The evicted residents of the Kumeyaay village raced to assemble a goat corral and government-issued tents before the rains came. Trunks, boxes, stoves, manos and bedding were scattered around the camp. A frail Easterner sat nearby making sketches of the displaced families during one of the worst times of their lives. They had lost everything–“every dear stone and cracked olla,” as the artist wrote.
The refugees were too busy to pay attention to the man with the thick New York accent, but if they had they would have noted his perpetually sad expression and his baggy pants. He looked like Charlie Chaplin calmly sketching at the end of the world.
Brooklyn-born Edward Harvey Davis (1862-1951) was from an East Coast ship-building clan and had come to the backcountry of San Diego only three years before. Frail from kidney disease, he headed West for his health, arriving with the usual load of preconceptions about Native Americans. But now, in 1903, he was in the midst of a mass tragedy. The United States Army had forced the Cupeño people—as well as neighboring Luiseño and Kumeyaay–to leave Warner Springs at gunpoint and relocated them to Pala. The historian Phil Brigandi says this was the final forced removal in the United States, a scourge that began with the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
Davis was an eyewitness. He likely was shaped by Owen Wister and Zane Grey novels and had a pulp Western mindset, mythologizing himself in self-portraits with rattlesnakes slung around his neck. But this was no dime novel. The suffering was real and the skinny artist—no pulp hero—could do nothing but draw pictures.
A contemporary of a more famous Edward–Edward Curtis–Davis was a sketch artist, photographer and a field collector of Indian artifacts for the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. Almost unknown today, he made an epic years-long quest to document Southern California tribes. Riding out on horseback with 50 lbs. of camera equipment in his saddlebags, he traveled thousands of miles and visited at least twenty Indian groups including the Yuma, Mojave, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla.
His photographs and field journals are archived at Cornell University, the Smithsonian and the San Diego History Center, with subjects including Cahuilla basket makers in Palm Springs, Ramona’s house, Agua Caliente tribal leader Francisco Patencio, Cahuilla medicine man Pedro Chino and Fig Tree John, the top-hatted folk hero who lived near the Salton Sea.
San Diego archaeologist Ron May first told me about Davis. May—as you might remember—is the rescuer of many California stories. He saved the Susie Keef Smith (“Postcards from Mecca”) photographs from a dumpster. He was a friend of artist and archaeologist Emma Lou Davis. It’s as if has a red light on his car dash that starts blinking when important old stuff needs saving.
The light went on in 1986 when he got a call from Nancy Davis Wilson, Edward Davis’s daughter, to come look at a trunk full of photos and field notes. May drove up to Mesa Grande and interviewed Wilson. He was later instrumental in handing over some 7,000 photos and sketches, along with 62 field journals, to the San Diego History Museum.
My introduction to Davis coincided with a nationwide reappraisal of early relic collections and collectors. Sometimes guilty of greed or dehumanization, the collectors were not always the good guys. To try to understand Davis’s motives, I turned to his essays found in a 1965 book by Charles and Elena Quinn: Edward H. Davis and the Indians of the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico. Yet I did not find much reassurance there. Davis’s own writing tends towards cliché. Native men and women are superstitious and simple, “all alike in their lowly estate.”
I thought perhaps I should let the Davis story rest. What changed my mind, though, were the sketches. Sketching—more than photography and writing—seems to transcend power dynamics, to cut through us and them. I studied Davis’s sketch of a woman named Catalina at Pala, her bare foot turned toward us. In another drawing, a Cahuilla woman grinds acorn meal, her arms uplifted in effort just before she drops the heavy stone. When Davis sat down in the dirt to draw, he began a slow shift from standing outside people’s lives to living inside their own story.
From where I type in Palm Springs, the Mesa Grande country seems as remote as the North Slope of Alaska. This chunk of San Diego backcountry sits on the other side of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains from me, in a dense thicket of inland mountains and desert off the tourist map. Edward Davis came here in 1885, arriving in San Diego harbor aboard a ship. He found work as a draftsman and mapmaker, helping to draw plans for the Coronado Hotel; the same year he married Anna Marion Wells.
