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Driven by his passion for exploring and photographing new landscapes in America, Aaron B. Craycraft became a local expert in the scenery around Santa Fe, New Mexico during the early 1900’s. He often went alone, discovering Pueblo ruins and taking pictures of abandoned holy sites to share with the public. His photographs were published by archeologists in their academic papers, by city officials to promote tourism and displayed in exhibits for the local community. Craycraft’ s work was a huge influencer, most notably, in aiding the creation of Bandelier National Monument.

The Native Americans inhabited northern New Mexico for over 2,500 years. Their earliest permanent settlements are called pueblos, multi-story apartments made out of rock, mud and straw. The topography of northern New Mexico is one of mountains, mesas, and canyons made for a great place for small and large villages to be built and populations to thrive. Ancient cities are tangible things, people are constantly moving in or out of them, whether permanently or seasonally for religious festivals and for food resources. AB took regular trips into the hills, canyons, and mountains to photograph and many times, finding ancient sites and artifacts.

Craycraft heard of a place of unusual stones formation called the stone lions, a shrine of the Yapashi Pueblo Indians. The Shine drew Zuni Indian pilgrimages to the site for many years. Carved on an outcrop, two crouching lions, 6’long and 2’high, guard the entrance to a site believed to be the dwelling place of a supernatural being.

AB hired an Indian guide to take him to the spot. After walking for several hours, the guide claimed to be lost so they decided to camp. AB rose early the next morning to set out on his own and to the disappointment of the guide, he found the ruins. The guide burned some sage as an offering for forgiveness to the gods before they left. [i] Aaron was the first person to photograph these stones which are now part of Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier was designated as a natural monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The monument is named after an anthropologist Adolph Bandelier who explored, researched and advocated the perseveration of the Pueblo culture during the late 1800’s.

So, how did this son of a farmer in Indiana get to New Mexico? The answer is not straight forward but it is interesting. Aaron B. Craycraft was born in Monroe Township, Washington County, Indian in 1842 to Elkana Cracraft and Elizabeth Rice. Elkana was a prosperous farmer who was born in Kentucky and died in 1864 in Iowa. Elkana moved to Indiana with his parents, Reuben Cracraft and Malinda Watson. Reuben was born in Hampshire County, Virginia in 1774. His parents were Thomas Cracraft and Rebecca Mann. Thomas was born in Hampshire County, Virginia and died in Mason County Kentucky. Thomas’ parents were Joseph Cracraft and Nancy Stanton, the patriarch of most of the Craycraft’s in the United States. We don’t know where Joseph was born but we know he lived in Maryland and died in Hampshire County, Virginia. Aaron’s ancestral history is each generation moving west and finding better opportunities.

Most men born in the 1840’s participated in the United States Civil War. No military records have been found with Aaron B. Craycraft, except that he was eligible for military service. However, a lot was happening in the United States during Aaron’s formulative years. The industrial revolution was gaining momentum with the invention of many machines to help with farming, the growth of the railroad to transport people and goods, the gold rush in California and the biggest impact on the country was the war.

Another industry, although not quite as big as those mentioned, which mushroomed was photography. The war created a huge demand for a keepsake of family members heading into battle. Portraits were very popular. The process of taking early photographs was not easy. The cameras used wet plates which was a process that produced a negative on heavy glass. The glass plates were then carried to a dark room to create an image while it was still wet. Cameras were big and heavy, not easy to lug around and using wet plates meant bringing a dark room with you. During the war, photographs of landscape used for maps, of bridges and eventually of battlefields were important for the military on both sides. Photographers were in demand; a new career was flourishing. The dry plate came into use in the 1870’s allowing the negative be developed when convenient. When film was invented in the 1880’s, the size of cameras got smaller.

Try to imagine not knowing what a snow-capped mountain or waves breaking on a beach looked like because you had never seen them. The only manner to see these was from your imagination while reading a description in a book or seeing a sketch, drawing or a painting made by artists who would travel town to town to exhibit and sell their work. Photography made faraway places become familiar. This opened a whole new avenue to see the world and people were willing to pay.

