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Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1816, Solomon Nunes Carvalho was descended from a famous Sephardic family. Carvalho, who devoted his youth to studying fine art, literature and Judaic texts, taught himself to paint and aspired to make his living as a portrait artist. He apprenticed as a daguerreotypist under Samuel F. B. Morse and became an innovative pioneer in photography. It comes as some surprise, therefore, that this urbane, scholarly Easterner became a rugged hero of the Wild West.
In 1853, Colonel John C. Frémont, a renowned explorer and Indian fighter, asked Carvalho to join his fifth and final expedition to map the American West. Frémont hoped to find a railroad route across the Continental Divide, one crossable by transcontinental trains in the snowy depths of the Colorado winter. Frémont recruited Carvalho as the expedition’s official photographer to record the route the railroad would follow. Without consulting his wife or children, Carvalho immediately accepted.
Little did Carvalho realize the hardships he would face. His daguerreotype equipment was heavy and cumbersome. The extreme cold temperatures that sometimes dipped to 30 below zero slowed the daguerreotype process so that making one image sometimes took more than an hour. Carvalho’s twenty-one fellow trekkers resented waiting in the frigid temperatures while he finished. Despite the challenges, Carvalho was among the first photographers of the Rockies and their Indian residents.
The rigors of the trip took their toll on the expedition. In December 1853, the party began to run out of supplies. To preserve the pack animals, Carvalho abandoned his photographic equipment. When the food was gone, the explorers slaughtered the horses and mules for food. Carvalho at first declined to consume their flesh because of his religious principles, but finally decided that Judaism required him to eat rather than die. At one point, Frémont extracted a promise from each of the men that they would not cannibalize each other. Carvalho later wrote of one harrowing night in his best-selling account of the expedition, Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West (1856): “One of my feet was badly frozen, and I walked with much pain and difficulty … I was the last man on the trail, and my energy and firmness almost deserted me. Alone, disabled, with no possible assistance from mortal man, I felt my last hour had come … I [finally] came into camp about ten o’clock at night. It requires a personal experience to appreciate the intense mental suffering which I endured that night.”
Carvalho weighed 150 pounds when the expedition began; he arrived in the Mormon settlement of Parawan, Utah, in February 1854, weighing less than 100. The residents of Parawan nursed Carvalho and the others back to health and, in April, Carvalho traveled north to Salt Lake City to meet Brigham Young, the Mormon leader. The highly religious Young took an immediate liking to Carvalho, who like Young, was a biblical scholar. Young asked Carvalho to join him at a meeting with Walkara, chief of the Ute Indians, with whom the Mormons had clashed. Carvalho sat sketching the parties as Young and Walkara debated who was responsible for the tensions. After an all-night session, the two leaders renounced hostilities and smoked a peace pipe together, a ceremony in which Carvalho joined.
Restored to health, Carvalho left Utah and journeyed to Los Angeles where the helped found the first Jewish organization in that city, the Los Angeles Hebrew Benevolent Society. Carvalho then returned by ship to his wife and family in Baltimore, where he was instrumental in founding a synagogue, Beth Israel, which was among the first in America to include prayers in English in its weekly ritual.
By 1870, eyesight failing, Carvalho could no longer paint. The artist-adventurer became an inventor and patented an innovative pressurized steam engine that reaped him great financial rewards. Carvalho lived until 1897 and is buried in the cemetery belonging to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. His paintings and photographs are now treasured.
Ironically, the daguerreotypes from the Frémont expedition for which Carvalho and the others had sacrificed so much are missing, although a few were published in Carvalho’s book. Frémont claimed that the originals were lost in a warehouse fire. Some experts suspect that they lie in an unopened crate in the bowels of the Library of Congress. Despite Carvalho’s later fame as a painter and fortune as an inventor, no period of his life compared with the excitement of his courageous months making those lost daguerreotypes.