The Measuring Woman

November 25, 2002
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The story of Alice Fletcher, the first American woman surveyor and her years allotting Indian lands in the mid-1800s.



In my ongoing research on the history of surveying, I have often wondered who the first woman surveyor was and what role she played in our history. I was not thinking of someone who surveyed town lots or subdivisions, but someone who left a lasting impact on surveying history. A number of times I have run across the name the “Measuring Woman,” a title the Native Americans bestowed on a woman named Alice Fletcher. I knew there had to be a story behind this title, so I got my hands on as much information as I could about this pioneer of surveying history. Following is the story of Alice Fletcher, the Measuring Woman.

From Girl to Ethnologist

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was born March 15, 1838 in Cuba, where her father had gone for health reasons. She was named Alice after her grandmother and Cunningham after her mother’s girlhood friend. Despite any improvement in her father's health, the family returned to their home in New York in the summer of 1838. They shortly thereafter rented a farmhouse in Morristown, N.J., where Alice’s father died in November of 1839 at the age of 38. He left behind his widow, a nine-year-old stepson, and Alice, who was 20 months old. Alice’s mother, Lucia Adeline, settled in Brooklyn Heights where she enrolled Alice in a pioneering educational venture called the Brooklyn Female Academy. The school was founded to afford young ladies the same facilities for acquiring a good English and classical education as was provided for young men at the best collegiate institutions.

Between 1853, when the Brooklyn Female Academy burned to the ground and was rebuilt as the Packer Collegiate Institute, and 1876, Alice spent most of her time teaching and developing her leadership skills. A driven and passionate woman, Alice was active in the temperance, anti-tobacco and feminist movements. It was the need to earn her own living that propelled her into her first career as a public lecturer and later into anthropology in her forties. While gathering material for her “Lectures on Ancient America,” Alice Fletcher met Frederic W. Putnam, the director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With Putnam, Fletcher informally studied archeology. In 1881, her interests turned to contemporary Indians when she met two young Omahas, Suzette and Francis La Flesche, in Boston. Alice later arranged to travel with the La Flesches to Nebraska, where she would camp and observe Indian life. This was the first taste of life among the Native American people for Alice and it would change her life forever.

Surveying Indian Lands, Cementing A Life’s Work

Over the next several years Alice Fletcher blossomed into a professional anthropologist. Putnam taught her the importance of scientific study in archeology, which to him meant painstaking and thorough excavation of bones and artifacts with detailed recordkeeping. Fletcher transferred Putnam’s emphasis on getting the facts to a new field, ethnology. She invented a new approach to the subject: the rigorous, first-person study, which came to be called fieldwork. As she traveled among the Plains Indians, she participated in their life and took detailed notes on their customs and ceremonies. Throughout the 1880s she presented papers based on her observations at the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and had them published in the annual reports of the Peabody Museum.

“She became a leader in the growing campaign for the reform of the reservation system. Fletcher had met Suzette and Francis La Flesche while they were on a speaking tour in the East with Standing Bear, the Ponca chief, protesting the removal of the Poncas to Indian Territory and calling for the extension of citizenship to Native Americans. When she got to Nebraska, Alice Fletcher learned that the Omahas were afraid they too might be banished from their homes. Joseph La Flesche, Susette and Francis’s father, and some of the other leaders of the tribe had built frame houses and begun to farm on the reservation, but they were afraid that the government would abolish their reservation and move them elsewhere to keep them away from white settlers. The Indians wanted individual legal title to their farms, just as the white men had. Alice Fletcher listened sympathetically to their story and took up their cause. She lobbied in Washington for the passage of a special act, which provided for the division of the Omaha Reservation into individual allotments of land. When the Omaha allotment act was passed in 1882, she was sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to Nebraska to implement it.”*

This experience was the start of her work in surveying. Her first try at land allotments almost cost her her life—not only did she have to try to convince the Omaha that having an allotment to farm was a good thing, she was exposed to the elements of the field while living in an Indian tent. Fletcher worked herself to exhaustion for weeks, during times of torrid heat and terrible storms. After being drenched in a storm, she continued to work in wet clothing and was soon suffering from a severe chill. She became so ill that she was transported 30 miles to the Omaha mission. For three weeks, no attempt was made to change her bed linen. It took Alice Fletcher eight months to recover. By 1884, however, she had allotted 75,931 acres in 954 allotments to 1,194 Omaha people. Her work was so thorough that the Bureau next hired her to make a nationwide survey of all the Indian reservations, their histories, current situations and the educational facilities available on each for helping the Indians toward “civilization.” With the completion of that report, Fletcher began to be recognized as one of the foremost authorities on Indians in the country.

