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  Lee Moorhouse, Photographer

Thomas Leander "Lee" Moorhouse was born to Thomas and Augusta Nodurf Moorhouse on February 28, 1850 in Marion County, Iowa. Born to an English father and a German mother, the struggling family (that included ten children) moved by ox wagon to the Pacific Northwest, near Pendleton, Oregon. For a time, young Lee lived with Henry Bowman and his family, former Iowa neighbors who were more established within the community. The senior Bowman worked as a miller for the Umatilla Reservation, which was the Moorhouse lad’s first introduction to the Native American culture. It is also believed he learned about photography from a Bowman cousin, successful Pendleton photographer Walter S. Bowman. At 15, Lee set out for Idaho with an older brother to prospect for gold; when they were unsuccessful, the duo headed north to Canada for a few unproductive years.

Still a teenager, he returned home and entered the Whitman Seminary in Walla Walla, Washington. The next restless years were spent as a frontiersman and surveyor. Mr. Moorhouse married Sarah Ella Willis on September 5, 1876, and settled in Umatilla Landing. The couple would later have four children – three daughters and a son. Mr. Moorhouse was appointed field secretary to Oregon governor Stephen F. Chadwick during the Bannock-Paiute War of 1878, and later served for four years as an assistant general of the Oregon State Militia’s third brigade under Governor William Wallace Thayer. He acquired the rank of ‘major,’ and was thereafter referred to as Major Moorhouse.

After returning to the business sector in various capacities, including selling insurance, and served for a time as Pendleton’s mayor, Major Moorhouse resumed his interest in photography, teaching himself to master Richard Leach Maddox’s dry-plate method. Even though he considered himself an amateur, he became actively involved in industry organizations, even serving as president of the Pendleton Camera club for many years. Photographing the area and people around him was quite a daunting task at the time. His outdoor studio was a horse-drawn buggy, and transporting a large-format dry-plate folding camera and tripod were extremely cumbersome. However, dry plates did not require the use of flammable chemicals, and allowed the field images to be stored successfully for several months. To his surprise, Major Moorhouse discovered that camera-shy Umatilla and Cayuse tribes were not as intimidated by a large-format camera as they were by a pocket Kodak. They were, in fact, intrigued. He earned their trust by respecting their customs and not interrupting their daily lives. His candid shots of crying Cayuse twins clearly demonstrate his mastery of the medium. Major Moorhouse’s photographs were frequently sold as postcards and often used to illustrate local historical texts. By the early twentieth century, he was affectionately referred to as “Mr. Photographer of the Pacific Northwest.”

Sixty-five-year-old Thomas Leander Moorhouse died at his Pendleton home on June 1, 1926 after a one-month illness. The Pendleton East Oregonian lauded the Major as one of Umatilla County’s “best known and loved pioneers.” He left behind many Native American artifacts, which are featured in Pendleton’s Vert Museum. Major Moorhouse amassed some 10,000 glass negatives from 1890 to 1925. Some of his photographs are part of the Maryhill Museum’s Native American collection in Goldendale, WA. More than 6,000 glass-plate negatives attributed to Major Moorhouse can be found at the University of Oregon in Eugene. It should be noted that the Major purchased negatives from other regional photographers during his lifetime, and affixed his own name to them. The process of identification is a coordinated effort between the University and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and remains ongoing.

2003 Early Photographer Preserved Area History by Bob Grant (URL:

2019 Lee Moorhouse, Photographer (URL:

2013 Lee Moorhouse Photographs, 1880-1920 (URL:

2019 Lee Moorhouse photographs, 1888-1925 (URL:
1906 Metropolitan Magazine, Vol. XXIV (New York: Harper & Brothers), pp. 359-375.

2009 The Oregon Companion by Richard H. Engeman (Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc.), pp. 253-254.

1899 Oregon Native Son and Historical Magazine, Vol. I (Portland, OR: Native Son Publishing Co.), pp. 577-579.

2014 Pendleton by Elizabeth Gibson (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing), p. 42

2005 Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915 by Steven L. Grafe (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press), pp. 4-6, 29-30, 31-32.

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2020-05-14 17:51:47

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