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Access and Use


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.

Preferred Citation:

Cite As:Edward H. Davis papers, #9166. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

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 Grande.

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 Maricopas.

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 exchange.

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, Smithsonian Institution.

Material Consulted:

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 Quinn, 1965.