‘The More I See of This Boasted Civilization, the More I Like Indians.’
Sunday, February 26, 1911 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Marguerite Martyn
People were staring at the tall, sturdy woman as she blew up to the desk at the Planters Hotel with a pair of saddle bags flung over hershoulders by way of luggage.She could hear the lobby layabouts exchanging wah-wahs! and whoopees! They couldn’t have been less guarded in their rude comments had she been parading herself as an advertisement for a dime museum.
After she had signed the register, they sidled upto see with what aboriginal sign she had made her mark. But their attitudes of pure impudence or amused curiosity changed to simple astonishment when they read in plain English, “Miss Beatrice Farnham, South Weymouth, Massachusetts.”
South Weymouth, you know, was one of the early settlements in New England, and historians could inform you that the residence of the Farnham family there was built not quite 140 years ago.
But the stares and jeers had worn down the breezy manner that had matched her Wild West “get-up” — clear down to the thin Puritan self-consciousness of her ancestral grandmothers. They had driven her to cover, and when I found her shrinking into the obscurity of the retreat that lay behind the elevators at the Planters – the ladies’ parlor – she was glad of any refuge in the guise of a fellow woman, even though she be a newspaper reporter.
Almost her first remark: “As soon as the shops were open this morning, I went out and bought a long coat that would cover me up. It will be sent over presently, and I hope the strained necks and eyesight of these people will get a rest!
“Why should people stare at me? I can’t understand it.”
Miss Farnham explained:
“I’ve been out on the Navajo reservation for two months or so. I left most of my clothes in Cincinnatti because of course I didn’t want to be bothered with a lot of trunks and bags. Those I hadwhen I hit New Mexico wore out, so it was perfectly natural I should wear the ones I have on now. Besides, I thought these would be just the right outfit for the long, hard journey back from Santa Fe to St. Louis.”
At just this moment, a paragon of what we call female fashion sailed through the lobby (in the image above).
This very small person was wearing a straight, snug, little black velvet suit — one of those with the jacket bobbed off squarely at the hips and the skirt just wide enough for sitting down and making short, quick walking steps, but certainly no material going to waste. No doubt she might have had a very pretty face, if she hadn’t chosen to conceal it beneath the biggest, blackest of low-spreading hats, swept over with dazzling willow plumes and vivid SCARLET.
This vision flashed through the parlor on high-stilted heels, pulled along by a prancing poodle at the end of a gold chain. The little beast was wearing a tiny gold bracelet on one paw.
“Well! If my get-up could be more freakish than THAT!” I heard from Miss Farnham’s lips, with such vigor and scorn that a dozen exclamation points could not suffice to embellish. “I suppose if I wore something like that, I’d be accepted as a matter of course.” She looked at me inquiringly. I assented, and her frank amazement at the situation was complete.
She defended her manner of dress.
“This coat I wear is as warm as fur and not cumbersome. This hat is shady enough and so soft that I can lean my head against a Pullman [railroad car] seat, and it STAYS ON without being clamped down with six of those monstrous pins. This skirt will stand any amount of brushing. These boots are capable of getting me anywhere.”
She was beginning to make me feel like we were the freaks of nature and she was the only rational, normal being to be found hereabouts these days.
Added my nut-brown maid: “The more Isee of this boasted civilization, the more I like Indians. Why, the Navajos have a civilization that is older and more tried and true and makes ours look pallid and sickly.
“Culture? I know old Indians who are more cultured in the real sense of the word than any of your so-called polished men of the East. All Indians have an inborn sense of courtesy and hospitality toward strangers that would forbid such manners as ‘cultivated’ strangers have shown me here this morning.”
She gave an example.
“The other day I rode forty miles with an Indian who caught up with me out on the mesa. He advised me to take a trail he knew of. It was a new one to me, but I did not think of being afraid, and he was as deferential as any knight of the drawing room all the way. Before we ended our journey, five other men joined us, and not one of them presumed upon myfriendliness.
“Do you suppose I could do that here?”
The briefest pause.
“Oh, yes, I forgot. Of course, I had Pigeon. A good outfit will give you an entrée into Navajo society without an introduction. Pigeon, my pony, was known everywhere, but Pigeon would hardly be accepted as a chaperon here.” And she gestured toward the lobby.
“Your Daughters of the American Revolution,” she went on, “think they are very old families. Why, I know Indian grandmothers who are able to recite family history and legends that date back to the Great Flood — or whatever catastrophe it was that destroyed all except Montezuma and one pair of each of the species he wanted preserved.
