Rooted in Rivalry

100 Years Ago, The State’s Museum System Began with Dispute Between Two Powerful Men – One Called a Bull and the Other a Bullfrog

The New Mexican


The Museum of New Mexico was founded 100 years ago this week in a political movida over the use of the Palace of the Governors.

Early in the 20th century, the Palace housed two museums – a private one focusing on history and another focusing on archaeology.

Lawyer and territorial politician LeBaron Bradford Prince started the history museum in 1883. But in the years leading up to statehood, educator-turned-archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett edged out Prince’s dominion over the Palace as the first director of the state museum system.

The Prince/Hewett rivalry has been documented in Beatrice Chauvenet’s Hewett and Friends: A Biography of Santa Fe’s Vibrant Era (1983), Melinda Elliott’s The School of American Research: A History (1987) and James A. Snead’s Ruins and Rivals: The Making of Southwest Archaeology (2001).

Now the political maneuvering is explored in an article by Michael Stevenson, a Museum of New Mexico regent, first vice president of the Historical Society of New Mexico and a former Los Alamos National Laboratory administrator, in the next edition of the society’s journal, La Crónica de Nuevo México.

Prince: History-smitten governor

Prince, nicknamed “The Old Bullfrog,” was a New York lawyer who came to Santa Fe in 1879 as Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes’ appointee as chief justice of the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court.

Smitten with local history, he wrote Historical Sketches of New Mexico from the Earliest Records to the American Occupation, and became vice president and then president of the reconstituted Historical Society of New Mexico (founded in 1859 but suspended at the outbreak of the Civil War). In 1883, Prince got permission for the society to use two rooms for a museum on the east side of the Palace after the Territorial Legislature left for the new Capitol. Four years later, when the Territorial Law Library moved to new quarters, the society expanded into its space. From 1889 to 1893, Prince served as territorial governor – a job that included an apartment in the Palace.

“Prince became very interested in the history and cultures of the area and was an avid collector of objects related to the Spanish and Mexican periods and to Native American cultures, most of which were eventually displayed in the Society’s museum,” Stevenson wrote in his article, Governor Prince, Dr. Hewett, and Their Battles for the Old Palace. “Prince frequently proposed that the society get more of the ‘Old Adobe Palace’ for its use and that the Territorial Legislature provide more funds. … Before the arrival of Hewett, Prince must have felt that the Palace was, or at least should have been, completely his territory.”

Hewett: Budding archaeologist

Hewett, nicknamed “El Torro,” grew up on farms in Illinois and Missouri, attended college in Missouri, taught school and worked as a superintendent of public schools in Missouri and Colorado, and earned a master’s degree in “pedagogy” from the Colorado Normal School in Greeley, where he served as a department head. New Mexico rancher and lawyer Frank Springer, head of the Board of Regents of the newly formed New Mexico Normal School (now New Mexico Highlands University) in Las Vegas, N.M., was so impressed by the young educator that he hired him as the school’s president in 1898.

Hewett’s time in the Southwest imbued him with fascination for its prehistoric ruins. He explored Pecos Pueblo, Chaco Canyon and the Pajarito Plateau, and got to know early archaeologist Adolph Bandelier, for whom the plateau’s ruins are now named. Although Hewett had no formal education in archaeology, he left for Switzerland in 1903 to attend the University of Geneva, where he got a doctorate based on his dissertation in the unfolding field of American archaeology.

Back in the United States, Hewett worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and lobbied for the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906, which protected ancient ruins on federal land. When the American Institute of Archaeology agreed to fund a southwestern field school, he returned to Santa Fe as director of the School of American Archaeology – later called the School of American Research and today the School for Advanced Research.

In his own book, Campfire and Trail, published in 1943 near the end of his career, Hewett wrote that he learned to train archaeologists from a gang leader on the Chicago waterfront. When Hewett asked the leader how he taught his gang to swim, he responded: “Push ’em off de pier.” Hewett said he applied this logic to leading Sylvanus Morely, Alfred Kidder and John Fletcher – then budding archaeology students from Harvard – into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with instructions to complete an archaeological survey of the area in six weeks. Hewett wrote that their excellent survey proved “it may be possible to live down a Harvard education,” and their ability to survive in the wilderness meant, “they were no sissies that I would have to send back for a finishing course at Radcliff.”

