Stephen Bowers correspondence, 1860-1915


Date: 1860-1915 | Size: 0.5 Linear feet, 120 items


These letters discuss the fossils of southern California, as well as Indian artifacts, skulls, languages, ethnography, religion, etc. Most correspondents are represented by only one letter.

Background note

Stephen Bowers (1832?-1907) was a geologist, archaeologist, journalist and Methodist minister, who maintained an interest in southern California, including area fossils and artifacts. His geological and archaeological work was financed by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1997 a California archaeologist and Simi Valley, California resident Arlene Benson published Bowers' field notes, collected by Smithsonian field ethnologist John Peabody Harrington, under the title The Noontide Sun: The Field Journals of the Reverend Stephen Bowers, Pioneer California Archaeologist.

Bowers was born near Wilmington, Indiana on March 3, 1832 to David and Esther Bowers. One of thirteen children, the family moved to a farm eight miles north of Indianapolis when he was one year old. A studious lad, he walked or rode on horseback several miles to a small rural schoolhouse. Poor health kept him indoors as a child during the winter months. Realizing that he was not cut out to be a farmer, Bowers decided at an early age to pursue the ministry, and at twenty-three was ordained a Methodist minister, affiliated with the Indiana Conference. He was dispatched as a Methodist circuit rider ninety miles west of his birthplace in Lawrence County, Indiana. In November 1856, just ten months after beginning his ministry, Bowers married the seventeen-year-old Martha Cracraft from the farming community of Greencastle. Their first son, Hayden, was named for Bowers' hero Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829-1887, APS 1860), the leader of U.S. government surveying expeditions to 109 western territories in 1859-60.

From his youth Bowers became a lifelong collector of artifacts and geological specimens. Although he dedicated himself to the pastorate and later also pursued a second career as a newspaper publisher, his primary interest was always archaeology. With the exception of military service with the 67th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War, Bowers spent several decades in pastoral ministry that took him to churches in Kentucky, Oregon and finally (because of his wife's failing health) to California. In 1874 he moved from his first pulpit in Napa City to the city of Santa Barbara. There Bowers found the lure of the Indian burial grounds on the Santa Barbara channel irresistible.

In the summer of 1875 Bowers accepted an assignment as guide for several survey parties of the Army Corp of Engineers, working on both sides of the Santa Barbara channel. Wheeler's party included archaeologist Paul Schumacher, botanist Joseph Trimble Rothrock (1839-1922, APS 1877) of the University of Pennsylvania and Henry Wetherbee Henshaw, an ethnologist and ornithologist with the Smithsonian Institution. The Wheeler survey occupied all of Bowers' time, except Sundays, for three months and Wheeler's notes make sixteen references to him. It was through Henshaw that Bowers came to the attention of Smithsonian professor Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887, APS 1855), who carried on an extensive twelve-year correspondence with him. Through Bowers' excavations the Smithsonian would acquire thousands of California and Midwestern fossils and native American artifacts for its collections—seventeen accessions over twenty-nine years.

Since no trained archaeologist had ever visited the native American burial grounds on the San Nicholas and Santa Rosa Islands before Bowers' 1875 excavation, he was the first to examine the remains of these settlements, and remove the skulls, implements and artifacts for shipment to the Smithsonian and other museums, as well as to private collectors. Most of the skeletons and artifacts were from the Chumash tribe. During his three-year tenure as pastor of the Santa Barbara Methodist congregation at the corner of De la Vina and De la Guerra streets, made one trip after another to the islands, usually accompanied by correspondent Simon Peter Guiberson of the Ventura Free Press and sometimes by his wife Martha and Dr. Lorenzo Yates of Centerville.

Although methods of archaeological excavation were crude at the time, and Bowers was not the only untrained archaeologist doing field work, modern historians and archaeologists, who are familiar with his activities generally regard him as "a meddler who destroyed fully as many artifacts as he preserved—and rendered the site scientifically useless as well." They find his "flagrant disregard for orderly methods and his failure to preserve sites" inexcusable. It is unclear how many barrels of native American skulls, utensils and implements Bowers sent to collectors in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, but the Smithsonian alone credits 2,200 to 2,500 of its native American relics to his excavations between 1876-1905. Harvard's Peabody Museum recorded 826 and hundreds made their way in public and private collections from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

No doubt, Bowers used questionable methods and was generally too impatient to exercise care in his excavations. Dr. Baird of the Smithsonian and Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1894, APS 1863) of Harvard, two of his primary customers, were probably unaware of Bower's methods, although the former was definitely impressed by him. Bowers completed his excavations for the Smithsonian in September 1877, and moved to Indianapolis to accept a temporary call. Sometime in 1878 he returned to California and resumed his excavations. But after his wife and son Hayden died within months of each other in October 1879 and April 1880, he could not bear to continue excavations. Instead, he departed from Santa Barbara to launch a new career as a newspaper publisher in Beloit, California; Platteville, Wisconsin; and Falls City, Nebraska. By October 1883 he had returned to California with a new wife Margaret Dickson to become publisher of the Ventura Free Press. Also serving a the Methodist pastor in the nearby town of Santa Paula, he launched another daily newspaper he called the Golden State. As a Prohibitionist and a Republican Bowers became involved in political controversy in his newspapers and in the pulpit, often teetering on the edge of libel. All the while he found time to continue digging artifacts in the Santa Barbara Channel!

