INFORMATION FOR USERS
In this guide, notebook volume numbers are listed with the content of the notebook. The
volume numbers correspond to original notebook number. If using the microfilm, the reel and
frame numbers are listed with the title of each notebook in this guide.
Cite As:Edward H. Davis papers, #9166. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell
Edward H. Davis (1862-1951) was an indefatigable collector and traveler. Born in Brooklyn
to a sea-faring family, Davis was educated in the New York public schools and took further
training as an artist at the Brooklyn Art Guild. Ill health dictated that he move to a more
agreeable climate, so at the young age of twenty two he set off for California, sailing
there through Panama. He arrived in the booming town of San Diego in January 1885. In need
of a job, he put his draftsman's talents to use, map-making for the city, and drawing house
plans. But it was a fortunate 1887 real estate venture with his father that provided the
capital necessary to establish a home on what became 600 acres at Mesa Grande in the
mountainous back country of San Diego County. He built a lean-to addition to the shanty that
was on the property, and settled in with his wife, Anna May, and their young son, Harvey.
Soon various members of both their families joined them, pushing the cabin's capacity to the
limit. Space constraints were further challenged as Davis almost immediately began to
acquire objects from his Kumeyaay (Diegueño) Indian neighbors.
The first years at Mesa Grande were busy ones for Edward Davis. Supplies to fence the ranch
and put up necessary buildings had to be hauled in from San Diego over 60 miles of bad road.
A round trip took six days. After four years, his growing family was able to move to larger
quarters, and eventually Davis built an adobe building to house his mushrooming collection
of southern California Indian artifacts. During these early years, he established
friendships with many of his Kumeyaay neighbors that would last a lifetime. He was
particular friends with Cinon Duro, the last of the Mesa Grande hereditary chiefs, who died
in 1906. Duro bestowed the title of El Capitan Blanco or White Chief on Davis in
appreciation for his assistance to this group of about 120 impoverished Kumeyaays at Mesa
Fortunately for us today, Davis was a recorder of his experiences. First and always an
artist, his sketchbooks were never far away, and he was a consummate diarist. He added
photography to his repertory, and was often observed heading out on horseback with fifty
pounds of camera equipment on his back.
He also learned the necessity of cataloging his collection of Indian artifacts. While he
valued it at $6000, he soon was informed that it was unsaleable unless he wrote down the
known history of every article. He must have done so, because in 1915, 28 years after Davis
settled in Mesa Grande, a representative of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye
Foundation, made his way up the mesa to inspect the collection. After negotiations, he
purchased almost the entire collection for the museum.
Also in 1915, perhaps with the funds from the sale of his collection, Davis built Powam
Lodge, a resort hotel with an all-Indian motif. The lodge soon became popular, attracting
visitors to the clear air of the mesa and the opportunity to hear its proprietor, a talented
storyteller, regale the guests with accounts of his experiences among the Indian people of
the Southwest. Davis encouraged local Kumeyaay artisans to make traditional items of quality
to sell at Powam Lodge, and often hired Indian performers.
A 1916 meeting in San Diego with George G. Heye, the founder and director of the Museum of
the American Indian, resulted in Davis accepting an offer to be a field collector of
ethnological specimens for the museum. He was delighted. In a 1931 article he wrote for
Touring Topics, Davis recalled, This gave me the very job I had long hoped to create for
myself. It began a relationship with George Heye and his museum that lasted, intermittently,
for seventeen years.
With this association and financial backing, Davis expanded his area of exploration and
collecting in the desert areas of the Southwest. He traveled thousands of miles using all
kinds of conveyances including the wagon, train, truck, automobile, boat, and pack animal.
Frequently he walked. During his years working for George Heye, he amassed collections from
more than twenty Indian groups. They included the Modocs, Klamaths, Kumeyaays, Luise os,
Paiutes, Yumas, Cocopahs, Chemehuevis, Mojaves, Hualapais, Pimas, Papagos, several Apache
nations, Yavapais, Pueblos, Navajos, Seris, Yaquis, Mayos, Huichols, Coras, and
On many of his trips to Mexico, including those to the Yaqui and Seri areas of Sonora,
Roberto Thomson, a resident of Kino Bay, Sonora, accompanied him. Thomson, a white man,
spoke the Seri language, and had a good relationship with the Seris of Tiburon Islandóa
group that adamantly opposed contact with white interlopers. The process in which Davis
established a positive relationship with the Tiburon Island Seris was indicative of the way
he got along with most Native groups. He was very aware of their diversity. In Touring
Topics he wrote, I doubt if the average person, or even the Indian trader of long experience
in dealing with a single tribe, has any conception of the tremendous differences I have
found in dealing with various tribes of Indians. The Apaches of Arizona, for an example, are
the shrewdest kind of traders. Again, we find a type of Indians like the Seris of Tiburon
Island, in the Gulf of California, Indians who are suspicious of all white men. Yet when one
has won their confidence they immediately place faith in the trader. To illustrate this
point, he related an incident whereby he acquired a balsa canoe from the Seris for the
Museum of the American Indian:
I told the Seris that if they would give me the balsa [canoe], I would send them sufficient
lumber to build a boat much better suited to their purposes of fishing, hunting the sea
turtle and the sea lion. Now, mind you, this balsa virtually represented their livelihood.
