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 May photocopied thirty-eight of the journals and many of the unpublished manuscripts, and his goal is to “piece back together the order of all of his work and publish his pieces intact...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.”
Very old he was, with face seamed and shriveled like a piece of jerked venison. His hair, coarse and long, was white as the driven snow. His beady eyes were crafty, cunning, and deeply set under a low corrugated brow. His mouth was large, straight, and cruel, with thin lips tightly compressed, and his hands were like the claws of some wild bird. His feet were shod with mescal sandals, now rarely seen, but used by the desert Indians since time immemorial. He still stood erect, and considering his years, he was active, hale and hearty.
Nearby was his hag of a wife, Cha-lak-ka, the horned toad, bent with age and hard labor; hair grizzled and unkempt, with peering hawk like eyes; mouth drooping and face in a continual scowl The chin was tattooed with the radiating blue lines typical of the desert Indian women, and this was supplemented by a blue dot on each cheek. Her skin was like brown parchment and puckered into a thousand wrinkles from exposure to the fierce desert climate for eighty years or thereabouts.
A small hut of one room, made of arrow weed lashed to a frame of mesquite and carrizo reed by strips of willow bark or rawhide thongs, constituted their dwelling. The floor was dirt and the furniture consisted of a couple of boxes, an old battered trunk, and a pile of dirty rags in one corner answering for a bed. Bunches of herbs hung from the smoke-blackened rafters and ceiling, and coils of basket fiber and deer grass were tucked under the eaves Suspended from an upright was an old army revolver and leaning nearby was a modern rifle. The only light admitted to this, house came through the low door.
The house was shaded from the ardent sun and the fiery winds on three sides by an arrowweed windbreak In the lee the old woman squatted, fashioning with infinite patience and skill a large basket Nearby a small campfire burned, over which, resting on stones, a small blackened olla was simmering. Suspended by rawhide thongs was a large drinking olla covered with burlap and filled with cold water. A shapely mortar beautifully and symetrically hollowed from a mesquite log, was sunk in the earth and with its long slender stone pestal formed the primitive mill in which the different seeds and beans of the desert were reduced to a palatable and nourishing meal.
About 200 feet distant, a lone palm lifted its rustling fronds sixty or seventy feet into the air, at the foot of whose fibrous roots a little seepage constituted their scant water supply.
To the west, the desert rolled away in shimmering miles to the vast mountain barrier, which reared its snowy crest thousands of feet into the deep blue desert sky. Desolate, dry, forbidding, cut into a myriad of deep gloomy canyons by the erosion of ages. This range is the fit abiding place of the raven, the condor, and the mountain sheep. The passes are few and difficult — and known only to the Indians who have used them for centuries. This is their ancient hunting ground for deer and sheep. Water, more precious than gold, is very scarce and safely hidden in the secret recesses of the mountains from whose scarred and rugged breasts a niggardly supply is reluctantly yielded to primitive man and beast. Mescal, yucca, and mesquite vie with the cholla, bisnaga, and ocotillo in repellant growths, and all nature is spiked and armed against all invaders.
Guarding her scant treasure with ramparts of iron and barring the ways of nature's fiercely armed hosts, the desert ranges suffer only those who conform to her unyielding, arbitrary laws; the others she repudiates, and only a few bleached and polished fragments, happened upon by chance, tell of some tragedy in the vast solitudes of the ranges.
The old man. squatting on his haunches, was industriously puffing on a cigarette while he talked in the soft low cadences of the Cahuilla language to a large, fine-looking specimen of Indian manhood, perfectly attired in American clothes. He was the grandson, twenty-five years old and just returned from Carlisle (an Indian school in Riverside). He sat on a bench and listened intently to what the old man was relating. It was difficult at times for him to understand his mother tongue, as he was placed in school as a child, thoroughly drilled in English, and this was his first visit home.
As the old man’s tale proceeded, his gestures became quick and emphatic, his whole bearing became tense with suppressed passion, his cavernous eyes glowed like livid coals, and the compressed lips hissed on the wrongs of his race.
“My son, listen well. For the first time and for the last, will I break silence and bare to you the hidden secrets of the desert and reveal to you the soul of the red man. Thereafter, forever, nevermore will I speak of this.
“Many, many snows have whitened yonder peaks since I was young as you, strong, agile, passionate, and fierce. No deer was so wary I could not track him and bring his flesh to dry by my campfire. No sheep was so agile that I could not follow up the rugged steeps. My arrows, fashioned by these hands, always sped true to the mark, and these eyes, dimming with age and rheum, rivaled those of the eagle. Game, in my youth, was abundant; the mesquite and maguey filled our great storage baskets, and no one went hungry. Our women were fat and prolific; families were numerous and happy; our girls, brown and full-breasted, were attractive, and our boys were straight, strong, and swift. Clothing such as we now wear was unknown.