In 1899 the aging Bowers was appointed State Mine Examiner by California Governor Henry T. Gage. He had attracted the attention of one of the governor's aids by some earlier pamphlets he had written for the state mineralogist, as well as reports that made use of some of his geological contributions on rocks, fossils and oil-bearing strata. During his tenure Bowers endured the heat of the San Diego County desert to dig fossils in thirteen different counties and also undertook an assignment from the U.S. Geological Survey to survey fossil around Riverside.

Bowers enjoyed excellent health into his mid-seventies, and was accustomed to delivering two sermons weekly. However, in the final hours of 1906 while on a New Years vigil, he fell ill and three days later suffered a stroke from which he died. He was survived by his wife Margaret, his son DeMoss, and daughters Anna Bailey and Florence Cooper.

The American Philosophical Society's holdings of his letters show that he corresponded with major nineteenth century American naturalists, including Asa Gray (1810-1888, APS 1848) and Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901, APS 1873), as well as the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Department of the Interior's Geographical Survey. Bowers also received an honorary doctorate from Willamette University in Oregon.

Collection Information

Physical description

120 items.


Purchased from Sessler (Hamilton, cat. 65, mo. 262; $160.00) and accessioned, 02/27/1973 (1973 258ms). S

Indexing Terms

Corporate Name(s)

  • Smithsonian Institution

Geographic Name(s)

  • California -- Antiquities
  • California -- Discovery and exploration


  • Fossils -- Collection and preservation -- California
  • Indians of North America -- California -- Antiquities

Detailed Inventory

Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

Other Descriptive Information: See: See also:

Alliot, Hector, 1862-1919.
Alliot, Hector
American Beet Sugar Company
Arnold, Ralph
Austin, Amelia R
Baird, Spencer Fullerton,
Bancroft, H H
Barnes, G W
Benson, H C
Billings, John S
Blake, William P
Bok, Edward
Bowers, De Moss

Other Descriptive Information: See: Alliot, HectorSee also: Buell, IRa M.; Merriam, J. C.; Museum of Natural History; Otis, Harrison Gray; Stanton, T. W.; Walters, Edwin; and Wilmot, Mrs. Arthur X., in:

Bowers, De Moss
Bowers, Martha [Mrs. Stephen Bowers]

Other Descriptive Information: See also: Arnold, Ralph, in:

Bowers, Martha [Mrs. Stephen Bowers]
Bowers, Stephen, 1832-[ca. 1907].

D. ca. 150 items. Various sizes. Geological subjects predominate in this correspondence; likewise archaeological material pertaining to California. Table of Contents available.

Branner, John C
Brinton, Daniel Garrison,
Broome Ranch

Other Descriptive Information: See: American Beet Sugar Company

Buell, Ira M
Burdette, Robert J
Carlson, Milton

Other Descriptive Information: See also: National Geographic Society, in:

Carlson, Milton
Cartwright, Peter
Cassell, Pelter and Galpin
Chittenden, A J
Clark, James
Clarke, Robert
Cooper, Ellwood
Cravy, B F
Culmer, George F
Daggett, Frank S

Other Descriptive Information: See: Museum of Natural History

Dale, James W
Davidson, George
De Wolf, L W
Douglass, N G
Drew, Mrs. S W
Driffill, J A

Other Descriptive Information: See: American Best Sugar Company

Eames, Ninetta
Eaton, Daniel C
Ewan, Mrs.
Foley, John
Forbes, R H
Gardner, Joseph
Girty, George H
Goode, G Brown
Gray, Asa,
Grosvenor, Gilbert Hovey,

Other Descriptive Information: See: National Geographic Society, in:

Gunn, Douglas
Halloch, William
Harland, Marion
Harris, Thomas H
Harrison, William P
Hastings, Samuel D
Hayden, Ferdinand Vandiveer,
Hayes, C M
Hearst, P A
Henshaw, Henry W
Hickcox, J H
Hilgard, E W
Hodge, H C
Holder, Charles F
Holland, J G
Holmes, William Henry,
Hopkins, A A
Hrdlicka, Ales
Hughes, J D
Johnson, William H , in re
Jordan, David Starr,
Kellogg, F E
Kunz, George Frederick,
Lea, Isaac,
LeConte, Joseph,
Lossing, Benson John,
Lowe, O
Lummis, Charles F
McDonald, Marshall
Maltby, Charles
Mason, Otis T

Other Descriptive Information: See also: Anthropological Association, in:

Mayne, W T
Merriam, John Campbell,
Merrill, George P
Morris, Robert
Mosher, L A
Murphy, Al
Museum of Natural History
National Geographic Society
Nesbit, S N
Nolan, Edward J
Nunemacher, John R
Orten, Edward
Otis, Harrison Gray
Owen, Richard
Packard, Alpheus Spring,
Part, S D
Pickett, L L
Pilling, James C
Powers, Stephen
Pratt, J H
Putnam, Frederick Ward,
Rau, Charles
Rindge, Frederick H
Rizer, H C
Rothrock, Joseph Trimble,
Russell, Israel C
Silliman, Benjamin,
Skillings, H T
Smith, Charles W
"Song of the Old Folks"
Stanton, T W
Stump, J W
Swallow, S C
Taylor, John W
Thompson, Robert E
Totten, C A L
United States. Department of Interior - U S Geological Survey
Vail, Isaac N
van Hine, Charles R
Walcott, Charles Doolittle,
Walters, Edwin
Weber, J H
Wheeler, George M
White, Charles A
Wilmot, Mrs. Arthur X
Winchell, Alexander
Woolley, John G
Yarrow, H C