Nevertheless, Thomson and I had been accepted by them at our face value. We got the balsa,
and when I returned to Hermosillo, I immediately sent the lumber I'd promised in
Davis was very proud of his good relations with the Indians he visited. He was careful to
pay a fair price, in either goods or money, for the items he secured for the museum. A good
guest, he often brought badly needed supplies. Respectful of the wishes of his hosts, he
acceded to their requests if they did not want him to use his camera, and paid those whom he
photographed. He carefully noted the names of the people in his pictures on the backs of the
photographs, and often sent the subject a copy. History shows, however, that he was first
and foremost a collector, and that he procured some items carefully, even surreptitiously,
so as not to upset the Indians of the area. Still, his willingness to view his Indian
acquaintances as unique, intelligent individuals set him apart from most of his
Euro-American contemporaries. And his big heart and generous spirit made a tangible
difference in the lives of impoverished Mesa Grande Kumeyaays and others.
Field Notes Information
The Edward H. Davis field notes reflect, for the most part, the years he worked with George
Heye, collecting for the Museum of the American Indian. They consist of 24 books of notes,
nine sketch books, and two articles authored by Davis. While Davis did not begin his
association with the museum until 1916, the first notebook in the library's collection
begins in1909, and includes vignettes through 1912. Davis regularly wrote about his trips.
He also recounted stories he heard. A Desert Tragedy, told by E. A. Holden and transcribed
in this notebook, is a good example. Davis usually did his sketches in separate notebooks.
Sketch book no. 1 includes illustrations of ollas he collected for Heye and sketches of
pipes. The early notebooks, through field notebook no. 4 and sketch book no. 4, are
concerned with investigations he made in southern California. After that, the notes and
sketches reflect the trips he made to Baja California and other parts of Mexico. Also
included are visits to Mexico City, Washington, D. C. , San Francisco, and Hawaii. Davis
describes visits to the following Indian groups in the field notes in the Huntington Free
Library: Cahuilla, Cora, Huichol, Kumeyaay, Luise o, Mayo, Modoc, Paiute, Papago, Pima,
Seri, Yaqui, and Yuma.
Davis often used the field notebooks to keep track of things as he was going along. A
single notebook might contain rough sketches of artifacts he had excavated, a description of
a collecting trip, vocabulary items, an account of a religious ceremony, a story he had
heard, and a list of expenditures. The sketch books also are eclectic. Many contain quick
drawings of landscapes, residences, and objects. Sometimes it is obvious that he spent more
time on the drawings. Those of a rattle, an olla, or another artifact will be reproduced in
great detail. In the materials in the Huntington Free Library's collection, Davis appears to
be recording his experiences. He noted details that caught his fancy, rather than attempting
any sort of systematic ethnographic observations. Nonetheless, in both the field notes and
the sketches, one can learn a great deal about the groups he visited and their material
cultures. Often Davis seemed absorbed by the geography of the places he visited, possibly
because getting to them was so complicated. Sketch book 6, for example, includes several
maps of trails through the Sierra Madre mountain range in the state of Nayarit in Mexico,
while field notes 7 gives a description of the flora and fauna found there.
Over the years, several scholars have worked with the Davis papers in the Huntington Free
Library. A. H. Whiting (anthropology, Dartmouth) examined them in 1958. He sent
transcriptions of some of the materials on the Seris to E. H. Spicer (anthropology, Arizona)
that same year. Lowell Bean (anthropology, U. of California, Hayward) visited the library in
1976, and prepared a rough chronology of the Davis notebooks. It is included in reel two of
the microfilm edition. The library staff hopes that the microfilm edition of the Edward H.
Davis materials will make this information more widely available to scholars of the Native
peoples of the American Southwest.
The San Diego Historical Society holds many of Edward H. Davis's field notes. It also holds
a large collection of his photographs, as does the National Museum of the American Indian,
Davis, Edward H. The Pursuits of a Museum Collector, as told to John Edwin Hogg. Touring Topics, Oct. 1931, p. 16-21, 35.
Kessler, Daisy Edith. El Capitan Blanco: the white chief of the Mesa Grandes. Southern Workman, Dec. 1909, p. 665-671.
Martinez, Natasha Bonilla and Rose Wyaco. Camera Shots: photographers, expeditions, and
collections. In Spirit Capture: photographs from the National Museum
of the American Indian, edited by Tim Johnson. Washington, DC: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1998, p. 77-106.
McKanna, Clare V. Edward H. Davis, Shadow Catcher Among the Mesa Grande Indians. Native American Studies 1:2, 1987, p. 31-44.
Quinn, Charles Russell and Elena Quinn. Edward H. Davis and the
Indians of the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico. Downey, CA: Elena