Ragsdale, McArthur Cullen (1849–1944)

By: Kendall Curlee

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: May 1, 1995

McArthur Cullen Ragsdale, pioneer West Texas photographer, was born on April 22, 1849, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the son of Edmund Carter and Elizabeth (Calhoun) Ragsdale. After the Civil War the family left South Carolina, landed in Galveston, and traveled by wagon to Bell County. There Ragsdale's father practiced medicine in Killeen and kept a farm on the outskirts of town, where Ragsdale and his brothers worked. At age twenty-one Ragsdale bought a second-hand camera and other photographic equipment with the intention of using photography to finance his education. He entered college, but financial problems soon forced him to drop out. He subsequently became an itinerant photographer. Using Belton as his base of operations, he made regular trips to such towns as Brownwood, Fort McKavett, Mason, and Fredericksburg. He is reported to have attended a photography school in Philadelphia in 1872. Imprints on some of his early photographs suggest that Ragsdale had formed a partnership with Charles Van Riper; his brother Paul also served as his assistant periodically. In 1875 Ragsdale reached Fort Concho and the nearby village of Saint Angela, where he opened a photography shop on the main trail, which later became Chadbourne Street in San Angelo. In 1881 he married Mary Elizabeth (May) Weber, who traveled with him on his photographic circuit until 1882. The Ragsdales then settled in San Angelo, where they purchased the Chadbourne-Concho property and built a two-story stone building that served as both studio and living quarters. They had two sons and one daughter.

Although most of his business consisted of portrait photography, Ragsdale also shot a series of landscape photographs that documented the rocky, dry climate of West Texas and the homes and businesses of the people who settled there. He assembled many of these photographs into a series, "Views of Concho Country," that was unusual in its focus on the early West Texas landscape. His use of the wet-collodian process and other primitive techniques hampered his coverage of important events in the community, although he was able to photograph the aftermath of the 1882 Ben Ficklin flood. Ragsdale's photographs of his family at home present a relatively spontaneous, informal glimpse of family life in late-nineteenth-century Texas.

Around 1918 he retired and sold his studio to James H. Cravey. An invaluable historical record was lost when most of Ragsdale's photographic plates were destroyed, either by Cravey or Ragsdale himself. However, many of Ragsdale's prints have survived, and some 2,500 of them compose the M. C. Ragsdale Photograph Collection at the Fort Concho Museum (see FORT CONCHO NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK). The collection consists primarily of his later photographs, although rare photographs of San Angelo in the 1880s and the Ben Ficklin flood are included. Ragsdale died on September 14, 1944.

Wayne Daniel, "A Ragsdale Biography," Fort Concho Report, Summer 1987. Fort Concho National Historical Landmark Library, Files, San Angelo. J. Evetts Haley, Focus on the Frontier (Amarillo: Shamrock Oil and Gas Corporation, 1957). Richard Pearce-Moses, "M. C. Ragsdale: Chronicler of a Myth," Fort Concho Report, Summer 1987. Frances C. Spindle, Interview by Laurette Ernst, March 13, 1981, Oral History Collection, Fort Concho National Historic Landmark Library, San Angelo. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Visual Arts
  • Photography

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

Kendall Curlee, “Ragsdale, McArthur Cullen,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ragsdale-mcarthur-cullen.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995