Charles Fletcher Lummis

Charles Fletcher Lummis (March 1, 1859, in Lynn, Massachusetts – November 24, 1928, in Los Angeles, California) was a United States journalist and an activist for Indian rights and historic preservation. A traveler in the American Southwest, he settled in Los Angeles, California, where he also became known as a historian, photographer, ethnographer, archaeologist, poet and librarian.[1][2][3]

Early life and career

Charles Fletcher Lummis was born in 1859 in Lynn, Massachusetts. He lost his mother at age 2 and was homeschooled by his father, who was a schoolmaster. Lummis enrolled in Harvard for college and was a classmate of Theodore Roosevelt, but dropped out during his senior year. While at Harvard he worked during the summer as a printer and published his first work, Birch Bark Poems. This small volume was printed on paper-thin sheets of birch bark; he won acclaim from Life magazine and recognition from some of the day's leading poets. He sold the books by subscription and used the money to pay for college. His best poem from the work, "My Cigarette", highlighted tobacco as one of his life's obsessions.

Lummis also admitted to an obsession with women. At the age of 21, Lummis married Dorothea Rhodes of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1880.

Transcontinental walk

In 1884, Lummis was working for a newspaper in Cincinnati and was offered a job with the Los Angeles Times. At that time, Los Angeles had a population of only 12,000. Lummis decided to make the 3,500-mile journey from Cincinnati to Los Angeles on foot, taking 143 days, all the while sending weekly dispatches to the paper chronicling his trip. One of his dispatches chronicled his meeting and interview with famed outlaw Frank James.[4] The trip began in September and lasted through the winter. Lummis suffered a broken arm and struggled in the heavy winter snows of New Mexico. He became enamored with the American Southwest and its Spanish and Native American inhabitants. Several years later, he published his account of this journey in A Tramp Across the Continent (1892).

Editor at the Los Angeles Times

Upon his arrival, Lummis was offered the job of the first City Editor of the Los Angeles Times. He covered a multitude of interesting stories from the new and growing community. Work was hard and demanding under the pace set by publisher Harrison Gray Otis. Lummis was happy until he suffered from a mild stroke that left his left side paralyzed.[5]

New Mexico

In 1888, Lummis moved to San Mateo, New Mexico to recuperate from his paralysis. He rode on the Plains while holding a rifle in one good hand and shooting wild jack rabbits. Here he began a new career as a prolific freelance writer, writing on everything that was particularly special about the Southwest and Indian cultures. His articles about corrupt bosses committing murders in San Mateo drew threats on his life, so he moved to a new location in the Pueblo Indian village of Isleta, New Mexico on the Rio Grande.

Indians of Isleta

Somewhat recovered from his paralysis, Lummis was able to win over the confidence of the Pueblo Indians, a Tiwa people, by his outgoing and generous nature. But a hit man from San Mateo was sent up to Isleta, where he shot Lummis but failed to kill him.

In Isleta, Lummis divorced his first wife and married Eva Douglas, who lived in the village and was the sister-in-law of an English trader. Somehow he convinced Eva to stay with Dorothea in Los Angeles until the divorce went through. In the meantime, Lummis became entangled in fights with the U.S. government agents over Indian education. In this period, the government was pushing assimilation and had established Indian boarding schools. It charged its agents with recruiting Native American children for the schools, where they were usually forced to give up traditional clothing and hair styles, and prevented from speaking their own languages or using their own customs. They were often prohibited from returning home during holidays or vacation periods, or their families were too poor to afford such travel. Lummis persuaded the government to allow 36 children from the Albuquerque Indian School to return to their homes.

While in Isleta, he made friends with Father Anton Docher from France;[6] he was the missionary Padre of Isleta.[7] They both also befriended Adolph Bandelier. While living in Isleta, Lummis boarded in the home of Pablo Abeita.[8] In 1890 he traveled with Bandelier to study the indigenous people of the area.

Magazine editor

Charles Fletcher Lummis, 1897

In 1892, Lummis published Some Strange Corners of Our Country, recounting some of the areas and sights he had discovered. Between 1893 and 1894, Lummis spent 10 months traveling in Peru with Bandelier.

After the men's return, Lummis and Eva returned to Los Angeles with their year-old daughter, Turbese. Unemployed, Lummis landed the position of editor of a regional magazine, Land of Sunshine. The magazine was renamed Out West[9] in 1901. He published works by famous authors such as John Muir and Jack London. Over his 11 years as editor, Lummis also wrote more than 500 pieces for the magazine, as well as a popular monthly commentary called "In the Lion's Den".

