First American scholars in the Southwest

The beginnings of scientific exploration and research in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

With the United States taking over most of the territory that today belongs to the Southwest, expeditions and quests set out again to “rediscover” the region. Although today we know many written Spanish sources from the colonisation, at the beginning Mexicans and Spaniards were not very eager to share any information with their recent enemy, the United States. A lot of new data and previously unknown documents are also constantly being discovered. However, it should be recalled that this information, often fragments of conquistadors’ chronicles, missionaries’ records and official reports prepared by the Spanish and Mexican administrations, were not written with any scientific rigour and as such must be subject to critical analysis, taking into account, inter alia, the context and the period in which they arose.

The first expeditions of the Americans were mainly military quests, but often such missions were accompanied by various scientists who described, drew and photographed a world unknown to them. An important role was also played by cartographers and surveyors who created maps of areas thus far scarcely known. These American military and geographic expeditions began to be organised from the 1850s, including those led by William H. Emory (1848) and J.H. Simpson (1850) ( The desire to learn about deposits of natural resources and the geology of new areas was also important, and this officially became one of the reasons for the establishment in 1879 of the United States Geological Survey—an American scientific and research agency. To this day, it is a unit of global scope and importance, researching the biological, geographic and natural resources of the earth and trying to counteract the effects of natural disasters. The first and most significant expeditions included at least four major excursions from the 1860s and 1870s.

One of these great expeditions was a several-year project led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, the so-called Hayden Expedition, also known as the Hayden Geological Survey. In 1871, they explored the territory of today’s Wyoming (including Yellowstone Park), and in the years 1874–1876, part of this expedition led by William H. Jackson and William H. Harrison explored the territory of Utah and Colorado for the first time since the sporadic Spanish expeditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This excursion yielded numerous descriptions, drawings and the first photographs of these areas (taken mainly by Jackson), both of nature, as well as the terrain and archaeological sites. The topographic maps of the areas compiled by the members of the expedition were also very important. Earlier (from 1863) large-scale explorations, incline in California and Arizona, were undertaken by Clarence King, who would later become the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Figure 1. Examples of the first U.S. scientific and military quests to the Southwest: (a) part of the U.S. Geological Survey following the Yellowstone River (photo William Henry Jackson, circa 1870-1880), (b) Clarence King’s camp near Salt Lake City, Utah, (c) John Wesley Powell’s first expedition camp on the Green River in Wyoming and preparation for the exploration of the canyons of Utah and Colorado. Photos from the Library of Congress collection.

A subsequent excursion to these regions was none other than the famous expedition led in 1869 by John Wesley Powell (Powell 1961), professor of geology at the Illinois State Normal University and former soldier (he served in the army, including during the Civil War). Powell had previously explored Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the mountains of eastern Utah in 1867 and 1868. He, his nine companions and three boats traveled down rivers in several canyons of the Southwest, including the Green River Canyon in Utah and the Colorado River Grand Canyon in Utah and Arizona. Following this expedition, the US Congress granted Powell funding for two further excursions (1870 and 1872).

The fourth expedition, in 1869 and 1871, was led by a lieutenant of the US army stationed in California, George Wheeler, who explored and mapped the territory of present-day Nevada and Arizona, which turned into a kind of military competition to map these areas for civilians from the Hayden expedition and led to large-scale conflicts.

Soon after these first military and civilian expeditions and quests, in the 1880s and 90s, people sent by various scientific institutions (universities, museums and others), as well as private sponsors, mostly from the east and sometimes west coasts of the United States began to conduct archaeological and ethnographic research. In addition to this type of missions, other types of scientific exploits were undertaken, including the first palaeontologist, both professional and amateur, expeditions to Utah and Colorado. One example of such was an trip involving Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope—scientists from Yale University who, in 1872 together with guides from the Ute tribe, explored the areas of the south-eastern part of Utah in search of dinosaur remains and other fossils.

Soon after, the first scientific institutions began to appear in the Southwest. In 1864 the University of Denver was founded. In 1885 the University of Arizona in Tucson was the first university in Arizona to be established, preceded two years earlier by the Arizona State Museum (today part of the University of Tucson), while in 1886 the University of Colorado was erected in Boulder. The anthropological and archaeological schools and departments of these universities (initially mainly in Tucson) began to set the bar for research in the Southwest, along with other research institutions in the East. Researchers working in the Southwest, both those employed locally as well as representatives of other universities, such as Harvard University, Pennsylvania State University or the Smithsonian Institution, managed to develop many elements of modern research methodology valid not only for this region, but used throughout American archeology; here too lie the foundations of modern absolute dating methods.