AB was living with his parents in the 1850 and 1860 census in Jefferson Township, Washington County, Indiana. His parents bought 300 acres in Tama County, Iowa and moved there in 1861. He is listed in Toledo, Tama County, Iowa as being 19 years old and eligible for military service.[ii] This list was compiled from tax lists of the county. AB must have learned the photography trade and started his career before he married Judianna Major on January 27, 1870 in Coles County, Illinois.[iii]

They moved to Vincennes, Knox County, Illinois. A photograph of his from this time period survives. It is a stereograph. To view one of these a person looks into a stereoscope to see two almost identical photographs to create a 3-D view. Stereographs brought the photo alive and became a commercial success. The photo below is the burial of Bishop Jacques-Maurice De Saint Palais the fourth bishop of Vincennes. This was a big event in Vincennes, it was taken in June 1877.

The 1880 Federal U.S. census of Vincennes, Illinois shows Aaron is 34 years old and is a photographer. Anna, 32, is living with him as well as their nine-year-old son, William H. Soon after 1880, they moved 100 miles north to Mattoon, Illinois. In 1884 AB is elected to an office in the Masonic Palestine Lodge IN 46 K of P. [v]

The 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire at the National Archives in 1921, so we don’t know where the Craycrafts were living then. The 1900 Federal Census lists Anna Craycraft living with her sister in Mattoon, Illinois. Where was AB in 1900? Here is where AB’s life gets interesting, the following article is from the Mattoon Daily Journal - 19 Aug 1903 - Page 1


Mrs. Anna Craycraft succumbed to the inevitable.


In Regard to the Disappearance and Wanderings of her husband A. B. Craycraft

Mrs. Anna Craycraft died this morning at the home of her sister, Miss May Major, 1504 Marshall Ave, after a lingering illness. The deceased had been an invalid for the past two years, but had been confined to her bed only during the past two weeks. Dropsy was the immediate cause of her death. The funeral services will be held tomorrow afternoon at the Major residence on Marshall Avenue.

The deceased was about 55 years of age, and had been a resident of this city for a number of years. Her husband, A.B. Craycraft, was a photographer in this city, but later went to Paris where he engaged in the same business.

Suddenly Disappeared

There is quite a little story connected with Mr. Craycraft, who shortly after going to Paris, disappeared from that place. Mrs. Craycraft came to Mattoon to visit relatives and about a week after her arrival, she received a letter from friends saying that her husband had locked up his gallery and suddenly left town, leaving no address. This was about three years ago. Several weeks after Craycraft’s disappearance someone knocked at the door of the Major residence in this city and Mrs. Craycraft answered the summons. She was startled to see her husband at the door, his appearance indicating that he had been a wanderer and seemed to be of unsound mind. He reached out his hand to her, and she was so overcome that she fainted. Her sister came to her assistance, and when Mrs. Craycraft was brought back to consciousness, her husband had disappeared, after setting his valise on the floor. A search was made for the missing man, but from that date nothing was ever seen of him.

Last April, however, Mrs. Craycraft received a letter from her husband, who stated that he was then in New Mexico, and was with a party of government surveyors. He said he had gone to southern Kansas when he left Mattoon three years ago, and there had joined a crowd of cowboys, driving a herd of cattle across the country into Canada. He afterwards joined a gang of government surveyors and was still with them in New Mexico. He was notified by wire yesterday of the serious condition of his wife, but nothing has yet been heard from him.

The Family

Mrs. Craycraft has only one child, Will Craycraft, who formerly acted as book-keeper at Sommer’s clothing store in this city. She is a sister of Mrs. Grace Sumerlin, Mrs. Jennie Gibler, Miss May Major and W.L. Major of this city and Mrs. Dr. Page of Champaign, John Major of Englewood and Mrs. T. H. Heermans of Chicago.

The information in the proceeding article probably came from May Major, Anna’s sister. Maybe everything, or parts of it is true or not, possibly, it is what Anna told her sister when she moved in with her. Perhaps, Aaron discovered an opportunity in New Mexico and Anna, because of her delicate health or other reasons chose not to go. New Mexico was part of the wild west; a territory that was not part of the Union. It was a territory that was under Spanish rule for 300 years; it would have similar to living in a foreign country. Newspapers ran stories of it being a place where outlaws, gamblers and horse thieves hid. After establishing his business in Santa Fe, Aaron may have come back to get her and she did not want to go. Their son, William, at this time was married and living with his wife, Elva and daughter Evelyn in Mattoon, ILL.

