This post was written by Karen Hammer, a CUNY graduate fellow at the New-York Historical Society who helped to process the James G. Harbord Papers.
As a CUNY graduate fellow at the New-York Historical Society, I’ve been helping to process the James G. Harbord Papers. Lieutenant General James Guthrie Harbord (1866-1947) retired in 1922 from a distinguished military career to serve as Chairman of the Board of RCA for nearly 25 years. Mixed in with many files of routine business correspondence, I’ve come across some interesting ephemera with Western imagery, including a large collection of hotel advertisements.
Harbord maintained an active interest in the West throughout his life. Early in his career in 1914, Harbord commanded the unit that defended the California border at Calexico, and in 1916 he fought with General John G. Pershing against Pancho Villa. Harbord also had a life-long friendship with Chief Plenty Coups (misspelled “Coops” in the accompanying newspaper clipping), the principal chief of The Mountain Crows of the Crow Nation. The Crow tribe was know for taking an assimilationist position and aligning with whites against the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. Harbord was even made an honorary member of the tribe and given the name “War Eagle.”
In this blog post, I’d like to share some of this ephemera and consider how the West was imagined in the early twentieth century as a place of recovery and rest, both from diseases like tuberculosis, as well as from the stress of living in a rapidly urbanizing society. However, Harbor’s symbolic induction as a member of the Crow Nation also proposes the West as a place to take on a new identity, either Native American, or “Cowboy/girl,” and to dwell (at least temporarily) in the historic past. The materials pictured in this post suggest that the idea of the West is as important to American history as the actual material assets of the region.
Harbord spent a lot of time in Tucson, Arizona, particularly when his first wife, Emma Yeatman Ovenshine, battled tuberculosis. The “El Conquistador Hotel and Cottages” advertisement found among Harbord’s papers states that the “Arizona Sun and health building air, give you unrivaled conditions under which to relax both body and mind” — At the El Conquistador a guest can also experience history, wear Western-styled clothing, and enjoy “old-fashioned sport” such as driving an “ancient stagecoach.”
Pictured here is an advertisement for The Arizona Inn, a historic site and hotel still in operation, that even today maintains its mystique as both a place to experience the “authentic” western lifestyle and to recover from modern diseases.
In this brochure for the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, a guest can “just let down out here and all but go native,” which suggests one can come close, but not too close, to becoming like the stereotypical image of the Native American who is “one with nature.” Clearly the Arizona hotels were not just promoting a place to stay but also a set of ideas that help perpetuate the myth of the West as antidote to the troubles of modernity, simultaneously covering over the history of Native American genocide in the region.
These full color brochures, ads, and booklets help us to understand how archiving can produce unintended insights. I am reminded to approach the archive with an attitude of openness, an eye toward the unexpected, which will allow me to track strains in the material that may seem tangential, but help to form a much more detailed picture of a time period. In the early twentieth century, the West held both symbolic and economic importance, and the Harbord Papers reveal this dual importance.