Before standards were developed in these institutions, however, scientists who wanted to study the Native American cultures began to explore the Southwest; this was in line with the growth of tourism in this region (similar processes may be observed in Europe at that time). The Southwest was, and still is, a region that offers fascinating monuments of nature and the natural environment, as well as many places where you can even actually touch the Indian past while looking at the ruins of huge settlements, for example the Ancestral Puebloans. The descendants of ancient cultures still live in the same place as their ancestors, cultivating much of their heritage. Undoubtedly, all of this was and remains a kind of magnet attracting the first ethnographers and archaeologists, as well as amateurs of archeology and tourists.

One of the first researchers among the “archaeologists-ethnographers” of the Southwest was Adolph Bandelier, who for about 12 years from 1880 alternated between archaeological excavations and ethnographic research in the Southwest. He was a lawyer, without the necessary theoretical preparation for research work on Native American cultures, but his observations and analyses focused on field research among living communities and he studied not only their customs and social structures, but also artifacts and objects of everyday life that are extremely valuable from today’s point of view. Another very important figure was Frank Hamilton Cushing, the leader of the first official archaeological excursion to the Southwest, the so-called Hemenway Expedition 1886–1889. His almost two-year stay with the Zuni Indians in New Mexico and the observations made during this period resulted in a unique publication, initially rejected by the sponsors of his research, and today constituting the basic, even classic source of ethnographic knowledge about the life of the then Zuni and other Pueblo groups.

Figure 2. Some of the first archaeologists and anthropologists to lay the foundations for the development of Southwest archeology: (a) Frank Hamilton Cushing, (b) Adolph Bandelier, (c) Alfred Vincent Kidder. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

During his stay with the Zuni Indians, Cushing managed to collect many invaluable descriptions of the social structure, material culture, and customs, and also described the rhythm of life in the Zuni community that changed with the seasons, as well as any related religious ceremonies (e.g., Cushing 1981, 1986). Cushing was even admitted to one of the religious brotherhoods and received many other privileges, including the right to wear traditional Zuni clothing. His work laid the foundations for the subsequent establishment of direct observation as a scientific research method, which preceded the works of Bronisław Malinowski by nearly three decades, as well as what in the 1950s and 1960s what would turn out to be ethnoarchaeology—simply put, ethnographic observations, but from the point of view of an archaeologist.

Ethnoarchaeological research is still conducted among various Native American communities in the Southwest  to investigate, among others, production techniques and decoration of ceramics and other monuments of material culture and what may be broadly understood as handicrafts—such as woven baskets, silver and turquoise jewellery, weaving etc.—as well as to interpret the iconography of rock art and how it was made, but also organisations of settlements, sacred landscapes and much more. This is conducted in reservations as well as in off-reserve locations, research centres, universities, and national parks with pre-Hispanic sites.

Another person who conducted this type of research in the nineteenth century without adequate theoretical grounding in archeology or ethnography (though comprehensively educated, among others, in the sciences) was a European named Gustaf Nordenskiöld (Nordenskiöld 1990), son of the famous explorer and Arctic explorer, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. In 1891, G. Nordenskiöld came to the Southwest to treat his tuberculosis. Together with people from the local Wetherill family of cowboys and ranchers, he conducted one of the first archaeological excavations of a dozen Ancestral Pueblo culture cliff sites in the present-day Mesa Verde National Park that would take into account practically “contemporary” research methodology (few years before, the Wetherills were the first white explorers of these settlements when they searched for lost cattle). Importantly, his work was conducted even before the infamous period at the turn of the twentieth century when many of these sites were plundered. Nordenskiöld also amassed a large collection of relics from the Mesa Verde region; today this is one of the largest European and international collections of ancient Pueblo culture, kept at the National Museum in Helsinki.

Other researchers from this period include Byron Cummings, Jesse W. Fewkes, Edgar L. Hewett, Walter H. Hough, Cosmo and Victor Mindeleff, and James Stevenson. At that time (at the turn of the twentieth century), these pioneering researchers of Southwestern Indian cultures often conducted excavations in summer, and ethnographic studies of living Indian communities in autumn and winter.

Of course, the archeology of that period also had its own serious limitations. One example is the lack of developed chronology (at least until the 1920s and 1930s, or even later) and the uncritical assumption by many researchers that all remains of stone settlements should be associated only with historical and contemporary Pueblo groups. Only professional scientists, educated in anthropology and archeology in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, would be able to solve these dilemmas. Here mention should be made of researchers such as Nels Nelson (meritorious for his wide use of stratigraphy in excavations in the Southwest, including between 1913-1915 when he conducted archaeological works, for instance, in ancient pueblos in New Mexico, distinguishing individual ceramic styles), Alfred L. Kroeber who described, inter alia, the first series of ceramics dating from the modern period to the past, mainly on the basis of a collection of surface ceramics, and researched the structure and organisation of individual Zuni families, and finally Leslie Spier who used the work and experience of the two previous men as a basis for attempting to date individual archaeological sites relatively (including by using surface finds). This marked a kind of revolution in methodology and professional studies carried out in this region.

