "Probably I have a greater knowledge of the Ute Indians than any other man living and my experience comes from personal contact." After his wife Amanda died in 1919, Mr. McKee sought solace in his adopted Ute family, and became a close confidant to Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta. He photographed Chipeta standing in front of her Utah teepee in 1924, one year before her death. Thomas McKee died in 1939, and was buried next to his wife in his beloved Montrose. Many of his photographs and artifacts were donated to the state of Colorado and are now on display in Montrose's Ute Indian Museum.


Ref:
1991 Ancient American Indians: Their Origins, Civilizations & Old World Connections (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers and Distributors, Inc.), p. 124.

2013 Denver Public Library Digital Collections(URL: http://digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/search/searchterm/McKee,%20Thomas%20Michael,%201854-1939./mode/exact).

2003 Off the Beaten Path (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.), p. 51.

2010 Ouray (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing), p. 23.

1965 Photographers of the Frontier West: Their Lives and Works, 1875 to 1915 (Seattle, WA: Superior Publishing Company), pp. 11-13, 16.


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