Davis used the proceeds from a real estate deal to purchase 320 acres of land at Mesa Grande, an ideal base for travel into the surrounding deserts. A wild outpost on a high plateau, Mesa Grande was full of romance for the recent arrival. A 20-year-old woman named Alice drove the four-horse stage over the Black Canyon trail to deliver the mail. Davis helped his neighbors, Jim and Art Stone, drive cattle into the Borrego desert via the old Hellhole Trail. It took four-days round trip to travel to San Diego for supplies.
When Davis came on the scene, his Native American neighbors were being pushed out by Western expansion. Nearby lived the northern Diegueño (Kumeyaay); down in Warner Valley were the Luiseño; over at Warner Hot Springs (scene of the forced removal of 1903), the Cupeño. There were the Mountain Cahuilla in the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Pass Cahuilla in Palm Springs. For the first four years, Davis and his extended family—wife, son, wife’s mother and brother—crowded into a small shack with Calico nailed over the boards to keep out the rain. They carried water from the spring in pails. Another child was born. Davis worked as a gentleman rancher and fruit grower, eventually building a two-story adobe home with a cement bath where he did his photo processing.
The crowded quarters were further stressed when he began to pick up mortars, metates, masks, baskets, and bows and arrows found abandoned in the hills. He built another small adobe out back to hold the collection. (His great-granddaughter, Julianna Davis, today lives in the former “curio shop”.) On these trips, he began meeting his Indian neighbors. At around this time, Los Angeles historian Charles Lummis was writing in his Land of Sunshine magazine about Native people as “our wards to be cared for.” May says Davis was heavily influenced by Lummis (the two men were personally acquainted), and began taking coffee, sugar and supplies to his neighbors—photographing and sketching them at the same time.
Brooklyn Art Guild
As a young man, Davis had studied at the Brooklyn Art Guild and got into the habit of carrying a sketchpad and pens with him everywhere. In Mesa Grande, he turned those artistic skills to his work as an amateur ethnographer. He was motivated, in part, by the prevailing theory that American Indians were becoming extinct and their way of life must be captured before it was theoretically lost forever: the Vanishing Indian trope. The theory–and the so-called salvage anthropology it inspired–has since been debunked. As it turns out, the Indians did not vanish and their stories did not disappear.
At the same time Davis was embarking on his quest, Edward Curtis (1868-1952) was beginning his own monumental work photographing North American Indians. Each man worked for three decades at their respective tasks. Our Edward (Davis) was a raconteur who liked to dress up in buckskins and tell Indian tales to an audience, but he lacked Curtis’s promotional skills, ambition and wealthy benefactors such as Theodore Roosevelt and financier JP Morgan.
Edward Davis did manage to attract the attention of George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian, now part of the Smithsonian Institution. Heye, like Davis, was a New Yorker who had left his Wall Street job to chase artifacts. There were few professional anthropologists at the time and amateurs like Davis filled the role. In 1915, Heye traveled across the continent and traveled up the steep Mesa Grande grade to recruit Davis as one of his prime collectors. His foundation purchased Davis’s entire artifact collection gathered to date.
During his collecting years, Davis completed construction on Powam Lodge—a grand boarding house and dude ranch designed by Emmor Brooke Weaver, a San Diego architect skilled in Craftsman style. Davis encouraged local tribal members to sell their baskets and crafts at the tourist resort built on his Mesa Grande property. At night by the big fireplace, Davis changed into a headdress and told stories to city visitors.
By this time, he had four children who stepped easily into their roles as actors in the fantasy. The charismatic bunch are seen in many of Davis’s photos wearing chaps, kerchiefs and six-shooters, bulldogging calves and twirling lariats. The kids entertained the guests while Davis slipped out the back door and endlessly roamed the nearby deserts, looking for subjects and stories.
