Frederick Monsen

(Last Updated On October 17, 2021)

Frederick Monsen was born in Norway in 1865. Sources differ as to when his family immigrated to Utah, but they agree that it was when Frederick was still young. He was a professional artist, topographer, writer and photographer. He joined the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1880s, and accompanied the Army during the Apache campaign that ended with the capture of Geronimo in 1886. From 1886 through 1911 he traveled throught the southwestern United States often living with Native Americans and photographing their lives. Monsen wrote, “Only to be among these Indians, to hear them talk and to observe their treatment of one another and of the casual stranger that is within their gates, is to have forced upon one, the realization, that here is the unspoiled remnant of a great race, a race of men who have, from time immemorial, lived quiet, sane, wholesome lives, very close to nature.” Three of his photographs have been posted in Pigtails here.

Frederick Monsen; “Dr. Monsen and Indian Children of Yuma Tribe, Colorado River, Arizona”; ca. 1900; Toned gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; P1991.12.3

Other prominent photographers that documented the traditional Indian life of that time were Charles Lummis, Kate Cory, and Edward Curtis. Monsen differed from his contemporaries in that he included far more images of children, especially girls, in his work. The photo of the girl and her dog was labeled on the back by Monsen, “Hopiland. Arizona. Hopi children are most attractive. One wonders why it is that Indian children are so much more tractable and kindly disposed than white children. This is perhaps due to the attitude of the parents who never speak harshly to the little ones. Children are never punished and yet are most obedient youngsters.”

Frederick Monsen – Popomana, Hopi maiden of Shongopovi (c1890)

Another difference between Monsen and his contemporaries is that Monsen did not go out of his way to avoid nudity. Monsen wrote on the tag for A Study in Bronze, posted here, “Hopiland. Arizona. When Dr. Monsen first visited the Hopi Indians (1886), very few clothes were in evidence. Fully developed girls were often seen wandering about the pueblos or engaged in household duties without a stitch of anything to cover their nakedness. They attracted no attention from the male members of the community, and not until clothing was insisted upon by the missionaries was there any lapse from the tribal laws of morality. Photograph. A Study in Bronze.”

Frederick Monsen – Hopi Baby, First Mesa, Arizona (c1890)

Frederick Monsen – Hopi Baby from the Pueblo of Oraibi (c1890)

He wrote on the tag for the photograph here “Hopi maidens of Walpi, Arizona. During the summer months no clothing is necessary or required and the children enjoy great freedom. Unless missionaries are in evidence, the children until they are 10 or 12 years old run about naked.” Another print of the same photo was labeled by Monsen as Sichomovi instead of Walpi. Both are Hopi Pueblos. The Hopi live on a reservation in Arizona, in homes traditionally built of stone. They speak an Uto-Aztecan language. The following two photos show girls dressed for cool weather and with the elaborate hair style that is typical of the Hopi.

Frederick Monsen – Popomana (Gray Butterfly), Hopi Maiden (c1890)

Frederick Monsen – Hair Styling (c1890)

The next five photographs are Hopi girls from various pueblos. Yeshima was from Oraibi Pueblo, Arizona, which claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. Acoma, New Mexico disputes that claim. Both Oraibi and Acoma have been inhabited at least as far back as the twelfth century.

Frederick Monsen – Hopi Children of the Pueblo of Walpi (c1890)

Frederick Monsen – Hopi Girl, Pueblo of Mishongnovi (c1890)

Frederick Monsen – Portrait of Young Hopi Girl Called Little Blue Butterfly (c1890)

Frederick Monsen – The Daughter of the Chief, Loluloma, Shoshongnovi (c1890)

Frederick Monsen – Yeshima, Young Girl of the Pueblo of Oraibi (c1890)

Talimka and Yalatza lived in Hano Pueblo, which is on the Hopi reservation and associated with the Hopi Tribe, but the people there are ethnically Tewa. Hano people are presently trilingual; they speak their native Tewa dialect, similar to the language of some tribes in New Mexico. They also speak Hopi and English.

Frederick Monsen – Talimka and Yalatza, Sisters Pueblo of Hano (c1890)

The three girls standing on the sand were from Acoma, New Mexico. Monsen labeled the photograph as follows: “Acoma, New Mexico. A pueblo of the Keresan family of Indians situated on a rock mesa 357 high about 60 miles west of the Rio Grande river. At the time the picture was made (1887) the young girls were often seen naked, in fact very little clothing was worn by any of the Acomas.” Most of Monsen’s photos are labeled with only a few words describing what was photographed and where. A few have more comments, but even those do not usually have dates. This is one of the few Monsen photos that can definitely be attributed to a particular year. The year, 1887, was early in Monsen’s Indian photography experience.

Frederick Monsen – Three Young Acoma Indian Girls Standing Together on the Sand (1887)

Early in the twentieth century, the book With Kodak in the Land of the Navajo was written and illustrated by Frederick Monsen, and published by the Eastman Kodak Company. The book can be considered an advertisement for Kodak. Monsen writes of the difficulties in using the old tripod mounted cameras with fragile glass negatives. Long exposure times required unnatural poses. Indians who had never seen a camera were intimidated by what appeared to them to be some kind of weapon. Monsen wrote, ” It was early in my experience that I realized how utterly all photographs failed to show the Indian as he really was. … because it was impossible to make anything else with the photographic apparatus of that day.” Then Monsen started using small Kodak cameras and he was able to take much better pictures, in his estimation. You can compare the photo of the three Acoma girls taken in 1887 with the photos of Mojave children, taken circa 1911, and see if you agree.

The next three photos are of girls of the New Mexico Pueblo tribes.

Frederick Monsen – Acoma Children at Home (c1887)

Frederick Monsen – The Daughter of the Governor of Isleta (c1900)

Frederick Monsen – Young girls of Isleta Indian Pueblo (c1900)

The next two photos are of girls of the Navajo and Zuni tribes. It’s amazing that Yanaba could have the skill to weave rugs at only five years of age.

Frederick Monsen – Yanaba, Five-Year-Old Navajo Blanket Weaver (c1900)

Frederick Monsen – Zuni Girl Mothering Little Sister (c1900)

The last three photos are some of Monsen’s latest work among Indians. They are photos taken in the area where the Colorado River forms the border between California and Arizona. Other photos from this area show girls with long hair and boys with shorter hair. In the photo Mojave Indian Children on the Banks of the Colorado River in Arizona I believe the smaller of the two sitting children is a boy, and the other two are girls. I believe that both children in Mojave Indians, California are girls. The surviving Monsen photographs are apparently those used in his public lectures or books, most of which had subjects posed discretely so their sex was often not obvious.

Frederick Monsen – Mojave Indian Children on the Banks of the Colorado River in Arizona (c1910)

Frederick Monsen – Mojave Indians, California (1911)

Frederick Monsen – Yuma Indian Girl (c1910)

All of Monsen’s original photographs taken prior to 1906 were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. Fortunately, prints of some of the photographs were in collections outside of San Francisco, and these have survived.

6 thoughts on “Frederick Monsen

  1. P.S. A linguistic note:
    It is interesting that children who are no longer babies are being referred to as babies.
    I wonder if it indicates a shift in the language over the intervening time, or whether it was just that Monsen, being not a native speaker of English, was using the word in that way.

    • Thanks for the comments. Monsen seems to be very fluent in English, but his Hopi “babies” appear to be about the same age as his Acoma “children”.

  2. Isn’t it sad that those missionaries had the desire to impose Christian “decency” upon those happy, naked children, and that they had the capability of doing so?

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