Excerpted from an article by Milton Denny, PLS, that originally appeared in POB Magazine.  

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was born March 15, 1838, in Cuba. A driven and passionate woman, she was active in the temperance, anti-tobacco and feminist movements, and a need to earn her own living propelled her into her first career as a public lecturer and later into anthropology in her 40s. While gathering material for a lecture series, Fletcher met Frederic W. Putnam, the director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With Putnam, Fletcher informally studied archeology, then her interests turned to studying contemporary Native American life in Nebraska.

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 facts to a new field: ethnology. Her approach to the subject came to be known as “fieldwork,” and 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 became a leader for the reform of the Indian reservation system. The Omaha Native Americans feared that they would be removed from their land, so they wanted legal titles to their properties just as all land owners had of the day. Fletcher took up their cause, and she lobbied in Washington, D.C., for the passage of a special act that provided for the division of the Omaha Reservation into individual allotments of land. 

Learn more about the history of surveying

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 land surveying, and by 1884 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. Tribes came to know her as the “Measuring Woman.”

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This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue of POB Magazine.