Pomo Basket Weavers in the University of Pennsylvania Museum Collections

By: Sally McLendon

Originally Published in 1998

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The Deisher collection in the University of Pennsylvania Museum is the best-documented single collection of California Indian baskets from the classic period, 1892-1918. It is particularly rich in the works of weavers who spoke Pomoan languages, and even includes “photographs of quite a number of weavers with baskets … and also a bit of family history” (NAA, Otis T. Mason Papers, H.K. Deisher to O.T. Mason, 5/2/1908) (Fig. 1).

The 36 named weavers in the Deisher collec­tion represent only a portion of the two to three hun­dred Pomoan artists active at the turn of the century. They came from some 72 formerly politically indepen­dent tribes living in what are now Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, and Glenn counties. They did not conceive of themselves as a single homogeneous group, but were mislabeled “Pomo” in the 20th century because they spoke seven related but distinct languages (see Fig. 2 in Patterson, this issue).

Deisher’s collection is heavily weighted towards weavers from tribes living around Clear Lake in California’s Coast Range of mountains, almost half from the single Native town of Habematolel (see Fig. 5). Stewart Cumin, visiting Habematolel in 1906 on a col­lecting expedition for the Brooklyn Museum, reported that it included “about 40 houses and some 250 individ­uals,” and was roughly the same size as the neighboring White town of Upper Lake, also “a place of about 250 individuals” (Cumin 1906:15). Cumin stopped at the first house at the head of the lane or street on entering the village. The owner [was] an intelligent middle-aged man [Penn Graves] . . . I started in buying here, purchasing freely at the prices named almost everything that was offered . . . on very reasonable terms. Most of the people, in fact, nearly all I met spoke excellent English, and were remarkable for their ceremonious courtesy. They seemed amazingly honest, too, and indisposed to take advantage.. .. [They] all appeared industrious. .. . Some of the men were making shell beads, rubbing down the wire-strung disks on flat stones. The women were making baskets and all had evidences of their work in baskets made for sale, chiefly small fancy baskets, decorated with shell beads and feathers. (Cumin 1906:10)

As Cumin makes clear, Habematolel was a large town with many talented weavers, much visited by dealers and collectors. However, there is another reason why Deisher’s collection documents so many artists active there.

Deisher’s “Field Collector”

Henry Deisher acquired nearly all of his collec­tion from one man, whom he liked to refer to as “my field collector”: the Reverend Henry Clarkson Meredith (Fig. 2). Meredith had come to California from Missouri in 1893 to be pastor, successively, of the Methodist Episcopal Church South at Ukiah (1893-94), Fresno (1895), Stockton (1896-1900), and San Jose (1901-04). At each location he got to know the local Indian peo­ples, their cultures, and the difficulties they faced.

Beginning in 1894, in each of the areas where Meredith preached, he acquired California Indian bas­kets and often stone tools or items of wealth and status. By 1903 his collection included 105 baskets. About this time he met Deisher, who shared his interest in stone tools (UPM, Deisher to G.B. Gordon, 3/19/1906). Sick with what proved an incurable cancer, Meredith “locat­ed” from the church in 1904, retiring to the salubrious climate at Clear Lake.

The sale of his basket collection to Deisher at this time launched Deisher’s own basket collection, while providing Meredith with the funds needed to move his wife and four children to a house overlooking Clear Lake. Meredith continued to offer baskets to Deisher and Deisher continued to buy until 1907, just before Meredith’s death.

The unique qualities of the Deisher collection result from several factors: Meredith’s use of photogra­phy to market baskets, his deep interest in, and concern for, California Indian peoples, and Deisher’s fine eye and rare passion for contextual information.

Euro-American Settlement of the Clear Lake Area, 1830S-1870S

The Clear Lake area prior to White settlement was home to 15 tribes speaking six different languages. Each tribe inhabited one of several valleys around the lake, or one of three islands in the lower part of the lake. They lived in permanent named towns, accumulated wealth, and enjoyed prosperous and satisfying lives (McLendon and Lowy 1978; McLendon and Oswalt 1978).

All the tribes around Clear Lake, despite their language differences, made and used baskets which were strikingly similar in shape, technique, and function. Only very subtle differences in design choices, as well as some aspects of shape and technique, distinguish the work of peoples speaking the three related Pomoan languages (Eastern Pomo, Northern Pomo, and Southeastern Pomo) from that of the peoples speaking the non­Pomoan Hill Patwin, Lake Miwok, and Gappo. This perhaps reflects the extensive intermarriage over many generations that linked, and still links, these groups.