She continued to lobby in Washington for a general allotment act. She also raised money for Indian education and home building and took an active part in the annual meetings of the Lake Mohonk Friends of the Indian, a reform group that urged the government to abandon the reservation system and promote the rapid integration of Indians into white society. When the Dawes Act, a ruling that converted all Indian tribal lands to individual ownership, was passed in 1887, Fletcher was sent to make the land allotments to the Winnebagos, a small group situated near the Omahas in Nebraska. Then came the more difficult assignment—to go to the more numerous Nez Perces in Idaho.

This project was harder then Alice Fletcher could have anticipated, as shown in a letter to Putnam. She writes:

“I have been working harder than ever before in my life… My honor is involved in getting this done. I dare not resign until it is completed, I will not bore you with all I have fought thro. But I have had the worst struggle of my life. I never met such greed, such a determination to rob a people, as I have found here in Idaho. One would think these Indians had hardly a right to live, and not a right to possess their land. There has been a running fight upon me, because I am determined to do justice and give these Indians a chance. I have not had any one here to help me, but every one to oppose me. The Indians cling to me like children, and I must protect them… Well, Professor, I am getting thro. If the sun will only shine so that the Surveyor can use his solar instrument for the next month all will be done. A compass is useless here. The needle hugs the plate and will not point. There is so much metal in the mountains.”

The surveyor she is referring to in the passage is Joe Biggs, a trained eastern surveyor she hired to ramrod (oversee) the fieldwork. The work on the surveys was very complex and difficult, highlighted by this reference to doing some of the work: “Her Majesty [Alice] would follow in the buggy, measuring the distance by counting the revolutions of the hind wheel, one of which was marked by a handkerchief tied about a spoke.”** This method was only used when the land was level and allowed the wagon to be used on other areas of the reservation. Indians that had been trained as chainmen were used to do the fieldwork. The Indians wanted their better lands for farming layed out in metes and bounds, but Alice insisted it be done as the Government Land Office (GLO) required, by sectionalizing the land into North, South, East and West.

“Her Majesty”

Alice Fletcher became good friends with Chief Joseph and was beloved by the Indian tribe. She was named “Her Majesty” in letters written by long time friend and housekeeper Jane Gay. She was called “Her Majesty” by her friends because of her resemblance to Queen Victoria but also perhaps as a humorous way of acknowledging the great respect, approaching awe they were beginning to feel toward her. The Indians knew her as the “Measuring Woman.” When the work on the Nez Perces Reservation was completed she had allotted and surveyed 179,000 acres of land. Throughout the remainder of her life she continued to work for Indian causes and document Indian ways as an anthropologist. Alice Cunningham Fletcher died on Aug. 23, 1923 after suffering from grippe and a stroke. She was working at the Bureau of American Ethnology in Santa Fe, N.M.

In my book, Alice Fletcher qualifies as the first American woman surveyor.

For more on Alice Fletcher, visit http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/omhhtml/omhoim2.html

References:

* Written by Frederick Hoxie and Joan Mark, authors of work about Alice Fletcher.

** With the Nez Perces. Alice Fletcher in the Field, 1889-1892.
With the Nez Perces By E. Jane Gay
University of Nebraska Press
ISBN 0-8032-3062-1

A Stranger in Her Native Land
(Alice Fletcher and the American Indians)
By Joan Mark
University of Nebraska Press
ISBN 0-8032-3128-8
ISBN 0- 8032-8156-0 (pbk.)

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