“They have family heirlooms, beads worn thin as wafers, and pottery of a glaze that only age can reproduce; and old textiles and basketry which no money can buy from them.”
A change of thought.
“Your suffragettes think they are very advanced. Why, the Navajo women have always held the purse strings and laid down the law to their braves. The squaw is the boss of the camp. She owns all the sheep and the products therefrom. He owns what he has on his back, the blanket she weaves for him, and his horses, and she reserves the right to say whether he shall stick around her wigwam or take his clothes and go.”
Miss Farnham seemed to feel better when she had delivered herself of these comparisons. The autumn tints came back to her face and her eyes. Her white teeth glistened, and smilesoverspread her face when at last she volunteered to relieve my curiosity over her purpose in playing Indian.
“I went out to Arizona and New Mexico to study decorative art, but I learned many things which might profit people who call themselves ‘enlightened’ if I could tell them.
“When I was in my teens, my family backed me into an art school, and I stayed there five years, but I get more inspiration, more knowledge of color and composition, more perfect models, yes, and more of technique and execution in a day out there on my big playground than I did in all my years of hard labor in the school.
“I went out to learn of Indian basketry, textile weaving and their secrets of potteries, dyes, and designs that I could apply to the interior decorations of modern homes.
“People say I’m extravagant — taking three months in the winter season to loaf on horseback with a lot of Indians when I might be studying in cultivated Europe or New York and reading up on Indian lore in libraries. None of that must and dust for me!
“I have been more successful in a shorter time than most other women who go into business, and I owe it to the knowledge I acquire by sitting out there and blinking in the sun.”
She paused a moment, then went on.
“The out-of-doors is so big and clear by day and so serene by night. In Arizona, the stars are not pasted on their background as they are here, but they seem to hang down on long strings, and you can see way beyond them.You get a breadth of view in the big, open spaces, mental as well as physical. You get a perspective of yourself. You see how small you are. But something, perhaps the bracing air, fires you with ambition to come back and beat the world.”
She has a habit of dropping into abstraction, and when she speaks of her work, she narrows her eyes and focuses on something far away.
“The trouble with most women who go into business,” she reflected, “is they are too narrow in their vision. Their thrift consists of saving the pennies and economizing on necessities and physical comforts, the fundamentals of success. I used to see them in the studios of New York, skimping along, doing without breakfast or lunch, struggling always, looking neither right nor left, never taking a vacation.”
Miss Farnham, the business woman, added:
“Now, the very moment my last big order for the holiday trade is finished, without a thought of preparation I take the first train out of South Weymouth and hit the sunset trail. On the range I eat meat three times a day, and am still hungry. Yousee, I’m thin now from riding, but I’m hard as nails.”
“Why don’t you stay out there, if you like it so well?” I asked.
“Maybe I will some day.” She stole a shy glance toward a bracelet on her left wrist. “There is always a greeting waiting for me. See?” And she showed me the engraving on the inside: “Howdy.”
“That’s Western for you. He is a forest ranger,” she explained. “And a mighty fine pal.”
She grew reflective. Stuffy hotel surroundings dropped away, and for a moment I knew she was a real girl of the Golden West, roving the plains with her forest ranger.
“There are lots of others like him that you women couldn’t help falling for. The ‘Empire’ needs women, and the West has great allure for all women, especially those New Englanders I talk to. I might round up a herd of them and take them out, I suppose . . . But I think too much of my Western boys to offer to chaperon a pack of the fussy things overland.”
She cast a contemplative glance at the little group of staring women.
“And I know that, being so particular about appearances, they’d all get cold feet first thing.”
————-- In 1911,Beatrice Farnham did marry her ranger, John Otto, the first park custodian at Colorado National Monument, but they separated within a few weeks. She explained in a letter to the best man at their wedding that
“I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it, I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
The couple divorced in 1914.
The next year Farnham married Dallas Benson, a Kansas cowboy and ranch foreman. She kept on in her iconoclastic lifestyle: She and Benson became known for an equestrian trick called “Chasing the Bride” in which she leapt from her horse into his arms as they were riding side by side.
We don't know if or when she was divorced from Benson, but by 1930 she was living with her aged mother in Patrick County, Virginia. She built a private chapel on her property along the Dan River and painted a fresco on its walls. She was called a “renowned church artist and patron of Patrick County youth.”
When she was 82 she flew for a visit (perhaps a pilgrimage) to Israel aboard El Al.
Farnham died in 1979 at the age of 103;she was buried in the Mountain View Methodist Church cemetery. Her profession was listed as “artist.”
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(The article has been edited from the original text.)