Grabill was born at Donnelsville, Ohio, in 1849 to David and Catherine Kees Grabill. By 1860, the family moved to Champaign, Illinois. In 1868, his parents divorced, and he moved to Chicago with his mother and siblings, where she ran a boarding house for several years.
In about 1879, he made his way to Colorado to join the goldrush. He first worked around Leadville before making his way to Pitkin and Chaffee Counties. Working with a mining partner named Nelson Wanamaker, the pair were known to have located three contiguous mining claims, at Mount Blanco, Mount Crystal, and Mount Antero, the first site discovery of Aquamarine, Colorado’s official gemstone. In 1882, a Buena Vista Map shows that he was operating an assay office out of a building called the “Mining Exchange Office.” He also partnered with H. McCall in the Mammouth and Vallejo mines on Aspen Mountain.
On October 3, 1885, Grabill married Margaret “Maggie” Gillespie, a teacher who was also formerly of Illinois. Somewhere along the line, he had also been learning and practicing photography skills because, on December 16, 1885, the Buena Vista Democrat reported: “J.C.H. Grabill will soon be prepared to do business in the photograph line.” By January 1886, he had opened for business, and the newspaper noted on March 24, 1886: “J.C.H. Grabill is producing some of the finest photographs ever seen in this country.”
By September 1886, John and Maggie headed northeast toward the Black Hills Goldrush. They settled in Sturgis, South Dakota, in November 1886 and opened a photographic studio. On February 7, Maggie gave birth to their only son, Ralph Gillespie Grabill. By 1888, they had moved to Deadwood, South Dakota, and in 1890, he had a second studio in nearby Lead. Grabill was appointed as the Homestake Mining Company’s official photographer in 1890 and a little bit later was also appointed as the official photographer of the Black Hills and Fort Pierre Railroad. In October 1890, Grabill traveled to Devil’s Tower to get signatures on a petition to create a Devil’s Tower National Monument. This was presented to the President, Congress, and Secretary of the Interior.
By 1991, Grabill was having financial difficulties, and the local newspaper announced that the Grabill Photograph and View Company had filed bankruptcy. The next year, John’s wife Maggie, divorced him and left with their son. He never saw them again.
Between 1887 and 1892, he sent 188 photographs of railroads, mining, Native Americans, and settlers’ life in the region to the Library of Congress for copyright protection.
By the time the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, Grabill had returned east and took photographs during this event. There he had also opened the “Grabill Chicago Portrait and View Co.”
Grabill lived In St. Louis, Missouri, between 1901 and 1903, where he worked as a salesman for Fairbanks, Morse, and Company, who manufactured, among other things, hydraulic pumps that were used by the mining industry. However, his mental health had deteriorated, causing him to be institutionalized in February 1903 at the St. Louis City Insane Asylum. He died there on August 23, 1903of death to paralytic dementia. He was buried at St. Matthew’s Cemetery in St. Louis.
Grabill’s remarkably well-crafted, sepia-toned images captured the forces of western settlement in South Dakota and Wyoming, leaving a visual record of railroad development, stagecoaches and wagons, mining, smelting and milling, freighting, emerging cities and towns, cattle roundups and branding, sheepherding, prospecting, hunting, and Chinese immigrants, as well as landscapes. A number of the images portray the Lakota Sioux living on or near the Cheyenne River and the Pine Ridge Reservation and their contact with U.S. military and government agents, and with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Some of the photographs were taken only days after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee near Pine Ridge.
Compiled by Kathy Alexander, updated December 2020.