The collector’s showman instincts were piqued when he heard reports of a photogenic Yuma Indian living in the nearby Laguna Mountains. Imagine Davis’s anticipation as he traveled on horseback to meet the man he called Yellow Sky–“hair in streamers and ropes down to his wrinkled knees.” In an essay on the meeting, Davis breaks character to make a fashion point: “How did he keep it from being messed up in a terrible tangle?”
Here Davis had his own “last wild Indian”. Alfred Kroeber—the famed University of California anthropologist–had just claimed Ishi, the last of a band of Yahi people discovered in 1911. A 1912 photo shows Edward H. Davis, in white shirt and tie, sunken face and big ears, one hand on his hip and a parental hand on the shoulder of his subject: a nearly naked barefoot man, dreadlocks down to his knees, a man who lived on squirrel meat and wood rats. “I suppose Davis gave him a pound of coffee for being a good model,” Ron May said of the photo shoot.
This could be considered a low point in Davis’s personal evolution. While visiting Davis’s daughter at Mesa Grande in the 1980s, Ron May had a chance to review the collector’s high school essays, wherein he revealed “an extreme White Christian bias against Native people’s mental capabilities. Those childish New England biases hugely affected how Davis approached, documented and wrote about Native people,” May said.
May was planning a Masters’ thesis on Davis’s work at the time but abandoned the notion due to the embellishments and outright fiction found in his narratives. “There was always a theatrical overstatement to whatever he did,” May says.
By the year 1922, Davis had documented many of the Southern California and Arizona tribes. When George Heye asked where he’d like to go next, he said: To meet the Seris, reported to be a fierce band of cannibals living on Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California. Soon, Davis and his guide were rowing a boat made of a hollowed log across green shallow water, waving a white banner to signal friendship to tribespeople on the island. The explorers pulled up on a muddy beach strewn with turtle bones and sea shells.
If meeting Yellow Sky was a low point in Davis’s evolution, the muddy shore of Seriland was where he finally shed some of his retro views. In photos, we see him barefoot for the first time, casting off the high boots that doubled as armor against the unfamiliar. He removes his possessive arm from his subjects’ shoulders. In one photo, posing with Seri men, he loses the bleak expression and comes close to smiling.
For the first time, we hear Davis standing with his subjects. “It’s little wonder that they hate the white man,” he wrote. “Their whole history has been a story of fighting, killing and being killed for their very existence.”
Ron May says Davis wasn’t just changing his tune, but changing his very self: “In his mind he went Native and began to see himself as one of them.” Going Native was to become an American archetype, popular in movies and fiction. (See Dances with Wolves, the 1990 Kevin Costner epic.) Shari Huhndorf, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, has said Going Native was an attempt by non-Native people to distance themselves from the conquerors.
When Powam Lodge burned down in 1930, it was a financial and emotional loss to her great-grandfather, says Julianna Davis: “It took a lot of air out of his sails.”
Davis died in 1951. Julianna was born two years later, so she never met the artist, but he is vivid in family stories and in his sketches and watercolors displayed in her house. When she looks out from her porch through the trees, she can see the lichen-spotted boulder that cradles the cremated remains of Edward Harvey Davis and his wife Anna. (Davis wanted his remains to be poured into a crack in this favorite spot.) At the boulder’s base, in the family cemetery, rests Davis’s mother, Christina, as well as his children and grandchildren.
Davis’s legacy as a family man is secure, then, on his high Mesa, but what of his legacy as a photographer and amateur ethnographer? In 2012, the San Diego History Center embarked on an 18-month project to provide public access to the vast collection of Davis images. The project team held meetings with Barona, Santa Ysabel, Viejas, Pala and Rincon tribal members, asking for their help in identifying locations and people pictured. Larry Banegas of the Barona Band of Mission Indians was the liaison to the Indian community. “This project is really important for our people to see because it’s like a snapshot around the turn of the century of what our people were doing at the time,” he told a reporter.
So, despite Davis’s dime novel blunders, he managed to create thousands of photos and sketches that are used today by tribal members to reclaim the narrative once written by non-Natives. His triumph is handing the story back.