What we do know is AB was in New Mexico working as a government surveyor. He had an attack of mountain fever causing him to relocate to Medicine Lodge, Kansas where bought a photography studio.[vi] One year later he moved back to Santa Fe having being commissioned by the US Department of Interior to look at some U.S. timber land being unlawfully cut.[vii] AB rented a studio located on prime real estate in Santa Fe by 1904[viii], first on the west side of the town plaza and later on the southeast corner. His studio hosted a gallery of his work including photographs of cliff dwellings, Indian dances and ceremonies, varies pueblos, Spanish missions and churches. He became friends with a well-known archaeologist and anthropologist whose expertise was on native communities of New Mexico, Edgar Lee Hewett. Hewett worked for years to get government help to preserve ruins and with his advocacy the Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed. This act authorized the establishment by the executive branch of national monuments.

An article in the Marion Daily Mirror (Marion, Ohio) October 4, 1907 details excavation findings in Pajarito Plateau by the director of American Archeology in the Archaeological Institute of America, Edgar Lee Hewett. It also mentions A.B. Craycraft discovered two great stone idols carved in an almost inaccessible spot in a cliff.

The Aug 9, 1905 Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper article follows:

AB Craycraft returned from a trip from the Stone Lions of Cochiti and Painted Caves 30 miles west of Santa Fe. AB found Pueblo ruins larger than the Puye which have not been mapped nor explored. Edgar Hewett an ethnological institute plans to explore the Puye which has at least 1200 rooms. Located 30 miles north of Santa Fe has not been touched by vandals so should have lots of relics to be found and should be a great tourist attraction. AB found the largest cedar tree in Puye in a water basin, the tree measured 5’ diameter.

Hewett asked Craycraft to show him the ruins and stated interest in building a road to the Pajarito Cliff Dwellings. Hewitt thought a road would give Santa Fe another scenic place to visit. Convict labor could be used to build the road and the cost paid back to the city within a year with the added tourist travel.

Craycraft was a member of the Santa Fe Archaeological Society and during a meeting in 1906 the group took a vote and agreed to buy a stereopticon for illustrating lectures on the cliff dwellings.[ix] This machine is an old fashion slide projector to display photographs. No doubt that this purchase was to use Craycraft’s photos to advocate preserving the heritage of the area.

Professor Hewett on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America spoke to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1907 about the many archaeological findings in the western part of the continent from Alaska to Panama. His lecture included many photographs and those taken around Santa Fe, New Mexico which were made by A.B. Craycraft. The purpose of the talk was not only informative but also to create interest in financial support for a centrally located school in Santa Fe with a library and museum. After the presentation, President Roosevelt told Dr. Hewitt he was fascinated with his research and showed interest in visiting cliff dwellings. Craycraft was part of a committee including several judges who met with the territorial governor Hagerman, to discuss plans for a school.[x]

A huge interest in archaeology in the western territories was generated from newspaper articles in every metropolitan area. Americans were fascinated by the cultural heritage of natives. Articles published in scientific journals, various magazines and newspapers attracted people and artists early in the 20th century to Santa Fe and the population grew. The local archeology society decided to charge for tours to the cliff dwelling under the supervision of A.B. Craycraft. Prices were $5.00 a day - $10.00 round trip. Passengers were required to take their own bedding.[xi] Reviews from these tours stated A.B. was an interesting talker on historical and archeological subjects in New Mexico. Later Hewett suggested to the local Archeological Society to make trails to the cliff dwellings and other interesting areas to make them more accessible. Money was raised and a contractor was hired to follow the suggestions of make trails to the ruins.

This area is on the Pajarito Plateau which was created from volcanic eruptions about 1.6 million years ago. Over the years wind and water erosion wore away rock layers and created an entanglement of canyons and mesas in a very large area from the Jimenez mountains down to the Rio Grande River. Pinion, pine, and juniper trees grow in dense forests as well as on the edges of steep rock. Mule deer, cayote, raptors and rattle snakes thrive. Getting to these remote places was not easy either by horseback or hiking. Some canyons are 800 feet deep and wide enough for only one person to enter. This made a good place for native Indians to build dwellings, they were well protected. During one trip, AB drank some stagnate water and became very ill, enough to be hospitalized for almost 2 weeks.