Euro-American settlement of the Clear Lake area began at the end of the 1830s with the establish­ment in Big Valley of a large “rancho” by Salvador Vallejo, brother of the Mexican governor of northern California. Herds of cattle were brought in, and local men recruited, sometimes by force, to serve as vaqueros. They were taught to ride and herd cattle under the supervision of a Mexican major domo.

In 1846 California was annexed to the United States, and a year later the “rancho” in Big Valley was sold to two American entrepreneurs, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone. They went to extreme lengths to extract profits from the labor of the two tribes native to Big Valley, the Habenapo and the Kuhianapo. They forced the two tribes to work for them and to relocate near their ranchhouse; they imposed curfews, forbade most custom­ary fishing, hunting, and gathering activities without pro­viding an alternative food supply, and beat or killed anyone they felt disagreed with or infringed on their rule. Starving, the Native peoples of Big Valley finally rose up and killed their tormentors in 1849.

Late the following spring the United States Cavalry came to Clear Lake to punish the Indians. The Native tribes of Lower Lake and Big Valley avoided the troops, who moved up the southern side of the lake towards the northwest by both land and boat. At the top of the lake the troops finally encountered a large group of Indian people camped at Badon Batin, now known as Bloody Island. The Indians did not run away, perhaps because they thought they were safe on the island, perhaps because they were engaged in the critical task of spring fishing which supplied food for throughout the year.

Gilliam Benson, an Eastern Pomo born 12 years later, was told what happened by relatives who had been on the island that day. When the soldiers ap­proached, the Indians greeted them peacefully, but the soldiers opened fire nevertheless. The men fought back while the women, children, and elderly fled into the tall tules surrounding the island. “One old lady,” hidden under a bank covered with rules, saw two White men coming with their guns up in the air and on their guns hung a little girl. They brought it to the creek and threw it in the water. And a little while later, two more men came in the same manner. This time they had a little boy … when they gathered the dead, they found all the little ones were killed by being stabbed, and many of the women were also killed [by] stabbing. She said it took them four or five days to gather up the dead. (Benson 1932:271-2).

The following summer, Col. Redick McKee, one of three Indian Commissioners appointed by the federal government to negotiate with the Indians of California, came to Clear Lake to negotiate a treaty. George Gibbs, his interpreter, reported that the Indian peoples of Clear Lake “cut their hair short” (Gibbs 1853:108). In fact, they wore their hair long, but cut it short in mourning. The people Gibbs saw must have been mourning relatives killed on Bloody Island the year before.

The treaty that was negotiated set aside Big Valley as a reservation for the seven signatory tribes, plus others who would join them, in exchange for their relinquishing title to all other lands. But the treaty signed at Clear Lake, along with 17 others negotiated in California between 1851 and 1852, was never ratified by Congress because of California’s vehement opposition. Within five years settlers arrived and laid claim to all of Big Valley for themselves.

During the first decade, the American settlers and local Indian peoples apparently had generally good relations, cemented by several marriages. Since the brides were often chiefs’ daughters, the chiefs probably were following traditional diplomatic strategies for establishing relations with other groups. They were suc­cessful. Many of the new sons-in-law learned the Native languages of their wives more or less well, and acted as intermediaries, defending their wives’ people against other non-Indians. But the settlers unthinkingly caused ecological, social, and economic changes which eventu­ally brought hardships to the Native peoples of the Clear Lake area. And new settlers continued to come. As settlers prospered, Indian peoples became impover­ished. As the numbers of settlers grew, the somewhat integrated society of the first decade was replaced increasingly by two quite separate worlds—one White and one Indian.

The Indian peoples of California were not citi­zens of the United States and so could not homestead land us the American settlers did. Not being aliens, they could also not be naturalized and acquire the right to take up land as many immigrants did. What could they do?

Buying Back Their Own Land

In the late 1870s when Indian people living near Upper Lake were ordered to move after a disagreement, John Dennison, “captain” (chief) of the Howalek tribe (see Fig. 5), together with a man named Irvin [Eben], thought up the idea of buying a piece of land for the use of the Indians, so that they would not continue to be kicked from one location to another. They had no money, but finally several Indians put in cash and by getting donations here and there (but only from Indians), they were able to make the down payment on a piece of property. . . . A white man, who was a hop grower, Mr. McClure, put up the balance of the money for the purchase of the land. After a few years the Indians were able to pay it off [in 1879] by having payments taken out of their hop-work wage. (Mauldin n.d.:752, from Lincoln Dennison).