Our bodies were free, and diseases such as follow the white man were strangers to us.
“As far as the eye could reach, we were the masters. No one disputed our rights. No one had to work as we know it. All was free for the gathering and abundant for our every need — all, until the white curse blighted our land and race.
“Our elders had heard of men with white skin whose legs and bodies were wrapped in queer things we now know as clothes, through the Yumas far to the south. The first white man came through our country when I was a boy. He is seared into my memory like white-hot iron, for he killed my boyhood friend. This boy, Ya-wut, and I were together since we were babies, and as year by year we grew up, we snared the birds and rabbits, trapped the big pack rats, and shared the same blankets, food, and water. Where one was, the other was not far off.
“This white man had long hair on his chin and lip, the first one I had seen with hair on his face. He carried a small crooked stick by his side, which he used to take out and make spit fire and smoke with a noise like the thunder god in the mountains. The elders were afraid, I but did not show fear. The boys, girls, and women used to run into the huts and hide like rabbits, for they feared the white man as a great Chicero who could make fire and noise at will with his wonderful medicine stick.
“The sun. Tee-met, had only come up thrice from the edge of the world when the hairy one saw Ya-wut looking stealthily into a roll of things he had brought on his horse. Then he went quietly up to the boy, placed the thunder stick to his head, and Ya-wut rolled over dead. Killed by the white man's magic. I was only a boy. so high, but my heart went black. All my people were afraid and went away and hid. Our Chicero did not know this man’s medicine and though he cast spells, and even cooked in poison of the rattlesnake a shred of the man's clothing found on a mesquite tree, and blew the withering death breath at him which kills without fail, these things had no effect on the white man. He left that day and with him went one of our maidens. May-la, the moon child. With his fearful thunder stick he made her mount one horse and ride ahead, and we watched them go out of sight to the north toward the Great White Mountain. May-la never returned.
The elders from several rancherias, the Chiceros and the chiefs, held a great fiesta for three days. Much tobacco was smoked, many words were spoken, but nothing ever was done, because the white man’s magic was more powerful than that of our greatest Chiceros. Secretly I went to the great stone mountain where Tarquish lives, the god who shakes the earth, and to him I made a ceremony with food and tobacco, and all night I chanted like the elders, with the medicine rattle.
“Near dawn I fell asleep under the great tall trees where the wind was making the spirits of the dead to moan. Soon a coyote came to me. I asked if he came from Tarquish. He said no but was just passing thinking I was dead. Soon a raven came. I asked if he had a message from Tarquish but he said no. He saw me lying and thought I was dead. The Moola, the owl, the wise one, came. I asked if he brought a message from Tarquish. He looked at me a long time silent. His eyes grew big. He said yes, Tarquish sent this message: ‘Learn the white man’s medicine — only the white man’s medicine can destroy the white man.'
“Since that time I was always known as Moola and I could see at night as well as by day. I said nothing. I kept my secret. After twelve moons, other hairy white men came through our village. Some went on, some stayed for several suns. All had the short thunder stick and many had the long thunder stick, and I remember with what wonder we saw an antelope drop dead many arrow flights distant, when one white man pointed his long medicine stick. I kept my secret, but I was never far away when these men used their thunder sticks. These men all had hair on their faces and rode horses and also had other horses with strange crooked sticks tied on. They stayed with us for seven suns. Each day they would go to the mountain, and our most skillful scout would trail and watch them as he lay concealed behind a bisnaga or rock. He saw them use the strange sticks to dig in the rocks and earth. They were always looking at pieces of rock which they dug up with the crooked sticks. Some they would pound into very fine pieces in a mortar, put them in a small olla with water, mix it all up, and the wise one with four eyes would look at it and make strong talk to the others. I thought it must be very strong white man’s medicine. I asked our Chicero about it, but he was very angry and would not answer, only muttering his incantations. We kept our girls out of sight as much as possible, but two of the men each found a smooth, comely girl which he wanted and offered to buy or trade for. We could not sell to a white man, but as we knew they would take the girls anyway, one father made the man understand he would trade for his long fire stick. After much talk among his companions, the trade was made, and so the tribe got its first gun, but that was all. Our Chicero, try as he would could not make fire, and so it was useless to us as we were ignorant of the white man's magic. The girls never returned. I kept my secret and waited.
“Other white men came and still others. We soon got the white man's medicine and used the fire stick, and some got expert and could kill game and were very proud. I could also use the fire stick, and knowing my secret, I became the most expert in the tribe.