He was not only looking for interesting topography to photograph, he also found large veins of gold, silver and a 30-foot-wide vein of copper.[xii] A.B. made claim of part of Maud M, a mining property which was part of a box canyon north east of Santa Fe on the Tesuque River. He hired another mining company, Corbett and Collins, to determine the proportions of the metals. Their findings stated, his was a valuable claim.[xiii] He then hired a small group of miners to develop the find but his money ran out. It took 3 years but he found an investor from New York and one from Chicago to hire the manpower to extract the minerals.

When he was not exploring the landscape, conducting tours and taking portraits, A. B. worked for the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. The first photographs to appear in newspapers were engravings. The saying a picture is worth 1,000 words became the truism that increased the sales of newspapers. A.B. photographed human interest stories for the newspaper about dignitaries, business openings, even winners of fishing contests on the Rio Grande River.

In December 1907 an early morning fire destroyed the corner two story building of the Santa Fe Plaza. At one point the fire was so large, the firemen believed a large portion of the business district of the city was in danger. Four businessmen who assisted in the fire were on the second story when the building caved in. The men escaped with their lives. Besides A. B. Craycraft’ s photography studio, Monarch Grocery Company, Art Shop, a butcher shop and law office was destroyed. Loss was estimated at $30,000.[xiv]

AB is listed at a widower in the 1910 census, living in Ward 3 in Santa Fe, NM. He is a photographer and is renting.

OBITUARY August 22, 1918


The funeral of A. B. Craycraft, pioneer photographer of the southwest, who died of a complication of troubles yesterday morning at a hospital here, will take place at 2 PM Saturday. The services will be held at C. A. Rising’s chapel, Upper Palace Ave. the Rev. J.W. Hamblin, pastor of the First Presbyterian church, officiating. Interment will be in Fairview cemetery. Undertaker C.A Rising has charge of the funeral arrangements.

The news of the death of Mr. Craycraft came as a shock to his many friends in this city who had known that the veteran photographer was in poor health but had not been informed that he was desperately ill.

Mr. Craycraft has been failing in health since last winter, but up to a few months ago he was able to travel around the country taking pictures, and also able to manage his photographic studio here. His friends today declared that it was the early morning blaze last winter in the Lamy block, northwest corner of the Plaza, where the photographer had his office and sleeping apartment that led Mr. Craycraft final breakdown in health. The shock of being awakened by the fire and the disappointment following the loss of much of his office equipment, told on the old man, who never was quite the same after the disaster.

Native of Illinois

Mr. Craycraft was regarded by Santa Feans as a man who desired to lead the life of a recluse. A few of the old timers like Abe Spiegelberg, who are supposed to know the history of most of the pioneers who resided in Santa Fe declared today that they knew little or nothing concerning the early life of Mr. Craycraft.

As far as can be ascertained Mr. Craycraft was a native of Macomb, ILL and it is reported that he was nearly 70 years of age at the time of his death. He was unmarried. A brother, John Craycraft and a niece, Miss Evelyn Craycraft reside in Chicago, but were unable to come here for the funeral.

Came Here 30 years ago

It is said that Mr. Craycraft came to Santa Fe 30 years or more ago, and probably was in New Mexico some time before locating in Santa Fe. He conducted a photographic establishment on the Plaza and seldom left his place of business except to make long trips on horseback, taking pictures of pueblos, of ruins and of interesting places in this part of the state. It was said long before his death that he possessed the finest collection of negatives of New Mexico scenery and ruins in the state. Mr. Craycraft often declared to his friends that his pictures of places which had never been visited by any other photographer. Many of his pictures were used to illustrate booklets, as well as special magazines or newspaper articles on Santa Fe and New Mexico.

Mr. Craycraft was supposed to have discovered more than one gold mine in the mountains near Santa Fe, and he maintained an air of mystery about his visits to these mines. He had specimens of ore he delighted to show to visitors to his studio, and he would hint to them concerning the big deposits of precious metal he believed were not far from Santa Fe, awaiting the man with capital and energy to extract it from the mountain side.[xv]

Fairview is Santa Fe’s only non-Catholic cemetery. Its history is filled with financial strife and has been vandalized. Work to preserve and document the burials is ongoing. According to the cemetery records, AB’s is interred in Section A, Grave 138, no marker.