He also built a remarkable stone house in Los Angeles, calling it El Alisal for the sycamore tree that grew just outside. As president of the "Landmarks Club of Southern California" (an all-volunteer, privately funded group dedicated to the preservation of California's Spanish missions), Lummis noted that the historic structures "...were falling to ruin with frightful rapidity, their roofs being breached or gone, the adobe walls melting under the winter rains." [10] Lummis wrote in 1895, "In ten years from now—unless our intelligence shall awaken at once—"there will remain of these noble piles nothing but a few indeterminable heaps of adobe. We shall deserve and shall have the contempt of all thoughtful people if we suffer our noble missions to fall." [11]

At about the same time, Lummis also established a new Indian rights group called the "Sequoya League," after the noted early 19th-century Cherokee leader who developed a written alphabet for the language. Several years later, in 1907, Lummis founded the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles, California, and led the fundraising campaign to build a new structure for it. He saw the Southwest Museum building open in August 1914.[12]

Indian rights activist

Lummis continued his fight against the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and called on his classmate President Teddy Roosevelt to help change their manner of operating. He found a home for a small group of Indians who had been evicted from their property in the Palm Springs, California area. The Sequoya League began a battle against Indian Agent Charles Burton, accusing him of imposing a "reign of terror" on the Hopi pueblo in Oraibi by requiring Hopi men to cut their long hair. It was their custom to wear it long, a practice with spiritual meaning. Lummis was accused of overstating the case against Burton and lost his welcome at the White House. (However, subsequent social pressure on Burton led him to reverse the haircutting policy.)

El Alisal

El Alisal in 2007

In 1905, Lummis took the position as City Librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library.[13] At El Alisal, also known as Lummis House, he frequently entertained, with parties he called "noises" for various writers, local artists and other prominent figures. The parties usually included a lavish Spanish dinner with dancing and music performed by his own private troubadour. The extravaganzas wore out a number of female assistants or "secretaries" conscripted into working on them.[12]

Lummis divorced again. In 1915 he married his third wife, Gertrude, at El Alisal.[12]

Later life and death

Between his drinking and womanizing, Lummis faced a series of personal setbacks and tribulations. He lost his job at the library for insisting on doing most of the work at home. Eva divorced him over his womanizing.

He went blind from a "jungle fever" he claimed was contracted while in Guatemala; after more than a year of blindness, he regained his sight.[14] At that time, he stopped writing.

By 1918, he was destitute. The Southwest Museum Board named him founder emeritus in 1923 and gave him a small stipend. Lummis also decided to enlarge, revise and republish Some Strange Corners of Our Country as Mesa, Canyon and Pueblo in 1925. He engaged in a renewed civil rights crusade on behalf of the Pueblo Indians.

Lummis died in 1928, leaving a legacy of Indian lore and photography. He was cremated and his ashes were placed in a vault in a wall at El Alisal.[15] Supporters bought his home El Alisal, which is now used as the headquarters of the Historical Society of Southern California.

The Southwest Museum operated independently until 2002, when it was merged into the Autry National Center. The Autry has launched a multi-year conservation project to preserve the enormous collection amassed by Lummis and his successors. The Southwest Museum is open to the public only on Saturdays due to this work.[16]

Legacy and honors

Beginning in 2006, the annual Lummis Day Festival was established by the Lummis Day Community Foundation. it holds the festival in Lummis' honor on the first Sunday in June, drawing people to El Alisal and Heritage Square Museum for poetry readings, art exhibits, music and dance performances and family activities. The foundation is a non-profit organization of community activists and arts organization leaders.



  1. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University: Charles Fletcher Lummis
  2. Guide to the Charles F. Lummis Papers. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
  3. "LUMMIS, Charles Fletcher". The International Who's Who in the World. 1912. p. 720.
  4. "A Newspaper Tramp". Los Angeles Times. November 16, 1884. p. 3.
  5. Pool, Bob, (November 11, 2014) "Historic Lummis House faces an uncertain future", Los Angeles Times.
  6. Samuel Gance. Anton ou la trajectoire d'un père. L'Harmattan, 2013, pp. 155–159.
  7. Keleher and Chant. The Padre of Isleta. Sunstone Press, 2009, pp. 22, 37, 88.
  8. Keleher and Chant (2009), The Padre of Isleta, pp. 88-93.
  9. OCLC 3687761 and OCLC 702604648
  10. Thompson, pp. 185–186
  11. Past Campaigns
  12. 1 2 3 "Historic Tree Nuptial Bower". Los Angeles Times. May 10, 1915. p. II1.
  13. "Corduroys In Library". Los Angeles Times. June 28, 1905. p. I7.
  14. "The Curious Blindness of Charles F. Lummis," Archives of Ophthalmology. May 2011. vol. 129
  15. "Lummis Rites Tomorrrow". Los Angeles Times. November 27, 1928. p. A1.
  16. "Southwest Museum". Met News. 2014.


Further reading

Archival collections


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