Although Edward H. Davis has been long recognized as a major contributor to the historical record of Southwest Indian cultures, much of his best work as a photographer and writer is just now being recognized. Some 6000 photographic negatives were donated last month to the San Diego Historical Society's archives, along with dozens of journals and manuscripts. A tiny sampling of the photos and writing is reprinted here most for the first time.
Ron May, a local archaeologist who is writing a biography of Edward Davis, was allowed to study many of the photos and journals by special agreement before the Davis family donated them to the Historical Society. May photocopied thirty-eight of the journals and many of the unpublished manuscripts, and his goal is to “piece back together the order of all of his work and publish his pieces intact... I want to analyze his writings and interpret them in a historical context, to show his contribution,” May explains.
That contribution amounts to a preservation of knowledge regarding local Indian ways of life. Davis was part of an influential New York family that was involved in shipping, and he moved out west in the early 1880s after developing a kidney disease. He worked for a time in northern California but came to San Diego in 1886, where he made some money in the city’s land boom. For $6000 he purchased 320 acres of land at Mesa Grande, on the south side of Palomar Mountain, and his roving curiosity turned toward the local Indians.
Ron May says that many of the ancient Indian practices still existed at the turn of the century among the tribes in San Diego's mountains, as well as in northern Baja and Arizona. Davis, who had been a newspaperman in New York, got to know the local Indians and was eventually accepted as one of their own. This enabled him to witness their rituals and hear their oral histories, which he wrote down in great detail in his journals. His entree also allowed him to photograph the Indians of this region, providing an invaluable visual record of San Diego’s original inhabitants. Davis became a private collector of Indian artifacts who eventually caught the eye of George G. Heye a wealthy New Yorker who had established the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. In 1915 Heye purchased Davis's collection and appointed Davis a field collector for the museum.
The collection Davis sold to Heye was made up of Indian artifacts that were among the last of their kind. Although May hasn't come across an inventory of that collection, a 1906 Davis journal lists some of the goods he’d purchased from the Indians at that time and is probably reflective of what he sold to Heye. The list reads, in part: stone axe, Cocopah shell necklace, deer hoof rattles, mescal net bag (agave), coca saddle blanket, gambling counter sticks (for an ancient game called Peon), women's elder bark skirt, California condor dancing skirt, rattlesnake rattles, ceremonial calling stick, stone pipes, bow' and arrows from Yuma, and curved oak rabbit hunting sticks. As a museum collector and photographer. Davis traveled throughout Southern California, the Baja penninsula, and Arizona. Sometimes the museum commissioned the trips, other times Davis organized them as a private traveler. Although he wasn’t trained as an anthropologist, his journalistic skills served him well as an acute observer and made for a larger contribution to Indian history. “Historians of that period focused upon important figures in American and Mexican political and commercial history, rather than the local and social history of Indians and pioneers” May writes in a study of the Davis material. “Davis’s passion for local lore and fading memories of past lifeways will now prove to be a major contribution [in filling the gaps] in the regional record which had been thought to have been lost.”
Davis observed the Indians during a period in which they were being forced to give up a seasonal hunter-gatherer life and adapt to a cash-based economy. When drought and the Great Depression struck in the 1930s, Davis’s journals show that he became something of an angel to the poverty-stricken bands in the Mesa Grande area. May says Davis would often make rounds among the Indian families in a car or wagon, and after sharing a meal with them, he would fill up their baskets with food and then photograph them and purchase some of their goods.
Throughout the 1920s, Davis had operated the Powam Lodge as a boarding house and dude ranch on his property near the adobe home he had built in 1891. He was a popular storyteller at the lodge, where he would dress up in buckskins and regale the guests at night before the large stone fireplace. But the lodge burned down in 1930. Davis had to turn to writing for popular publications such as Desert Magazine, The Scientific Monthly, and Touring Topics during the Depression. Prior to that time, he had published several important articles through the George G. Heye Foundation May says some of these articles are considered “milestones” by local Indian scholars. Davis died in 1951.
“Davis was accepted by the Indians and became a religious leader among them,” says May. “He was often invited to their ceremonies, and in his mind, he was recording them in order to set them aside so they wouldn't be forgotten. That was his compelling argument to the Indians: these things must be preserved for the future.”
In the course of researching the Edward H. Davis journals and manuscripts. May came across a fourteen-page article entitled “Secrets of the Desert” (a version of which was first published in 1965 by Elena Quinn of Downey, California, in a book of some of Davis’s photographs and writings). May has surmised that Davis heard this story secondhand from the grandson who, in the article, visited the old Indian at the turn of the century. There is some question as to whether the story is completely factual; May speculates that Davis may have embellished it somewhat, elevating a basically true story to the level of legend. That 200 prospectors could have been killed without the outside world taking notice is questionable, but May does believe that many whites were murdered by the Indian in the story. He figures that the time is the 1870s and 1880s and that the setting is probably the desert north of Borrego Springs in San Diego County. The significance of the story is that it may be an eyewitness account, from the Indians’ point of view, of the white man’s first destructive steps into Indian culture. Even today, in his dealings with modern Indians, May senses the same kind of secrecy that the old Indian talks about. “There's a certain lack of communication, a distrust that’s always there,” May muses. “They have a laugh, a mocking kind of look they give you. You know they're harboring things that they’ll never communicate to white men.”