September 6, 2020

What Yavapai County Has Sent to the Smithsonian

Yavapai County has sent hundreds of thousands of items to the Smithsonian Institute; most of these being insects and indigenous artifacts, but several other intriguing and occasionally mysterious items have been sent there as well. The most interesting of these are the items that the Institute had never seen before.

As soon as anglos began to populate central Arizona, representatives of the Smithsonian were sent to collect specimens of area wildlife. One of the first was Dr. Edward Palmer who came during several seasons in the mid-1860s. In 1867 he collected twelve boxes of insects, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, centipedes, “and other pleasant productions of the Territory, to take to the Smithsonian.

Dr. Richard E Kunze spent the best portion of his career catching Yavapai County insects. A 1914 newspaper article related that he started 18 years previous in 1896 and had been laboring at it ever since. He collected an amazing 325,000 beetles ”of the 12 orders existing.” He said: “there are to the credit of this section alone, certain insects that do not live anywhere [else] in the known world;” including three that only had one wing.He also sent some 100,000 flying insects to Washington—30,000 of which were butterflies alone!

In 1880 AE Davis sent the Institute “an insect of extraordinary length, very slender, with wings resembling those of the ‘Devil’s Darning Needle,’” the paper reported, that was “quite common in this territory.” The Smithsonian wrote back explaining that “the insect appears to be a new species of ‘walking stick.”

Ten months prior to our country’s centennial, the Smithsonian wrote the Prescott newspaper editor requesting “as complete a series as possible of everything tending to illustrate the past and present history of the aboriginal races now or previously inhabiting the continent of North America.” Perhaps they were hoping that some of the relic hunters would submit some of their finds. It is unknown what items the request brought, however.

Still, hundreds, if not thousands of Native American relics from Yavapai County were sent to the Smithsonian. Back then, these including inhumations which, by law, should have been reinterred by now. 

When Watson Dam was being built, “the sequestered dells of the Point of Rocks” were being examined before the lake filled. Archeologists found some 25,000 year-old mummies with some equally old beans. Some of the beans were sent to a Mrs. JA Tudor of Illinois who successfully grew them. The mummies and some of these same beans were sent to the Smithsonian.

In 1878, the newspaper reported that “Col. Biddle, USA, has offered a Lynx Creek Miner $25 for a skull of one of the ancients. "It is different from the skulls of the people of this age, and will create quite a sensation at the Smithsonian Institute…where it will be sent” the paper related. What made this particular skull so unique was not revealed. Was it extraordinarily large, or somehow deformed? The answer may have been lost to history by now.

In 1919, “a race of pygmies” was discovered by some miners. Eventually they found 19 bodies along with a “cupful of turquoise.” Part of this find was sent to the University of Arizona and part to the Smithsonian.

One Smithsonian professor, Dr. FW Fewkes, also spent many years in Yavapai County. His specialty was collecting Native American artifacts for the museum. Newspapers record him working in 1895 up to 1911, when he “took away several hundred pounds of various implements unearthed during his investigations” on that one season alone.

Some of the most interesting artifacts sent included some "extremely artistic plates" that were described as bearing some type of hieroglyphic language. These were discovered both in the Verde Valley and at Walnut Grove. The latter were put on display at the Commercial Trust & Savings Bank. “They are attracting very much attention for their artistic manufacture,” the paper related. Two plates in particular were of great interest. They were made of slate. One was “7.5 inches, and the other [was] 4x8 inches.” The edges were decorated with a “frescoed ornamentation of hieroglyphics,” which seemed to be a written language. A third piece was described as “having the appearance of a small cup…of unique design [that] could not be classed. It was something after the mould of a muffin.”After being on display for several days, they were sent to the Smithsonian.

One surprising artifact sent to the Smithsonian was discovered by John Roark, who found what he described as “unquestionably a piece of money.” A relic hunter for many years, Roark had never seen anything like it previously. “It’s about the size of a 25 cent piece,” the paper described, “and three times its thickness, with a small hole in the center.” It was “artistically cut, and still bears the variegated coloring to indicate, evidently, its denomination.” 

One very simple artifact posed a great mystery. In 1873, when there were still wilderness areas controlled by the Native Americans, one brave prospector travelled into what was then thought to be the undiscovered “diamond fields” of Arizona. Deep in this wilderness he found a shirt button. When sent to the Smithsonian, it was identified to be off a uniform of a Columbian Navy sailor and was dated between 1817 and 1820. How and why this came to be is baffling. “Who will solve the question of how that button got to the unexplored region of Arizona,” the paper wondered. “Did the Marines of the Republic of Colombia visit there in search of minerals, garnets, etc.?”

In 1915, a Yavapai County ranch sent a freak of nature to the Smithsonian. “A colt was born with 3 eyes at the Beach ranch in Kirkland Valley,” the paper reported. It only lived a few days and its head was sent to the Institute.

The famous Mayer onyx quarry is also represented at the Smithsonian in a surprising way. In mid-May, 1891, Buckey O’Neill, the quarry’s owner, sent samples of his onyx to the Smithsonian. One week later, the Institution placed an order for 3000 pounds of it! That seems like a large amount for an exhibit. Perhaps this was used to decorate our national museum? However, researching interior pictures of the older buildings, as well as displays of onyx at the museum, proved inconclusive. 

RELATED: Mayer Onyx Was Unique, Beautiful & World Famous

The story of the only known onyx quarry ever discovered on earth and its history in Mayer, Yavapai county, Arizona.


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Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner, 5/20/1891.

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