Hillyer, Hamilton Biscoe (1835–1903)

By: William Russell Young III

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: January 1, 1995

Hamilton B. Hillyer, photographer, the son of Rev. John Freeman and Mary Adeline (Biscoe) Hillyer, was born in Georgia (probably at Penfield) on August 14, 1835. He entered Texas with his parents at Galveston on December 1, 1847. The family moved to Goliad in 1848, where John Hillyer established Hillyer Female College, and to Gonzales in 1852, where he taught at Gonzales College. H. B. Hillyer was sent away from school in Goliad to improve his health by working as a cowhand on a large cattle ranch. For the next five years he worked cattle and studied independently.

He learned the daguerreotype process from his father, and produced his own daguerreotypes by 1857. He obtained material and a manual for making ambrotypes from a New Orleans firm and produced examples of this art by 1858. He is credited with making some of the earliest photographs on paper in Texas. Hillyer opened a gallery on Pecan Street (now Sixth Street) in Austin in 1867 or 1868. In July 1869 he documented the overflow of the Colorado River in the earliest known stereo photographs of Austin. He designed and built a gallery at the corner of Hickory Street (now Eighth Street) and what is now Congress Avenue and used it from 1872 to 1876. From 1876 until 1887 his studio was located at 916 Congress Avenue. Hillyer supplemented his business in Austin by sending out tent studios to many small towns. He moved to Dallas in 1887 and operated a studio on Elm Street until 1889, when he moved to Belton to join his son, C. Ernest Hillyer, in a studio there. From 1898 until his death in 1903 Hillyer and his second wife owned a studio in Bowie.

Hillyer's photographs won many awards at state fairs. For many years, as official photographer for the state of Texas, he produced composite photographs of the state government. There is some indication that twelve of his mammoth-plate (twenty by twenty-four inches) photographs were exhibited at the 1884–85 World's Fair at New Orleans. He served as vice president of the National Photographic Association (1872) and published technical articles in The Philadelphia Photographer and Texas Farm and Ranch.

Hillyer was married to Mary Emma Storey, with whom he had four children, from 1858 until 1885. After her death he married Alice Danforth Turner, also a photographer, in 1887, and they had two children. Hillyer was a lifelong Baptist and a member of the Washington Fire Engine Company in Austin. He was active in the State Horticultural Society and founded agricultural growers' associations in both Belton and Bowie. He died on December 10, 1903, and was buried in Bowie Cemetery.

Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Texas Collection, October 1941. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (John Freeman Hillyer). William Russell Young III, H. B. Hillyer: Life and Career of a Nineteenth Century Texas Photographer (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1985).
  • Visual Arts
  • Photography

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William Russell Young III, “Hillyer, Hamilton Biscoe,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hillyer-hamilton-biscoe.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995