Some modern archaeologists have criticized Hewett’s work as “romantic” in that it relied heavily on European historical imagery. In one article cited by Snead, “Hewett compared Santa Fe to Damascus, referred to a local hilltop as an acropolis and concluded that ‘in truth, there is no reason why the Indians of the towns on the site of Santa Fe should not have been living their simple lives in the same days that the aboriginal Latins were basking in the sun of the Seven Hills, baking pottery by precisely the same methods as the Indians and, in the same way, folding up the bodies of their dead for burial along the Via Sacra.’ ”

“He was not an archaeologist in the sense we think of archaeology today,” Stevenson said in a recent interview. “He wasn’t thrilled with excavations in a scientific fashion, but he did some wonderful survey work. … In those days, everybody was a pot hunter. One of the reasons for the School of American Archaeology was that he wanted to have a way to compete with Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the American Museum in New York and all these other guys who were coming in and getting all of our stuff from the Southwest.”

New History Museum begins with old dispute

The New Mexico Archaeological Society, of which Hewett was an early member, had been meeting in the Palace’s Ben Hur Room since 1900. In early 1907, Hewett proposed to locate the School for American Archaeology in the west end of the Palace. Initially, Prince went along with the proposal if the historical and archaeological societies “could work in harmony.” But the harmony ended when Hewett opposed Prince’s plan to expand the Historical Society’s museum on the east side of the Palace.

An article in The New Mexican on Feb. 20, 1907, suggested settling the dispute by building a new wing on the Palace for a history museum – a proposal that finally will be fulfilled when the new state History Museum opens this spring.

The Hewett-Prince rivalry reached its climax in early 1909, when the Territorial Legislature considered turning over the Palace to Hewett’s School of American Research. Prince, who recently had been elected to the Territorial Council – the predecessor of the state Senate – opposed the move. But a more powerful member of the council, land baron Thomas B. Catron, who was allied with Hewett, pushed the bill through the council on a vote of 11 to 1 – the sole nay vote being that of Prince.

Catron then asked for reconsideration of the bill and added an amendment providing for an annual report on the status of the Palace by the “Board of Regents of the Museum of New Mexico” – the first official mention of this organization. This time, Prince voted in the affirmative. “Apparently Prince recognized his defeat by this point and got on board with the majority,” wrote Stevenson.

As passed on Feb. 19, 1909, the bill gave control of the Palace to the museum’s regents, who were required to provide space at no charge to the American Institute of Archaeology for “its school and Museum of American Archaeology, which museum shall be the museum of New Mexico.” The conference committee’s version provided that the Historical Society also get free space “for so long as the same is conducted in harmony with the management of the Museum of New Mexico herein established, and for free public use.”

Hewett takes charge; Prince ‘skun alive’

Hewett, who continued as director of the School of American Archaeology, was named director of the newly formed Museum of New Mexico, giving him authority over Prince’s history museum. In a letter to his friend Charles Lummis only four days after the bill’s enactment, Hewett gloated that Prince had been “skun alive.” “When old Catron got through with him, there wasn’t enough hide left to nail up,” he wrote.

Hewett’s new archaeology museum officially opened to the public in the west end of the Palace in August 1910. The displays of artifacts taken from various New Mexico ruins were immediately popular with the public. But when Hewett began an extensive remodeling of the then-300-year-old building, Prince resisted by locking the Historical Society’s museum. According to Chauvenet, museum workers solved this problem by cutting two new doors into the society’s rooms over a single weekend.

After statehood in 1912, Hewett convinced New Mexico’s first elected governor, William McDonald, to recommend to the Legislature that the Historical Society be moved out of the Palace. Prince managed to persuade the legislators to leave the museum where it was. But in 1913, Prince again riled Hewett by locking the history museum after a valuable piece of pottery went missing. The rivalry lasted until Prince’s death in 1922.

The history museum continued as a private entity until 1930, when it began to be gradually absorbed into the museum system. Hewett went on to explore ruins in Mexico and Central America, to participate in the Panama-California Exhibition in San Diego to open the Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) in 1917, to found and teach at the Department of Anthropology at The University of New Mexico and to convince John D. Rockefeller Jr. to fund the Laboratory of Anthropology, which opened in 1931. Hewett remained head of both the Museum of New Mexico and the School of American Archaeology until his death in 1946. The two entities were not formally separated until 1959 and continued to split up their assets into the early 1980s.