Then came along a white man with eyes like the sky and hair like the setting sun only darker. He also had things tor digging, and he used to get me to go to the mountains with him and he taught me how' to dig and the color of the rock to dig. Then in the little olla sometimes were little specks of yellow washed out of the rock These the man called gold, oro, and he always wanted to find a lot of it. He was with us a little over one moon, and the maidens became not afraid and went about their duties as usual. One of these maidens, round and full, with eyes dark as an owl and raven glossy hair down her brown shoulders, was to be my wife. I was to purchase her from her parents with three deer and one sheep. She was to come to me, prepare and cook my meals, dress my hides, make my mesquite meal in the wooden mortar, bear my children, same as the other women. She was to come to me in one more moon, when she should complete the puberty ceremony for girls, la-tatema.
“This red-haired man. called Bill, cast eyes on her I did not like. I did not appear to notice, but knowing my secret, I was always watching, even when he thought me asleep. I had to go away and get venison for the father of Toosh-mul, the Hummingbird, as she was known. Once when I returned I found the two together, and she had a red scarf bound around her head, which I had not seen before and of which she was very proud. Later I talked to the Hummingbird, but she only hung her head and said no word.
“The next day. Bill had gone and then it was all right. Toosh-mul did not wear the red scarf and she was full of laughter and mischief and I was contented: and as I smoked, 1 could see our own remuda of arrowweed on the edge of the mesquite, the venison hanging in strips for drying, two little naked brown babies playing around, the dog, cross and lying in the shade, and Toosh-mul, larger and fuller, contentedly weaving a large basket to bathe our next baby in. Now we heat water in iron ollas, but back then a hot rock was put into a basket of water and other rocks added as needed.
“That night I did not sleep well, and the next day the Hummingbird could not be found. Nothing was seen or heard of her. I must find her trail, but search as I might I could find nothing. My heart was sad. Since I could find no trace, I tried the way the elders had taught me. I went round and round the rancheria in ever-widening circles, searching every grain of sand and every pebble with the eyes of a hawk. Nothing escaped me, and finally I was rewarded by finding a light imprint of a small mescal sandal. For a while I followed these tracks and they led toward the mountains. I then retraced my steps and discovered why it had been so hard to track her. Toosh-mul had cunningly worn her sandals backward for many bow shots from the rancheria and had then changed near where I had originally struck her trail. I said nothing. No one knew my secret, but I took my fire stick, a pouch of black medicine powder, and the round black pebbles. Also, I fastened a gourd of water to my belt and started for the mountains. Toosh-muls trail led straight as an arrow's flight for the mountains. Hour after hour, unwearied, unresting, I kept the track, which led up one of the great washes coming out of Old Toro. Here her track was joined by that of redbeard. I could tell by the nail marks. Can one tell an antelope’s track from a sheep? So could I tell the man with the fiery hair. There was none like it. When I found the two tracks, I became cunning like the coyote. I kept to the canyon sides; I crouched from rock to rock. The canyon became very crooked. I cautiously looked over ridges and always I was creeping like the panther, and like the panther was I fierce with anger. As day merged into twilight, the trail became fresher. They were going leisurely up the bed of a dry wash coming out of a deep canyon in the mountains. The pack horse was driven ahead. As the raven spread his wings across the sky, untired, unhastening, I went on up the canyon. The canyon was black but, like the owl, my eyes grew big, and though the canyon twisted like the trail of a rattlesnake, always was I cautious. Never a sound did I make. At last, like a star in the blackness, the campfire shone, and like a snake on its belly, silently I crept near. At one time the horse, tied to a mesquite tree, stood with his head erect and blew a snort of fright as he caught my scent, and Toosh-mul became frightened and uneasy, but the white man said it was only a sneaking coyote, and they thought no more of it. I waited, waited, waited. No hurry. When they were well asleep, I on my belly, little by little — no sound, but far away, very small, an owl hooted three times, a sure sign of death. Did Toosh-mul hear? No. Nearer, nearer, never a sound but the hissing of the wind through the spiny chollas. Now the fire, only ashes and coals; the head of the white man only a little lighter than the darkness around.
“I must get closer, make no mistake. Suddenly, I lay flat in the shadows. The white man rolled over uneasily and half rose on his elbow. Then dropped back. I waited, my secret — would it work? I arose with the gun and swiftly, noiselessly, put the point almost in his face and killed him. The girl rose with a scream, but not before I plunged my knife in her soft belly. The horse I shot. I then returned to the village. I said nothing, but my heart was glad. That was the beginning.