Members of the Shigom, Howalek, Danoha, and Kayaw tribes banded together in this purchase, together with a number of families from Big Valley who were married in. They bought back 90 acres of their land north of the present town of Upper Lake on which they established Habematolel.

It was a brilliant idea. The new commimity, organized much as Native towns always had been, pros­pered. People were free to live their lives as they chose on their own land, so long as they paid their taxes, which they did. Each of the four groups that went in together to buy the land lived in a different part of the new town, and each continued to have its own chief or captain. On November 29, 1892, “one acre of [Habematolel] on which is situated a house” was sold for one dollar “for an Indian school and chapel” to the “Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church et al” (Registry of Deeds 1892). By 1894 the federal government provided a school teacher.

The people of Habematolel were enumerated in the 1880 federal census just after the community was established. Two hundred and thirty-seven people in 117 families were living in 19 houses of traditional extended families. Cumin (1906:18) reports that these first houses were built, following the traditional pattern, of tulle rushes, which insulated naturally against both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. Houses contin­ued to be built of rule until 1894 or 1896, Cumin was told, when one person “built a board house and the oth­ers quickly followed” (1906:18). Since all the materials for board houses had to be bought with money, while the materials for tulle houses were readily available for the gathering, this change in house style meant that res­idents of Habematolel were more tied into the new, larger cash economy.

The commercial market for baskets developed just as the people of Habematolel had increasing need for money. Baskets had played a major role in traditional life; 23 distinct, named types, in both twined and coiled weaves, were made and used. All but the most utilitarian were beautiful as well as functional. Baskets are, in fact, a form of sculpture in which shape, volume, surface tex­ture, and design are simultaneously manipulated into a three-dimensional whole. The production and apprecia­tion of art thus formed part of everyday life. By the end of the 19th century the use of manufactured goods for functions formerly served by baskets freed basket weavers from practical constraints on shape, weave, and design. From the traditional art of basket making they created the Pomo art basket: an especially fine, beauti­ful, usually coiled basket, made as a deliberate work of art intended for sale.

The Marketing of Pomo Basketry and the Use of Photography

By 1904, the Northern California Indian Association was encouraging the making and selling of Indian baskets as a source of needed income. This non-Indian Association was an auxiliary of the Gomen’s National Indian Rights Association, founded and based in Philadelphia. The California Association was formed in 1894 by three San Jose women to work for justice for California Indian peoples stripped of their lands and impoverished by White settlement during the second half of the 19th century. The members discovered through Native oral tradition the existence of the 18 unratified treaties signed with California Indian peoples in 1851-52. They publicized this information, and suc­cessfully lobbied Congress to purchase land for Calif­ornia Indian peoples. A large number of the federally recognized tribes that exist in the state of California today acquired reservations, and federal recognition, because of these efforts (Fig. 3).

Once retired at Clear Lake, Reverend Meredith became the Field Representative of the Association in Lake County, buying and selling baskets among other things. Cumin, when he visited in 1906, “found him to be a dealer in Indian curios” with “miscellaneous stuff scattered about the hall and parlor of his house” (Cumin 1906:21).

A major obstacle to a retired clergyman’s partic­ipation in the basket market in 1904-06 was the amount of capital needed to acquire a stock of really fine baskets. The possibility of waiting for one or more years to recoup his investment compounded the problem. Weavers wanted to be paid when they delivered the bas­ket, not after the basket was sold. Although the prices seem shockingly low by today’s standards, they were uncomfortably high then. For a good-sized, beautifully execuled basket, especially if feathered, weavers asked $30 to $60. To put these prices in perspective, a farm’s hired man made $20 a month, while schoolteachers could make at most $600 for a year’s work, but most made much less (Purdy 1976). Harvesting string beans at Upper Lake paid $1.50 a day (Cumin 1906:12). A weaver could earn as much if not more from selling a fine basket as from a season’s harvest labor; and basket weaving, while preferably done during the cool, rainy months from November through May, was not limited to a few weeks a year as harvesting was.

Without a great deal of capital to invest, Meredith turned to photography. He contracted for a basket while it was being made, giving the weaver a small deposit, and promising to buy it upon completion. When finished he would photograph it, usually with the weaver, and send the photograph to prospective buyers. If the basket pleased, the buyer sent the purchase price, providing Meredith with the funds to pay the weaver.

Meredith’s competitors complained that he took advantage of the weavers. But dealers frequently complained about competition from other dealers,: and weavers were not easily victimized. For example, Cumin (1906:43) reports that Rosa Smith, a particularly fine weaver, was working on a basket that Meredith had con­tracted for, but was willing to sell it to Cumin for $40.

