A Cow on the Roof and a Bullet in the Head


NSHS RG2608-1784

Solomon Butcher’s 1886 cow-on-the-roof photo is one of the best known and most iconic images of homesteading on the Great Plains. Butcher photographed Sylvester Rawding’s family in front of their sod house near West Union, Custer County, Nebraska.

Butcher eventually sold his glass plate negatives to the Nebraska State Historical Society. You can see digital scans of the photos at the “Prairie Settlement” page of the Library of Congress website.

In “A Cow on the Roof and a Bullet in the Head” (Nebraska History, Spring 2003), NSHS Senior Research Historian James E. Potter shows how digital technology has revealed details in the photo that weren’t visible using traditional photo technology.

RG2608-1784 cow

For example, it's more clear that the cow isn’t actually standing on the roof, but on a hill just behind the soddy.

RG2608-1784 doorway

And by adjusting brightness and contrast, we can see through the soddy’s darkened doorway into the whitewashed interior.

RG2608-1784 Sylvester

Traditional archival research led to other discoveries. Notice the lump above Sylvester Rawding’s eye. Rawding claimed it was a Civil War bullet lodged in his forehead. He also said that in 1897, his “unfeeling stepson” Harry (the tallest boy in the photo) returned home and threw him off the farm. Disabled from his war wounds, Sylvester had to live at the Leavenworth soldiers’ home. But Potter’s research shows that Sylvester’s story was not the whole truth. The complete article is available as a PDF at the above link.

—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research & Publications

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One Response to A Cow on the Roof and a Bullet in the Head

  1. Judy Shutts says:

    This is a fascinating story and a good example of excellent genealogy research.

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