“About that time our people became greatly afflicted with diseases of the white man. Some of our girls and even matrons had white babies who never knew a father. Many would die of strange troubles that the Chiceros could not combat. All their former medicines, chants, herbs, and spells were powerless. The blight was upon us; many of our boys and young men left us to go where the whites went, never to return. Firewater came with the whites, and our men and women lay as if dead. Then they would fight and cut each other. It was always more and more. They never tired of it, and though they knew it was bad medicine, they must have it. Then the women wanted red dresses and striped things, and the men began to wear white men’s clothes. The good times were gone. I could only see trouble ahead. I talked much with the elders and wise ones and told them we must move to a new rancheria where the whites would not come. They said where? The whites go every place. Other lands belonged to other tribes, and they were as sorely afflicted as us. We were not strong enough to kill and drive out other Indians in battle, and these people had rights — the same as ours. They had lived for uncounted years in peaceful possession of their lands the same as we, and the whites had now begun to crowd the different rancherias by building and living on our lands. We wanted to be left in peace as before the white curse struck our country and our homes.
“About this time a lot of soldiers, like ants, with countless guns, horses, and wagons, came through Yuma going to the pueblo of Los Angeles. Some became sick with that strange sickness that makes holes in the face. Many died. Their clothes were given to my people, who were greatly pleased and walked around like white people and were very proud. Once or twice a day they would take off the clothes, but always they would put them back on and even sleep in them. Then began the sickness. Nothing like it had ever come among us. First a father of a large family was taken; in a week he was dead, and we held the fiesta for the dead and burned the body and clothing according to our ancient custom. Many came to wail and mourn and eat the food. Before he died, another was taken sick. Then two went down. Then five more and the women and children began to drop off. Our Chiceros were helpless. Even while they were making magic and trying to satisfy the evil one, they also were stricken. The death fiestas came so close we could not hold them, and this greatly troubled the old men, as the death ceremony is the most sacred duty we owe to the dead and their relatives. Soon whole families were down, and after a month only a few members of the tribe were well. They fled in terror, leaving the dead unburned and the sick to care for themselves. We fled into the fastnesses of the mountains high up among the tall trees and there waited for the north wind to bring snow. After a few months we came down, made a new rancheria, and dug a new well. A few miserable Indians had not died. Their faces were full of holes. Their hands were skinny and they were gaunt like coyotes and only able to crawl. They tried to come to us, but we told them we would kill them.
After the cold winds off the snowy peaks had blown for a week across the desert, the sickness was blown away from the Indians and back to the whites. Then came what was left and lived with us. We talked much together. Before the white race came we never had these troubles, no firewater, no bad sickness, our women and girls were good and contented and our boys stayed with their people. There was only one thing to do to protect our homes. The whites must be killed.
“Myself and three others were selected to kill all the white men who came to the rancheria. It was quite simple. All I had to do was to show a piece of rock with specks of gold. This was great medicine. The Chicero had boiled some of these pieces in rattlesnake poison, chanted over them, and finally blew the deadly breath on them through the skin of a toad. It was great magic. I would only show one or two at a time the secret ledges from which I secured the pieces, far back in the dry mountains. One or two of my companions always followed, but always out of sight. After dark the men would be killed. No one would know. The mountains held our secrets well. Nothing did we take from the whites — it was bad medicine. Sometimes we would have a little trouble, but in the end, except once, no one ever came back.
“One time, on returning to our campfire after staking out a horse, the white man was not there. He and his blankets were gone. I did not look. In the morning he came back. He said he had lived in the Apache country and learned never to sleep near his campfire. He always made you go ahead of him.
“Sometimes people came to the rancheria asking if we had seen the white men with prospector’s kits, but it was always no sabe, or they had gone into the mountains.
“And so the years passed. No one knew. No one guessed. But the bleaching skulls we left in the dark gorges of the mountains numbered more than those that the sickness had left on the burning desert. One by one my companions dropped out. One was killed. Now I am the only one left, and I am too old to do more than sit in the shade and smoke.
“When you were a baby, your father induced me to go to the pueblo of Los Angeles. We drove for three or four days, and always there were white people. The pueblo of Los Angeles — what can I say? The whites were countless as the ants of my desert home. I killed, but I was losing all the time. I could not kill all, and from that time no white man have I harmed. Bring me a handful of sand ... there. Separate a hundred, two hundred grains. These men died. Yonder mountain of sand is the white race. Those mesquite trees being swallowed by the hungry sand are the few Indians left.
“You have been to the white man’s school, have learned the white man’s ways, speak his tongue, eat his food, and wear his clothes. Except for your color, you are just like the white man. Times now are better for us. Our lands are set aside and guarded by the government. Our children are taught like the white children with whom they mingle. It is a losing fight. We cannot stem the current. We must go under. Wherever the white man comes in contact with the red, the red goes down. The white race rules the world and their number is like the sands of the desert. When the strong wind comes out from the north and carries this sand in great clouds filling the sky, it smothers and covers everything in its trail. And so, my son, will it be with us. A few years and our race will be done, our simple civilization smothered, buried out of existence. ’Tis well — go.’’