Several of Deishers most beautiful baskets are accompanied by a photograph that shows the basket with its maker (see Figs. 7a, 8, 9, 11a). These were cer­tainly marketing photos. All are large, fine pieces that would have required a sizable investment. The Deisher collection of photographs at the National Anthropolog­ical Archives, Smithsonian Institution, shows weavers with equally beautiful baskets which Deisher did not buy (Fig. 4); some of these were later acquired by other dealers. These photographs apparently excited Deisher’s curiosity about the weavers themselves, and Meredith obliged by providing details about their lives, relation­ships, and sometimes the conditions under which a bas­ket was made (see Fig. 9). When Deisher finally succeeded in placing his collection in the University Museum—for far less than he had invested in it—he sent the photographs and several notes that Meredith had included in the baskets, saying they “may be of some value to history” (UPM, Deisher Collection Papers) (see Berman, this issue).

Identifying a Community of Basket Weavers

It has been possible to identify and understand the relations between the weavers and other inhabitants of Habematolel because of the memory of Ralph Holder (see box on Weavers’ Lives). In 1976-78, we censused the inhabitants of Habematolel, where he was born and raised, as he remembered it around 1906-08, when he “first began to know things.” We reviewed the names of people recorded as living at Habematolel in the 1880 and 1900 federal censuses (the only ones available at that date) and in a census prepared by the Northern California Indian Association in 1906.

Mr. Holder’s intimate knowledge of the com­munity made it possible to identify accurately the same individuals from decade to decade, despite a plethora of changing names and spellings. Mr. Holder and his wife, Suzanne Moore Holder (who also grew up at Habe-matole1), examined all the early photographs of the community and the Clear Lake area that I could find in archives and private collections. They recognized and identified many people, places, and events in otherwise unlabeled photographs (Figs. la, 4, 5). Many had been taken by the Reverend Meredith, although we did not know it at the time. With a mapmaker, we walked over the site where the town had been, and Mr. Holder iden­tified the locations of each house and most barns (Fig. 6). Although both Mr. and Mrs. Holder were deceased when the work on the University Museum exhibit began, their knowledge has made it possible.

Generations of Weavers

The Deisher collection includes the work of 16 weavers from Habematolel and the work of 2 more weavers is documented in the Patty Stuart Jewett collec­tion (see Berman, this issue). Together they represent about a third of the 60 weavers active in this community during the first decade of the 20th century. All but 4 of these 18 weavers belonged to four families, three of which were themselves interrelated.

One family of fine weavers whose work is well documented in these collections is that of Sally Burris (Fig. 7a), her daughters Rosa Smith (Fig. 8) and Laura Gillum (see front cover and Fig. 9), and her grand­daughter Annie Gillum (later Boone) (Fig. 10a). Sally Burris was born around 1840, just as the first permanent non-Indian settlement in Lake County began. Since she was from Shigom, across Clear Lake from Big Valley, her life was probably little affected by the Mexican ran­cho on the other side of the lake.

A second well-documented family of fine weavers is that of Alice Gorris (Fig. 11a) (Ralph Holder’s grandmother), her daughter Emma Charley, her relatives Betsy San Diego and Minnie Thompson Boone, and her granddaughter Ada Anderson, whose teenage work is included in the Jewett collection (see Fig. 9 in Berman, this issue). Alice Gorris was born a bit later than Sally Burris, around 1845-50, into the Kuhlanapo tribe in Big Valley. Betsy San Diego also came from Big Valley. She was probably born around 1828. Thus both women lived through the Stone and Kelsey period and its grim aftermath.

Sally Burris and Betsy San Diego are only known to have woven large, splendid twined baskets that were functional as well as beautiful (Fig. 7b). Alice Gorris’s grandson Ralph Holder remembered his grandmother only weaving twined baskets (Fig. 11a). However, several collections attest that she also wove fine coiled art baskets, specializing to a certain extent towards the end of her life in dramatically beautiful, totally red-feathered baskets like that of Mary Posh’s shown in Figure 1b.

Sally Burris and Alice Worris were among the founding families at Habematolel. The 1880 census specifies they lived in the same house—a sure sign of relationship. (Probably Sally Burris’s husband, Jim Burris, and Alice Gorris were related.) Both grew up, married, and raised families through the early unsettled period of forced change, 1846-76. Both knew and sur­vived the painful loss of children, and both were major artists. Thus Meredith was buying baskets from mem­bers of a large extended family that included many out­standing weavers.

