Q&A: Who was Adrian J. Ebell?

Q&A: Who was Adrian J. Ebell?

The only known photograph taken during the U.S. – Dakota War was captured by Adrian J. Ebell on August 21.  The photograph consists of settlers fleeing the Upper Agency on their way to Fort Ridgely.  The photograph has become an iconic image that symbolizes the travails of the victims of the 1862 war.

settlers flee
MNHS Collections

Ebell was born to German parents in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1840.  He came to the United States in 1850 for his education.  Ebell studied photography at the Sheffield Scientific School in New Haven, Connecticut, and by 1862 was working as a photographer in Chicago.  Ebell also operated a phantasmagorical magic lantern show.  In the summer of 1862, Ebell sought to travel to Minnesota to take photos of the Dakota and the countryside for use in his magic lantern show.  On August 3, despite having very little money, Ebell departed for Minnesota where he arrived on August 6.  Ebell then learned that the Dakota would be gathering for an annuity payment and he saw it as an opportunity to take many portraits.  He left for the Upper Agency on August 7, but, having no money, had to pay for his travel expenses by exchanging photographs for food and lodging.

Ebell arrived to the Upper Agency on August 15, where he took several photographs of agency life.  But, when war broke out, Ebell was forced to flee along with the other settlers near the Upper Agency.  It was during this time that Ebell captured his famous image of the settlers along the prairie.

An image from Camp Release, MNHS Collections

After fleeing to safety, Ebell volunteered to help relieve the soldiers at Birch Coulee.  Ebell stayed on with the army and fought at the Battle of Wood Lake.  He was also stationed at Camp Lincoln following the war and was present at the hangings on December 26.  Ebell’s photos were used as models for wood engravings published in the June, 1863, edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

Read more about Ebell and his photographs during the war

See this blog post on YouTube


Peter E. Palmquist and Martha A. Sandweiss, Pioneer Photographs from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide:  A Biographical Dictionary, 1839 – 1865, (Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 2005).

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