Daguerreotypes from the trail
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Daguerreotypes from the trail

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Arlene Hirschfelder’s book includes daguerreotype portrait of Solomon Carvalho. Charles Zusman

What would prompt a man who is successful in business and active and respected in his Jewish community to take leave of a loving wife and three children and trek over the Rocky mountains in winter, on foot and by mule and horseback?

In the case of Solomon Nunes Carvalho, 38 at the time, it was the lure of a “Remarkable Western Adventure.” In 1853, Carvalho began work as a photographer with John C. Fremont’s fifth expedition to map a railroad route to the West Coast.

“Remarkable Western Adventure” also is the subtitle of a book by Arlene Hirschfelder of Teaneck, who tells Carvalho’s story,

The book, “Photo Odyssey, Solomon Carvalho’s Remarkable Western Adventure,” was published in 2000. It is now the subject of a nearly completed one-hour documentary, and Hirschfelder, the author of some 25 works mainly dealing with Native American history and culture, will speak about Carvalho on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at the Teaneck General Store, 502 Cedar Lane. Her presentation will include an 11-minute trailer on the film.

Carvalho worked with daguerreotypes, an early form of photography developed in France by Louis-Jacque-Mande Daguerre. Daguerreotypes did not require negatives. Instead, images were stored directly on silver coated copper plates, requiring a cumbersome developing process. The cameras that captured the images were large, boxy, and cumbersome. A modern 35 millimeter device would have been an impossible dream to the 1850s photographer – much less today’s cellphone camera.

Carvalho had to pack a lot of heavy, awkward gear and chemicals, dragging it all over mountains and through blizzards – all the while putting up with recalcitrant pack mules with minds of their own.

Carvalho was a city boy. He had lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, making his living as a portrait painter and photographer. Nevertheless, he left his urban ties behind and signed up for the adventure of his life.

As Hirschfelder recounts, Solomon Nunes Carvalho was born in Charleston, S.C., a city with a vibrant Jewish community, in 1815. The family was Sephardic, with roots in Portugal.

Solomon’s father, David, helped establish the first Reform congregation in the country, and his son held on to his traditional Orthodox roots. Keeping kosher along the trail was a challenge, as Hirschfelder writes, but Carvalho did his best.

“He often ate nothing or had to make do” with whatever the Indian hunters who were part of the expedition could supply, she writes. He compromised. He developed a taste for horsemeat, and ate mule meat as well. After all, as Jewish law requires, he acted to save a life, in this case his own. But when a hunter in the party killed a coyote, Carvalho went hungry rather than eat the flesh of an animal that fed on carrion. Similarly, although he ate the meat of furry rodents, he drew the line at porcupine – he thought that the animal looked too much like a pig.

Fremont hired Delaware Indians as guides and hunters for the trip, and Carvalho encountered Cheyenne and Ute along the way. Thus, he met representatives of a number of Native American tribes.

Hirschfelder, a Chicago native, lives in Teaneck with her husband, Dennis. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Brandeis University and a master’s in art education from the University of Chicago. Her book about Carvalho is the product of an enduring interest in Native American affairs.

She has been on the lookout for stories of Jewish-Indian connections. The two groups first met in the 1600s, when Jewish traders began traveling among the Native Americans, she said. She read the book “Jews Among Indians” by M.L. Marks, and there she found a chapter on Carvalho.

“He spoke to me,” she said, recalling the excitement of her discovery. “He tapped me on the shoulder.” Carvalho’s story seemed tailor-made for her. “It all came together,” she said. “Here was an Orthodox Jew who learned how to hunt buffalo.”

Carvalho survived blizzards, prairie fires, and near starvation in the Rockies, she said. He learned to chop wood and saddle a horse. His mentors were Indian guides and hunters. (For the record, Hirschfelder uses the terms “Native American” and “Indian” interchangeably. Both are correct, she says.)

Eventually the bedraggled party – skinny, unwashed, hungry – found itself in Parowan in southern Utah, where the men were taken in and nurtured by Mormons. After regaining his health, Carvalho went to Salt Lake City, where he met and carried on philosophical discussions with Mormon prophet Brigham Young.

In the end the grand adventure was just that, an adventure. Congress never acted on Fremont’s findings and the railroad he worked to map out never was built.

Hirschfelder sees a strong link between her religious affiliaton and social justice. “Dennis and I are Reform Jews,” she said. “Reform Jews marched with Martin Luther King.” When she was a staffer with the Association of American Indian Affairs, she helped the Coushatta tribe in Louisiana gain federal recognition, a status that brought the tribe economic benefits. She taught at the New School in New York and has conducted workshops for teachers. She has written some 25 books about Native Americans.

Indians have had “such a powerful presence in U.S. history, and were more influential than many would think,” she said. She is disturbed by the negative imagery often associated with Indians. “They have been so stereotyped,” she said.

Hirschfelder drew heavily on Carvalho’s own words for her book. They come from his journal, “Incidents of Travel in the Far West with Col. Fremont’s Last Expedition.” She illustrated her book with contemporary engravings and painting. One, by Carvalho, is of Wakara, a peace-making Ute chief.

Carvalho took hundreds of daguerrotypes, but most were shipped to a warehouse and were lost in a fire, Hirschfelder said.

Carvalho died in 1897 in New York. He was 82.

Information
p>Who: Arlene Hirschfelder

What: Will talk about her book about the early photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho

When: Sunday, January 13, 10:30 a.m.

Where: The Teaneck General Store,
502 Cedar Lane.

For information: (201) 530-5046

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