Early Photograph of San Antonio
A Large Gathering of People at Military Plaza ca. 1861
473. [PHOTOGRAPHY]. [SAN ANTONIO: MILITARY PLAZA]. “Military Plaza San Antonio Texas” [contemporary pencil title below image]. Unattributed oval photographic print on thin paper showing a spacious plaza in which is gathered a large crowd of people with numerous carriages assembled for what appears to be a public event, two men stand above the crowd as if to address the assemblage, low buildings visible in the background. Most likely the image is an albumen print, based on overall appearance of the coating and the surface tonality (although it has been suggested there is a possibility the image is a salted paper print coated with albumen or gum arabic). 13.4 x 18.5 cm. [San Antonio, ca. 1861?]. Mounted on blank verso of an 1860 plate leaf from a fashion magazine, with clipped poem entitled “Ambition” pasted to the lower left of the image (the version of Willis’ poem is an abridgement of one he originally presented at Brown University in 1830). Poor to fair condition. Image faded, low contrast, slightly soft focus, light abrasions, faintly creased at upper left, adhesive stains showing through at top and bottom. Only one other copy of the image is known (Daughters of the Texas Revolution Library at the Alamo, photo ID #2001011485).
We trace only one other copy of the present image, which is in the DRT Library at the Alamo (as noted above). The DRT image is one of a series of nine exceptionally rare early photographs of San Antonio, all of which are oval and of approximately the same size. The nine images are: untitled image of crowd at Military Plaza (same as present photograph); “Texas Troops at San Antonio at the time of the Surrender of the U.S. Arms”; “Mission of San Joseph—134 years old”; “Alamo Church and Plaza”; Post Office; “Commerce St. San Antonio”; Menger Hotel; “Burros with Load of Corn”; and “Old Mexican Cathedral on Plaza.” Some of these images were published in the San Antonio Express, June 3, 1917, in an article entitled “San Antonio of Three Score Years Ago.”
The image being offered is a somewhat early photograph of San Antonio (the first photograph of San Antonio dates from 1849). It has been suggested by some photography historians that this scene is related to the surrender of U.S. forces under Brigadier General David E. Twiggs to legendary Texas Ranger Colonel Ben McCulloch and the Confederates on February 16, 1861, in San Antonio. (See Handbook of Texas Online: David Emanuel Twiggs, United States commander of the Department of Texas during the secession crisis.) We cannot be certain the present photograph is actually related to the Twiggs’ surrender.
Another purported image of Twiggs’ surrender is an ambrotype, possibly the work of William DeRyee and Carl G. von Iwonski. That image is in the Texas State Library. John Anderson in an unpublished paper “Analysis of a San Antonio Streetscene Ambrotype” (1987) comments on the ambrotype: “Without further significant research no informed speculation can be made as to which photographer may have made this image, other than listing those who are known to have operated in the area during the period. While the image does not convey nearly as much visual information as would be desirable, the image is, nevertheless, a significant work of early photojournalism.” The same conclusion is true of the present photograph of a crowd scene at Military Plaza.
John Anderson discussed possible candidates for the photographer of the Texas State Library ambrotype and investigated the possibility of William DeRyee (1825-1903), Carl G. von Iwonski (1830-1912), and their circle. As early as 1856, German emigrants DeRyee and Iwonski worked together on art, photography, and other experiments related to imagery. Upon arrival in Texas, DeRyee became associated with Wilhelm Carl August Thielepape (1814-1904), architect, engineer, teacher, photographer, lithographer, and Reconstruction mayor of San Antonio. Thielepape and DeRyee worked on many experimental methods of photography and developing images. Another German emigrant joining them was Karl Friedrich Hermann Lungkwitz (1813-1891), an early Texas landscape painter, who was active in photography beginning in 1857. By 1858 DeRyee had established a studio in San Antonio on Commerce Street near Main Plaza. Shortly thereafter DeRyee went into partnership with Iwonski. Both men were eye-witnesses to the surrender of Twiggs. “With Ben McCulloch, [DeRyee] accompanied the Texas troops that secured the capitulation of San Antonio and recorded the surrender” (Handbook of Texas Online: William DeRyee). Iwonksi made sketches of the event that were published in Harper’s Weekly (James Patrick Maguire, Iwonski in Texas, San Antonio Museum Association, 1976, pp. 76, 78; see also Dr. Mavis P. Kelsey, Sr., Engraved Prints of Texas 1554-1900, pp. 127-128 & Fig. 15.5). Iwonski, a Union sympathizer, followed the Union troops out of town when they decamped to Las Moras Creek near Fort Clark (Pauline A. Pinckney, Painting in Texas: The Nineteenth Century. Austin: UT for The Amon Carter Museum, , pp. 136-137).
DeRyee stayed in Texas, and his efforts to supply Texas with ammunition and explosives were critical to the state’s Civil War effort. Among DeRyee’s many wizardly endeavors was the invention of a way to use gun cotton for photographic purposes, including creating Texas Confederate cotton bonds using homeography, a still unexplained process. It does not seem entirely unreasonable to consider one or more of these men might have been involved in the creation of the present image.
One intriguing element of the image is what appears to be a tall flagpole or column between the crowd and a raised platform on which two men stand, as if to address the crowd. It is difficult to discern what that column is in both the DRT image and the present one, nor is it possible to determine if there is a flag or banner on the pole. The flagpole or column does not appear in other prints or photographs of the time, raising the possibility that it was an object brought to the event depicted in the photograph. Whatever the event may have been, it appears a gathering of some significance.
There are no final conclusions on this intriguing image. The present image may well be earlier or later than 1861. The many unanswered questions the image evokes make it worthy of further study. Whatever the event, the photographer, and the time, the image is an early, important Texas photograph.
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Copyright Dorothy Sloan 2009