Earlier this year, University of Utah geology professor Marjorie Chan was giving a speech at Illinois State University when she told her host, Dave Malone, about her interest in Western Americana and her desire to visit area antique shops.
Instead, Chan was shown the contents of a closet in the school’s geology building. Tucked inside were 150-year-old Native American baskets and apparel collected by the famed John Wesley Powell while exploring Utah.
“They asked if I would be interested in seeing them. They had been storing them in a closet for 20 years,” Chan said Thursday at the Natural History Museum of Utah. She quickly began looking into how to get the objects to a museum.
Now these items are back home, part of the Utah museum’s vast anthology collections. The museum will put them on display for a one-day event Sept. 22, along with lectures by three experts about Powell’s famous expeditions that helped inform 19th-century Americans about the remote arid lands of the Southwest and the indigenous people who lived there.
In 1869 and again in 1871, Powell, a geologist and battle-scarred Civil War veteran, short one arm, led the first trips down the Colorado and Green rivers through Utah and Arizona’s Grand Canyon, exploring the West’s most inaccessible lands at a time when they remained blank spots on the map.
After his journeys, he returned to Illinois and taught at the school that would become Illinois State, before moving to Washington, D.C., to head the U.S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology.
Among the materials he left in Bloomington — and that were shown to Chan — were beaded moccasins, baskets woven from grass and willow, a bow studded with metal tacks and strung with intact string made from sinew and an arrow quiver.
“This pushes our ethnographic collection back in time to earlier historic periods. These are physical evidence that represent Powell’s expeditions and are therefore worthy of museum care,” said Lisbeth Louderback, a U. assistant professor of anthropology, noting some have not fared well through the years and need extensive restoration work.
“Every time you move, it loses some of its material,” she added. “They have incredible research potential.”
Museum staffers, for example, took a microscope to a fan-shaped winnowing basket and discovered sunflower seeds embedded its wicker latticework.
“Glenna [Nielsen-Grimm, the museum’s anthropology collections manager] was going through Powell’s journals and found some information that he observed Native Americans were processing sunflower seeds on trays like this,” Louderback said. Each item reveals something about how Utah’s indigenous people lived during the period of white settlement.
“They have been used a lot, and you can see that use in these objects," Louderback said. “Every object has it’s unique story. If you look closely, there are hand smudges from somebody using this over and over.”
Also to be exhibited are Native American artifacts collected by Frank Marion Bishop, who served as cartographer on Powell’s second expedition of 1871 and settled in southern Utah, and sepia watercolor paintings by Utah artist Dean Faucett, depicting Powell’s expeditions. Fausett painted the scenes a century later, relying on the explorer’s notes for inspiration.
The items will be displayed in the museum’s collections area, so they don’t have to be moved out of the climate-controlled environment. The open house event will feature lectures throughout the afternoon by three Powell experts: Smithsonian researcher Fred Reuss; river runner Roy Webb; and Dave Malone, a geology professor at Illinois State. The event will go from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is covered by the museum’s regular entrance fee.
The exhibit offers a chance to learn about one of America’s greatest explorers, the namesake of Utah’s Lake Powell, and a historical figure who tried, mostly in vain, to educate federal officials about the natural obstacles to settling the West.
Powell was a Union artillery commander. A Confederate musket ball took off his right arm at the elbow when he raised it to order his men to fire at Shiloh, according to Don Fowler, a University of Nevada, Reno, anthropology professor.
“It didn’t stop him. He went onto to complete two trips [down the Colorado] and lead two federal agencies at the same time, run out of the same office with one secretary, the Bureau of Ethnology and the U.S. Geological Survey. Remarkable man,” Fowler said. “Here we are celebrating him and Bishop.”
A leading expert, Fowler has been living with Powell’s legacy since 1958, when he took casts of the explorer’s name carved into the walls of Glen Canyon’s Music Temple before it was inundated by the lake that now bears Powell’s name
Chan has an uncanny nose for museum-quality objects. In 2006, she came across a huge trove of rare Native American jewelry at a yard sale in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood.
The museum raised $180,000 to buy the 650 pieces for what became its Four Corners Collection.
The day she came across the items from Powell’s Utah journeys was March 24, Powell’s birthday.
“This is a sign that Powell’s ghost was calling out to me that we have to do something with this cultural material he collected,” Chan said. “I took some pictures and sent them to experts. By end of the day. I asked if it would be OK if I investigated finding a home for these because they can’t just stay in a closet.”
She contacted the Smithsonian, the most logical destination, but she learned objects from Powell’s expeditions are spread around the world. So why not have some in Utah?