Women’s History~ Mary C Wheelwright

Young Mary wheelwright-web

Mary C Wheelwright, c.1905


Mary Cabot Wheelwright, anthropologist, philanthropist and museum founder, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 2, 1878. She was her parents’ only child, born when her father Andrew was 51 and her mother Sarah was 42. Mary’s mother Sarah was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and raised Mary in the religious liberalism of the Transcendentalists and the Unitarian Church. The family had substantial wealth from its Yankee trading origins. Although Andrew and Sarah took their daughter traveling through Europe, Egypt, and California, they were extremely protective. Mary had little formal education but read widely in things which interested her, including music and history. Although obliged to “knuckle under and do just what she was told,” she developed and held to her own strong opinions. She involved herself in social projects such as helping to develop a music school at a Boston settlement house. Her father died in 1908 and her mother in 1917, leaving Mary a small fortune in trust and the freedom to live the life she chose. In 1918, shortly before her 40th birthday, Mary Wheelwright arrived in the town of Alcalde, New Mexico, with her cousin, Evelyn Sears. Soon she was an enthusiastic Westerner, devoted to trail riding, camping, and convincing cowboys “that it was possible to be a good sport and also drink tea.” After becoming friends with Hasteen Klah, an esteemed Navaho “singer”, that is a traditional healer, she committed herself to the preservation of New Mexico’s historic and cultural Navaho legacies. In addition to founding the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in 1936-37 (now the Wheelwright Museum), Mary Wheelwright made significant contributions to the Indian Arts Fund, the New Mexico Historical Society, and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. She bought a cottage on Sutton’s Island where she lived when not traveling in Europe, India or the western United States. When a book of ballads collected in Maine was about to be published without the tunes, she brought a musicologist to gather the music and thereby enriched the publication at her own expense. Becoming friends with Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, she helped to fund Ms Eckstorm’s work in the preservation of history and culture of Native American people in Maine. Ms Wheelwright died at Sutton’s Island on July 19, 1958.


Wheelwright Museum


For more information about her, see: Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Six, 1956– 1960 (1980) pp 687-88; her own incomplete draft of an autobiography entitled “Journey Towards Understanding” can be found in A Quilt of Words: Letters & Original Accounts of Life in the Southwest, 1860– 1960 (1988) compiled by Sharon Niederman. No book length biography has yet been written. Her papers can be found at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

wheelwright historical marker--0fe7_l

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