A third family is that of Lydia Harris Thompson, her daughter Rosa Thompson, her cousin Laura Rickabo Anderson, and her uncle’s wife Louisa Rickabo. The work of a second daughter, Leta Thompson, is included in the Sargent collection at the Field Museum in Chicago, together with examples of her mother’s miniature baskets. Lydia Thompson was also born into the Kuhianapo tribe in Big Valley, around 1855. She was photographed by Meredith together with two large twined baskets, one of which Deisher credits to her daughter, Rosa. Aside from the other basket, Lydia Thompson’s documented work includes only fine art baskets.

The fourth family is that of sisters Lucy Buck­nell and Jenny Fisher, and their cousin Sally Vicente (who is a sister in Eastern Pomo). Lucy Bucknell daughter Suzanna Bucknell Graves, the wife of Penn Graves (the first person Cumin met at Habematolel), was also a fine weaver. Sally Vicente son George Vicente, a frequent delegate to the Zayante Conferences (Fig. 3), often acted as agent for his mother, aunts, and cousin, as did many men for their female relatives. Meredith does not seem to have sent Deisher a photograph of any weavers in this family, perhaps because they were always represented by their men (Fig. 5).

On August 13, 1906 Vicente wrote the dealer Grace Nicholson, offering:

(1)    The Big basket that Jim, showed you; when you was up to Upper Lake with Wm. Benson. is priced at $40.00.

(2)    In the same house, with the big basket; is another boat shaped basket, is 22½ in., long from tip to tip and 9 in wide in center, priced $55.00. (Grace Nicholson Papers, Correspondence, The Huntington Library San Marino, Cal.).

Then on August 17 Cumin bought a rule mat from Lucy Bucknell, he reported “This woman made fine baskets. One large storage basket, decorated with beads, she said she had sold for $45. She asked $55 for a large and fine canoe-shaped basket” (Cumin 1906:11). The last basket was clearly the second basket George Vicente offered Grace Nicholson. Thus, the Bucknell and Vicente families were actively marketing their work and not relying solely on Meredith.

Lucy Bucknell and Sally Vicente are represent­ed only by fine coiled and feathered art baskets in the Deisher collection, but it is clear that they both made large twined baskets as well, like the other women of their generation.

Thus the women of this older generation, born in the 1830s to 1850s, either specialized in large, func­tional twined baskets, or made both twined baskets and coiled art baskets. However, their daughters and other women born in the 1860s and 1870s—Laura Gillum, Rosa Smith, Emma Worris Charley, Suzann Bucknell Graves, and others—are primarily represented by coiled art baskets, often of large size. This may be more a reflection of Deisher’s and Meredith’s taste than the weaver’s actual preference, however. Rosa Smith’s hus­band, Bill Smith, offered to sell Cumin for $40 “a large storage basket ornamented with beads (bam-tush [plain twined]) which . . . [he said] was half contracted for by Mr. Meredith” (Colin 1906:43).

Most of the women born in the 1890s—teen­agers like Annie Gillum (Boone), Ada Anderson, Dora Dick, and Leta Thompson—made small, exquisite coiled art baskets (Fig. lob), although a few, such as Rosa Thompson and Laura Anderson, are credited with fine twined baskets as well. As weavers increasingly wove for sale they shifted from making both twined and coiled baskets to making only coiled baskets, a shift completed by the middle of the 20th century.

The oldest generation grew up in a largely Native world, speaking Eastern Pomo only, despite the changes then underway. The next generation knew a world in transition, which achieved some measure of stability with the purchase of the land for Habematolel. They knew more English, and some had possibly gone to the Methodist day school. The third generation had almost certainly been educated in the day school and could read and write English, but still preferred to speak Eastern Pomo in daily life.

By 1918, unfortunately, over half the members of this last generation of weavers were dead in their twenties or early thirties, often from tuberculosis or other diseases introduced by Ghite settlers. It is possi­ble that the high morality rate was also due in part to living-in the new board houses, which, although fashion­able, were cold, drafty, and hard to heat in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer. Many young women died before they could transmit their knowledge and skill to a younger generation; others lost the daughters who had begun to learn. The loss of so many young and talented women must have caused great stress and anguish. The weavers who survived continued to weave throughout their lives, however, and the tradition per­sists to this day.



Cite This Article

McLendon, Sally. "Pomo Basket Weavers in the University of Pennsylvania Museum Collections." Expedition Magazine 40, no. 1 (March, 1998): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/pomo-basket-weavers-in-the-university-of-pennsylvania-museum-collections/

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