The First Known Female Native American Photographer

How Jennie Ross Cobb captured life in a Cherokee Nation on camera

By Google Arts & Culture

Cherokee Farming and Animal Husbandry (1942) by Olga MohrSmithsonian's National Postal Museum

Unlike most other photographers documenting Native American life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jennie Ross Cobb was photographing her own people. Born into the Cherokee Nation in 1881, she’s the first known female Native American photographer.

Osage Treaties (1938) by Olive RushSmithsonian's National Postal Museum

This gave Cobb unique access to daily Cherokee life and a unique insight into her subjects. Her incredible photos reveal a world very few people outside of the Nation will have seen.

Jennie Ross Cobb

Jennie Ross Cobb was born in Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory to a distinguished Cherokee family. Her great grandfather was Cherokee chief John Ross and her father, Robert Bruce Ross, was treasurer of the Cherokee National Council. 

Cobb began taking pictures around 1896, photographing her family, her school mates, and her community. She attended the Cherokee National Female Seminary, one of the first institutions of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi River, graduating around 1901.

It’s thought Cobb received a camera as a gift from her father when she was 15, around the time cameras became smaller and more affordable. She turned a closet in their house, Hunter’s Home, into a dark room and processed the glass plate negatives herself.

Like teenagers today, Cobb enjoyed photographing her friends and a number of her surviving images feature fellow pupils at the seminary. She also photographed her family, her home, a town parade, and the new railway tracks that had been laid close to where she lived.

Titled "Procession" by Edna MasseyBureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program

The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma was going through a number of changes at the time Cobb was active. They’d relocated to the area from their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S a few decades before, and by the turn of the century, many Cherokee had adopted more Western habits.

Cherokee Braves FlagNational Park Service, Museum Management Program

This can be clearly seen in Cobb’s photos. Most of her subjects are wearing Western-style clothes. Their homes and civic buildings are large and grand, and in fact, many wouldn’t look out of place in Europe or other parts of the U.S.

Jennie Ross Cobb

In 1905, at age 23, Jennie wed Jesse Cobb, a U.S. government employee hired to survey tribal lands in Indian Territory. She seems to have stopped photographing around this time, though her invaluable archive was preserved in Hunter’s House, the Ross family home.

Cobb lived in Texas for a while in the 1930s and 40s, however she returned to Oklahoma in 1952 to become caretaker and custodian of Hunter’s Home. The house is now a National Historic Landmark and the only pre-Civil War plantation house still standing in Oklahoma.

85199 (1970-09) by John OlsonLIFE Photo Collection

Learn more about pioneering women of arts and culture.

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