I first became intrigued by Joseph Sturtevant after reading several of his conflicting obituaries while researching another project. The short accounts of his life revealed many inconsistencies which provided the first inklings of a doubtful past. Nearly every contemporary account of Sturtevant’s life describes a childhood of adventure among the Native Americans in Wisconsin, dramatic Civil War battles as a young teenager, and fantastic tales of Indian fighting and escapes in the Dakotas by the age of twenty. These stories might surely be feasible, however, my suspicions piqued when not Joseph, but his brother Samuel, appeared on an 1863 Wisconsin Regimental roster, and Joseph showed up in an 1870 census living in St. Paul, Minnesota as he simultaneously claimed to be escaping from Indian capture.
As I continue to uncover more about Joseph Sturtevant’s historical contradictions, the more I realize his tales of a fantastic past is a borrowed past. During my preliminary research, I have uncovered that many of these tales of adventure relate to either his older brother Samuel or his stepfather William Peck. Both men served during the Civil War and Peck spent time on the western frontier and later worked at a military fort in Dakota Territory. Why would Sturtevant choose to incorporate the past of other family members as his own? The emergence of Sturtevant’s war stories and wild west adventures curiously coincides with the emergence of the Rocky Mountain Joe persona. In 1898 Joseph became the official photographer for the Boulder Chautauqua, a summer-long educational retreat which brought visitors from around the country for months of lectures, entertainment, and mountain activities. In addition to his photographic responsibilities, Sturtevant also spun tales while serving as the buck-skinner tour guide for visitors. Reminiscent of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, this is the most likely beginning of the Rocky Mountain Joe character that Sturtevant would continue to portray and promote until his death in 1910.
A painter and artist by trade, Joseph’s interest in photography surfaced around the age of thirty during the early 1880s. By tracking the evolution of his partners, studios, and advertising techniques in Boulder, I can uncover more about the effect he had on the local businesses as well as promoting the community as a whole. I believe that Sturtevant created Rocky Mountain Joe as a marketing gimmick, not just to promote his own photography business but also to promote the town of Boulder. In examining Joseph’s life and the lives of his family members in Colorado, and eventually other states, I hope to reveal the personal tragedies that plagued Joseph during his lifetime, discover new family connections, and unravel the motivations that led to the creation of Rocky Mountain Joe.
Sturtevant has not received any regional or national recognition as an early Colorado photographer. His contribution to the history of Colorado photography is quite significant, and I plan to place him within the larger context of photography, marketing, and tourism in the state. By examining Joseph’s life and business ventures I will expand on the scholarship of Colorado photography by personifying the often impersonal role the photographer played in the state’s development.