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  • Tim Greyhavens

Curtis Colleagues: William E. Myers

This is the first in a series of posts about people who were directly or indirectly a part of The North American Indian project. During the three decades that Curtis strived to complete the work, he relied on, received funding from, or was influenced by dozens of people from all walks of life. You’ll find their stories here in the coming months with the tagline of “Curtis Colleagues.” Please sign up for our mailing list to be notified as new stories are posted.

L to R, back: Alexander Upshaw, William E. Myers, Edmond Meany, ?. Front: Red Cloud, Sioux leader. Photo by Fred Meyer, 1907.

L to R, back: guide Alexander Upshaw; William E. Myers; Edmond Meany; Jack Red Cloud (son of Red Cloud). Front: Red Cloud (1822-1909), Oglala Lakota leader. Photo by Fred Meyer, 1907.

After William Myers left The North American Indian project in 1926, Edward Curtis included a heartfelt tribute to him in the next published volume (XVIII). He wrote:

As this tribute suggests, perhaps no one other than Curtis was more essential to the success of The North American Indian than William E. Myers. At various times during the project, he was involved in almost every aspect of the work, from scouting new locations to overseeing the printing of the volumes. He often spent weeks in locations before Curtis arrived, compiling extensive notes about the languages, music, and traditions of the Peoples he visited. His research and writing skills gradually increased to the point that Curtis let Myers type up many of the final drafts of the texts while “The Chief” (as Curtis was called by his associates) concentrated on fundraising and, of course, creating the incredible photographs for each volume.

At the top of the list of Myers’ many talents were his language skills. He was known as what might be called today a linguistic mimic: he could repeat or write down complex Native language words without previously hearing them. Curtis wrote that a “Native would pronounce a seven-syllable word and Myers would repeat it without a second’s hesitation, which to the old Indian was magic, and so it was to me.” Even more amazing, Myers could "accurately sing by ear Indian songs he had recorded, even though he did not understand the literal meaning."

Part of the vocabulary appendix compiled by Myers for Volume VI.

However, writing the words was a different matter since many Native Peoples had no written language at that time. In the appendices of each of the first eighteen volumes (he did not work on the last two), Myers compiled detailed vocabularies for the languages of the Peoples visited. These covered such categories as anatomical terms, animals names, cardinal points, colors, foods, handicrafts, natural phenomena, family terms, and trees.

For all their common interests, nothing in their pasts would have suggested that Myers and Curtis were destined to meet. William was born in Springfield, Ohio, on September 20, 1877, the ninth of eleven children born to Daniel Otto Myers and Ellen Louisa Garver Myers. His father worked various jobs before settling in as the superintendent of the Springfield Methodist Mission. William, known as a bright student in high school, first attended Wittenberg Academy (now Wittenberg University) and later transferred to Northwestern University in Illinois. He graduated from that school in 1899 with a major in the Greek language, suggesting that he was intrigued with non-Latin languages even before his work with Curtis.

No records have been found about the next five years of Myers’ life, but in the 1906 Seattle City Directory, he was listed as a reporter for the Seattle Star newspaper. By the time Myers arrived in Seattle, Curtis was already a highly accomplished photographer with his own studio. More importantly, in 1906, Curtis had just secured the first significant funding for The North American Indian project from Wall Street titan J. P. Morgan.

Morgan's money significantly expanded the scope of Curtis's proposed project, and it seems likely that Curtis knew he wouldn’t be able to single-handedly produce both the photography and writing for the books. We don't know how Curtis found Myers, but certainly the local newspapers would have been good places to look for talent. It was not the practice at that time for reporters to have their bylines on stories, so we have no idea of Myers' writing skills before his work with Curtis. Fortunately for both, the two somehow connected, and they never looked back. One year later, Myers was listed in the city directory as “Assistant, Curtis Studio.” He appeared again in the directories of 1913-14, but both listings were just for temporary residences.

In 1908, Myers married Josephita (Sophie) Jaffe in Billings, Montana. It is reasonable to assume that Myers was in Montana then while working on volume IV, which focused on the Crow tribe living on their nearby reservation. Sophie, on the other hand, was born in San Francisco, and we have no idea how she met Myers or why she was in Montana. The local newspaper said, “The groom is a rancher of Pryor and the bride formerly resided in San Francisco.” Pryor is a small community on the Crow Reservation, and it must have been Myers’ base while working there. A reasonable guess might be that the two met at some point in San Francisco, and Sophie came to Montana for the sole purpose of their marriage.

After this event, details about William’s and Sophie’s lives are frustratingly sporadic. Like Curtis, William dedicated most of his time to relentlessly working on The North American Indian. The few records we have about his life indicate he was often working on the project in the field (often with Curtis but sometimes on his own) or secluded with Curtis typing the manuscript for the latest volume. At one point, Curtis described the relentless pace of their work:

At the close of each season of fieldwork, our staff of three, which included W. E. Myers, Edmund Schwinke, and myself, settled down in some obscure location to get the material ready for publication. During that time we slept and took our meals at the rooms, so there would be no interruption. Our families rarely saw us. We were up at dawn, and it was rare if we got to bed before midnight. (source: Florence Graybill manuscript)

Author's Camp Among the Spokan. From Volume VII of The North American Indian. This shows a typical field camp where Curtis, Myers, and others would work for months at a time.

For the next twenty years, Myers wrote from various locations, including Arizona (1914); Yakima County, Washington (1918); San Francisco (most of the 1920s), and Santa Fe (1924). When he was not researching or writing the texts, he would travel to Boston to oversee the printing of the volumes at the publishers in Boston.

In 1920, Sophie was able to purchase an apartment building at 1750 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco, and it became their permanent residence for many years. Unfortunately, due to a continuing lack of funds to complete The North American Indian, Curtis was often forced to delay payments to Myers for work already completed on the project. Finally, after twenty years of relentless working hours and repeated late payments, Myers could not bear the strain any longer. Perhaps Sophie finally gave him an ultimatum, or maybe he, like Curtis, was physically and financially exhausted. In the spring of 1926, he shocked Curtis by writing,

It is an unpleasant thing to write you that I shall not be able to do any field work this summer. An opportunity has presented itself to make a lot of money in the next two or three years—a real estate transaction. It is one of the kind that rarely occurs, and I am getting too old to pass it up in hope that another will be at hand when the Indian work is finished.

Unfortunately, the opportunity was far less profitable than Myers hoped. Instead, he became the manager of their building on Pacific Avenue and settled into a mostly normal home life with Sophie. In the city directories for most of the 1930s, he listed his occupation as a writer. It appears that sometime after 1937, he and Sophie divorced (she lived until 1977), although no records have been found to confirm this. A few years later, Myers married Eveline M. Roberts of Sonoma County. Other than this basic fact, she remains almost unknown.

After Myers left the project, Curtis wrote, “In retrospect, I do not know how I could have accomplished what I have without his great help. He was a rapid shorthand writer, a fast typist who had majored in English literature and had developed an uncanny ear for phonetics. In spelling he was a second Webster.”

William Myers died on April 29, 1949 (age 71), in Santa Rosa, California. Brief obituaries appeared in the local newspaper and his hometown paper in Springfield, Ohio. Neither mentioned anything about The North American Indian and his many years of hard work and dedication to the success of the publication.

Tim Greyhavens


I am indebted to the most thorough of all Curtis scholars, Mick Gidley, for his early research on William Myers’ life. More than any other author, Gidley uncovered details about Myers's many contributions to The North American Indian. The unattributed quotes in this post appeared in his books Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian. Incorporated (1998) and Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian Project in the Field (2003).


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