His obituary does not mention his son William H who married Eva Walker in 1892 nor his grandchildren. Their children were, Evelyn who was born in 1893 and William Preston who was born in 1901. The reason may be because William H. died before 1910 and Eva moved to Chicago, ILL and contact with her father-in-law did not continue. The niece named Evelyn mentioned in in the obituary was probably his granddaughter. William Preston married Marjorie McKeag in Glendale, California. They had one son born in 1930, William Preston Jr. In 1950 U.S. Federal census he was living with his mother, Marjorie. His occupation was male nurse.[xvi] He joined the Marines and was stationed at Long Beach, California in 1954. He married Patricia Anderson in June 1958 and died five months later. There are no other known descendants of Aaron B. Craycraft.

Someone who provided information for his obituary believed Aaron came to New Mexico around 1888. His brother’s obituary stated he was living in Mattoon, Illinois in 1895. His wife’s obituary stated he had been gone 3 years in 1903. It also stated he was part of a party of cowboys who drove a herd of cattle to Canada then worked for a government survey company in New Mexico. This is possible as the General Land Office had jurisdiction over government lands in the southwest. New Mexico was a territory and did not become a state until 1912. Being a photographer of geography for a surveying company is a very plausible way of how AB came to Santa Fe. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported in the August 26, 1904 edition stated that RJ Brown and A.B. Cracraft are interested in moving to someplace in the territory. Then one week later he opened his studio on the plaza. He had to have been in the area much longer.

Historical writing tends to favor the lives of people who spoke, acted and had a hand in shaping a particular event. Bandelier National Monument came to be because of the work of Edgar Hewitt and Iowa Representative John Lacy. Early on, these two men spoke and acted in protecting the area and making Bandelier part of the National Park Service. AB discovered or rediscovered many sites such as the cliff dwellings, two stone lions, big white bear carvings, kivas, petroglyphs, as well as numerous undisturbed pottery and artifacts in what is not the park. He photographed what he found. He led people to the sites. His obituary also stated he was a recluse. All information found on this biography is consistent with a person who did not want to be in the limelight. His discoveries were noted in small articles published in newspapers yet his photography of the discoveries was used in scientific papers to substantiate the findings. His work was significant in creating the Monument. Visitors today see photographs of the findings but no mention of who took them is cited.

Aaron’s legacy is his life’s work in photography. How he got to Santa Fe from Illinois is a mystery. Why he stayed was paramount to the awareness of the New Mexican culture to the rest of the country. Photographs bring us to faraway places, make a permanent record of the ever-changing environment and evoke emotions within us. His work published all over the country brought artists, people seeking a dry climate for their health, students to new schools as well as influenced government legislation to protect the area. His collaboration with Edgar Hewett helped create Bandelier National Monument, a place for people to see firsthand the beauty, geographical diversity and ancient dwellings in northern New Mexico.

Yet, this is just a snippet of his life. What happened to his gold mine? There is a huge gap of information between the fire in 1907 and his death in 1918. Time and more research are needed to fill in the blanks.

[i] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper Aug. 9, 1905. [ii] Iowa Records of Persons Subject to Military Duty 1862-1910. [iii] Marriage License. Coles County, Illinois Genealogy Society. [iv] The Indiana Album [v][v] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Mattoon Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois) newspaper December 24,1884. [vi] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Barbour County Index, (Barbour County, Kansas), newspaper September 23, 1903. [vii] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Barbour County Index,(Barbour County, Kansas), newspaper August 3, 1904. [viii] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper August 25, 1904. [ix] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper December 20, 1906. [x]Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper February 13, 1907. [xi]Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper July 6, 1907. [xii] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper May 13, 1909. [xiii] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Albuquerque Citizen, (Albuquerque, NM) newspaper March 2. 1906. [xiv] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Albuquerque News Journal, (Albuquerque, NM) December 19, 1907. [xv] Library of Congress, Chronicling America online, Santa Fe New Mexican, newspaper August 22, 1918. [xvi] 1950 U.S. Federal Census Los Angeles, California. William Craycraft. Ancestry. Enumeration District 66-2237.

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