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The Wilkes-Barre Glass Negatives - Part 9

One of the mysteries within the Wilkes-Barre glass negative collection owned by Paul Holbrook of Camera Americana was a series of images that appeared to be from the mid-western plains. The landscape was not at all what one would find in Pennsylvania.





The glass negatives were damaged and the faded pictures revealed mysterious figures and a landscape unfamiliar to me.



The sod house seen in the image above appears in several pictures taken by the photographer. Sod houses were not common on the east coast, but they were common in the western territories. Sod homes played a significant role in the settlement of the American West during the 19th century. These structures were primarily constructed by pioneers, homesteaders, and immigrants who ventured into the vast prairies where traditional building materials like timber were scarce or expensive to obtain.


Sod blocks, or bricks, were typically constructed using large chunks of grass and soil bound together by the roots of the prairie grasses. These blocks were cut from the earth using special tools such as a sod cutter or a plow, then stacked in a similar manner to bricks or stones to form the walls of the house. The roof was often made of timber beams covered with a layer of sod for insulation and protection against the elements. Sod walls had excellent insulation properties, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.


Photo from glass negative owned by Paul Holbrook of Camera Americana. Used with permission.


In the territories west of the Mississippi River, the land was a great expanse under an endless sky. The boundless horizon where sky and land met, was a canvas for gloriously painted sunrises and sunsets. But living on the prairie and open plains could be harsh and lonely. Early pioneers came to escape the city, to claim acerage that wasnt affordable or available back east. They came for the hope of a new life, the promise of a better future, although many died before they saw it realized.


Were these pictures out of place in this collection from Pennsylvania? Were they purchased from someone else and the mini collection of mid-western prairie photographs and the sod house images merged with the photographs of people and places near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania?


To be able to offer an intelligent answer to that question I had to first rule out any possible link of the photographers, Charles Nesbitt and his son Harry Nesbitt, to the western frontier.


I built out the Nesbitt family tree. I not only focused on Harry Nesbitt's direct line, but included aunts, uncles, cousins and anyone he may have been related to that moved west from Pennsylvania. If there was no connection to the western and mid-western frontier, Why else would the Nesbitts of Plymouth, Pennsylvania, have traveled to see them?


Harry's father, Charles Snyder Nesbitt, was one of four children. He had two brothers, James and Samuel. He also had one sister, Esther.


In my research, I discovered that both Samuel and James went out west in 1883 and got into the cattle business. The railroad had reached that place and there was an opportunity for ranchers to sell cattle and beef to ship back east. I was excited to learn this but it wasn't proof enough that these were photos of that branch of the Nesbitt family. I learned that Samuel Nesbitt didn't stay long and came back east, settling in Ohio. James moved to Nebraska where he set up a ranch in Dundy County with a friend, Richard "Dickey" Davenport.



Nebraska City News Press, March 23, 1878, p4. Accessed at newspapers.com.


The Davenports were related to the Plymouth, Pennsylvania, Nesbitts by marriage. H. W. Davenport married a cousin of the Nesbitts. Then, I found another connection to a widow who also moved west.


Harry Nesbitt's aunt, Charles Nesbitt's only sister, Esther, married Noah Pringle. They lived in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, near Wilkes-Barre, and later moved to Beach Haven, Pennsylvania. They had seven children. Noah died in 1885 at the age of 51. Newspaper reports stated that James Nesbitt returned home in 1885 after his brother-in-law's death and took his sister Esther back to Nebraska with him.


Wilkes-Barre Sunday News, November 8, 1885 p8, accessed at newspapers.com


Published in the Dundy County Pioneer, November 26, 1885, p5


I found Esther Pringle and her two youngest children, George and Jennie, living in Park, Dundy County, Nebraska, in the 1900 US Census. With them is also Anna, the widow of Esther's son, Harry and two of their children. Anna and her children would later return to Pennsylvania and Anna remarried. But Esther, George, and Jennie stayed.


Was the man in the images James Nesbitt? And if so, were the pictures taken by Charles and/or Harry on a trip west to visit their relatives? I believe they are.



Photo from glass negative owned by Paul Holbrook of Camera Americana. Used with permission.


This scan of an original glass negative below shows a man and two children in a wagon. I believe the children are Charles and Margaret, the children of Harry Nesbitt.




I also realized the collection also included these photos below, which show the photographer's children, Charles and Margaret Nesbitt with pigs.





I wasn't sure if the pigs were from a farm in Nebraska at first. But then I saw this image:



I believe the woman with the child could be the same woman and child in the image below:


And the structure behind the girl sitting on the ground with the pigs appeared to be the sod house.


This, along with the information of Nesbitt relatives moving to Dundy County Nebraska, convinced me that the images were of James Nesbitt's home, ranch and farm there.


The two children seen in the photo below may be Charles and Margaret, but could also be other relatives who came for a visit.


Photo from glass negative owned by Paul Holbrook of Camera Americana. Used with permission.


James Nesbitt never married but became a respected rancher and farmer, selling horses and cattle in Benkleman, Dundy County, Nebraska. James had a large vegetable crop and apple orchards. He was also a political delegate to Nebraska's Republican Convention.


James Nesbitt's sister, Esther Nesbitt Pringle, stayed in Nebraska and later lived with her son George, who married and remained in Nebraska. George would build on James Nesbitt's land and became a reputable farmer and rancher in his own right.



Published in the Benkleman Post and Chronicle, August 25, 1950, p1, p8. Accessed at Newspapers.com


Jennie, Esther's daughter, was 19 when she married a hired hand, H. Chase Reynolds, who worked on her Uncle James Nesbitt's ranch. H. Chase Reynolds died of a lung disease only three months after their marriage. After many years, Jennie remarried Albert Reader and moved to Ft. Morgan, Colorado. After Albert's death, she returned and lived in Parks, Nebraska, near Benkleman. Esther and Jennie appear in a photograph in the newspaper clipping above.


James Nesbitt, the first Nesbitt to venture west, contracted a gastrointestinal virus in 1910 and died at the age of 64.

James Nesbitt's obituary reveals his important role as one of the early pioneers of Dundy County, Nebraska.



Published in the Benkleman Post & Chronicle, February 4, 1910, p1. Accessed at newspapers.com.


In the late 19th century the American West and prairie lands in places like Benkleman, Nebraska, stood as a symbol of both the boundless possibilities and the rugged beauty of the frontier. Places that are forever etched into the annals of history as a testament to the human spirit's indomitable will to explore, conquer, and thrive amidst the vastness of nature.


James Nesbitt, Esther Nesbitt Pringle, and her children had that pioneer spirit, and it is wonderful to know that these photographs of the early settlement of south western Nebraska can finally make their way home and another piece of our nation's history has been saved.









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Thank you for the wonderful history of the family. It's very intensive. You really did a lot of research. They really had a large family. I'm glad you found out about the sod house. It definately didn't belong in Pa.; Nebraska yes. It was a great read.

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Thank you!

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Great photos of the parries!

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Thanks, Doug!

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