Alfred L. Kroeber was, one could say, a representative of a new group of researchers—the students of Franz Boas (an anthropologist and linguist, amongst others, sometimes called “the father of American anthropology”) who, rejecting evolutionism and often undermining it, placed great emphasis on field research and what may be broadly understood as the interdisciplinarity of research on human cultures. F. Boas is the founder of a research school, and one of his students was Ruth Benedict who studied the culture of the Zuni Indians, using the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to develop a theory (now rejected) about the moderate-living and peaceful Pueblos; the results of her research are included in what is now a classic publication—Patterns of Culture. This school remained somewhat in opposition to the achievements of predecessors who researched and described Southwestern Indian cultures, mainly from the late nineteenth century.

In the next decade would emerge a new body of researchers who developed a chronological and cultural framework for the Southwest, with some exceptions and additions that remain largely in use today. Alfred V. Kidder made a huge contribution to the development of the archeology of this region. He conducted one of the first professional archaeological studies, which included the use of stratigraphy at the Pecos site in New Mexico. He chose this location because of its long history of use, because it was known from the first expeditions of the Spanish conquistadors as one of the largest Pueblo Indian settlements at that time which actively traded with the Plains Indians; it was eventually abandoned in 1838 (and therefore known as terminus ante quem). After conducting six seasons of research in Pecos, A.V. Kidder wrote the first synthesis of Southwest archeology, taking into account the results of his work and describing the contemporary Pueblo communities of Arizona and New Mexico; this publication is still one of the classic works on the archeology of this region.

Kidder also made a very important contribution to the development and determination of the Pueblo culture’s relative chronology (mainly on the basis of his work in Pecos), the so-called Pecos chronology or classification covering the two main periods and their respective phases (see Chapter IV). This chronology, supplemented with absolute radiocarbon dating, remains the basis of chronological considerations and the sequence of changes in the Pueblo culture to this day. He was assisted by research made by the astronomer Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who had conducted pioneering work in the field of dendrochronology and dating using this method since the 1920s (or even slightly earlier as, in 1919, Douglass announced the first results of his comparative studies, which localised the construction Aztec Ruins sites 40 years after Pueblo Bonito).

The first major official “dendrochronological” project, the so-called Beam Expedition, led by Douglass, took place in 1923, sponsored by National Geographic, and the next two in 1928 and 1929 resulted in the elaboration of a chronology reaching back as far as 1260 CE and even earlier periods. Douglass laid the foundations for modern dendrochronology, one of the most precise dating methods (apart from written sources and coins), and in 1937 he founded the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, one of the most important of its kind in the world.

Finally, in order to systematise the existing knowledge and results of research conducted by numerous scientists in various places in the Southwest, in 1927 A. Kidder organised the first of a series of conferences in Pecos, which remains important to this day as a periodical research conference organised at the end of the summer and research season. Kidder’s archaeological work, publications and organisational efforts made a huge contribution to the development of the discipline, which is why he went down in posterity as the “dean” of Southwest archeology. Kidder later became famous as a researcher of the Mayan culture.

Another scientist who contributed enormously to establishing a framework for other cultures and traditions of the pre-Hispanic Southwest was, among others, Harold S. Gladwin, who initiated and developed research into the Hohokam culture, another of the great cultural traditions of the Southwest. Like Kidder’s work on the Pueblo culture, part of his research was aimed at devising a chronology for the Hohokam culture (1931). His work was continued and developed by Emil Haury, who was active in this field from at least the 1930s to the early 1990s, and was also the director of the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Also in 1931, at a conference in Gila Pueblo and later at the Pecos conference, another great cultural tradition was “sanctioned”—the Mogollon culture also researched by Emil Haury, among others. Works by Harold S. Colton, who was also the director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, established in 1928, led to the identification of other cultural traditions in the region in the late 1930s and 1940s—the Patayan (Hakataya) and Sinagua cultures.

These researchers, together with archaeologists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laid the foundations for the modern archeology of this area and often the standards they developed are still relevant today, and their research at the most important sites stands as an invaluable repository of knowledge as often these places were no longer investigated. The relative chronologies proposed by them were updated and expanded after the invention of the dendrochronological dating method, the 14C method (developed in the 1940s and finalised in 1949 by Willard Libby of the University of Chicago and his colleagues) and others. Of course, over the years, local chronologies were developed that better reflect the cultural specificity of this quite environmentally and geographically diverse region of the Southwest, but the Pecos chronology remains a yardstick that most researchers still refer to.

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