Zalmon Gilbert was born in Fulton, New York on April 10, 1841. In 1846, at the age of five, he moved with his family to Genesco Illinois where he spent his formative years. In July 1861, he joined an independent militia from Moline, Illinois led by a captain named Graham. That September, he was taken prisoner during a siege of Lexington, Missouri, was paroled, and discharged from the militia.
The following spring, he enlisted with Company H of the 59th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, served for eleven months (which included a siege of Farmington, Tennessee), and was discharged due to a heart condition. For several years following his service, he toured Illinois and Iowa as a photographer although it is unclear how he picked up the trade. During this period, he paused long enough in the Joliet ,IL area to establish a studio. Joliet was and still is home to large historic Federal and state penitentiaries. A November 1875 carte-de-visite photo of Willis D. Mason entitled "Prison Baby" is featured in a national traveling exhibit on Black History sponsored by the George Eastman House Photography and Film Museum from this period in his career.
Gilbert Photo "Prison Baby" 1875
Widowed, Gilbert (with his teenage son James in tow) relocated to Mandan Dakota Territory in November 1881 and established the Gilbert and Miller photography studio. He advertised himself as a practical photographer who had photographs of the town of Mandan and the nearby Heart River for sale in his gallery.
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More notable work are "cabinet cards" and "carte de visite" photos of Native Americans taken in his Mandan studio. Dependant on content and condition, today these snapshots of history routinely sell at auction between $600 and $2400 each.
In the era of dime western novels, the demand "out east" for artifacts from the western frontier was so great that other photographers flocked to the area and set up studios in Fort Yates (Orlando Scott Goff) and Bismarck (David Barry).
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His business partner in the studio was Alice C. Miller. In 1885, she moved back to Iowa (her native state) with her husband Clarke, a news reporter. There the marriage ended, although it is unknown as to whether Clarke died or if they divorced. In any case, she married Gilbert in early 1893 and moved back to Mandan. Tragically, however, she became seriously ill after the move and died a few months later on March 24, 1893. He lived and worked in Mandan for the rest of his life, which ended on January 21, 1897 after a brief struggle with a digestive disorder and a severe cold. He was buried in GreenwoodCemetery and was later moved to the UnionCemetery when it was established in 1902.
His son James W. Gilbert continued the family business by establishing his own photographic studio 35 miles west in New Salem.
This biography was based on research performed by Ben Nemenoff for the North Dakota Council of the Arts and information from the George Eastman House Museum. We appreciate the contributions of both organizations toward this Legacy Program biography.
The MHSoc's museum and office is located at 411 W Main St, Mandan, ND 58554 Contact us at email@example.com or leave message at (701) 751-2983