Cushing, Frank Hamilton, 1857-1900

Titles by this author
Zuñi breadstuff

Frank Hamilton Cushing, anthropologist, was born in Erie County, Pennsylvania, the fourth son of Sarah Harding Crittenden and Thomas Cushing, a physician. Three years later the family moved to a farm outside of Barre Center, New York. A sickly child, Cushing attended school irregularly, teaching himself by reading books and investigating the natural world that surrounded his home. When he was eight, he was given a flint arrowhead uncovered during plowing. He would later report that this artifact spurred his life-long interest in native cultures, and he began a thorough study of the tribes that once lived in the area. He started his own collection of Indian objects, which he displayed in a bark lodge he built in a corner of the family property, and he replicated Indian techniques of construction to deepen his understanding of them.

[H]e early fell into a habit of thought not unlike that of the primitive arrow maker, and even before he knew the living Indian, grew into sympathy with Indian art, Indian methods, Indian motives. So, in his wigwam laboratory and later at Cornell and elsewhere, he began to reproduce chipped stone arrowpoints and other aboriginal artifacts by processes similar to those of the native artisans; in this art he attained skill to a unique degree, and through it gained a unique understanding of the processes of primitive men.

(taken from the Twenty-first Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, by Major John Wesley Powell, its founder and first director; reproduced in the Foreword of Zuni Breadstuff.)

Cushing began studying at Cornell University in 1874. He was already well-read in the anthropological literature of the day, and his first published work, "Antiquities of Orleans County, New York," appeared before he was eighteen in the Smithsonian Institute's annual report (1875). More knowledgeable than his anthropology instructors, Cushing left school after one term, and was appointed in 1876 to the Smithsonian Institution as a staff member; he spent the next four years in Washington, D.C., mostly preparing exhibits. An assistant curator of ethnology, in the fall of 1879 he was selected as the ethnologist to accompany the first Bureau of Ethnology expedition to the Southwest.

Cushing's instructions were to make a thorough study of one pueblo - the Zuni -so as to collect examples of their pottery, textiles, and religious objects, and to gain an understanding of their culture. The prevailing notion at the time were 1) that American Indian societies would vanish under the pressure and aggression of expansionism, and that potential "artifacts" should be salvaged in the process, and 2) that cultures are evolutionary in character; Anglo-American culture, deemed more advanced than native cultures, therefore had the right to investigate native cultures no matter what impact such investigation had on that culture. Though Cushing had no previous ethnographic experience, had never lived in the Southwest, knew nothing of the Zuni language, and had no apparent authority other than a piece of paper stating he was collecting for the museum, he was surprisingly adept at ingratiating himself with the Zunis, whose natural inclination towards friendship with outsiders worked in Cushing's favor. What followed over the next four years is still considered a remarkable story: Frank Cushing became allied with the Zunis in a way that the Smithsonian could not have anticipated. Befriended by the Zuni governor, within a few months he adopted traditional Zuni clothing, learned conversational Zuni, and in 1881 obtained his first scalp (under unknown circumstances) which enabled him to be initiated into the Zuni Bow Priesthood. Between 1882 and 1883 he successfully campaigned to return land to the Zunis that two army officers privately claimed as their own, one of whom was the son-in-law of General John Logan, a ranking U.S. Senator. Under pressure from Senator Logan, the Smithsonian ordered Cushing to return to Washington in April 1884. His allegiance to the Zuni, however, was also far from perfect. Despite pressure to take a Zuni wife, he married an Anglo-American, Emily Magill, in 1882, and brought her to live in Zuni. He made sketches and written records against Zuni wishes, and failed to properly recite their prayers and chants, despite his status as an initiate. But to Zuni, Cushing's worst transgression was to replicate the strange, awesome Mudhead mask after his return to Washington, and to be photographed wearing it - a taboo which some Zuni believed Cushing paid for with his early death.

In straining his relations with both cultures, Cushing broke new ground in the field of anthropology by - in his own words - "endeavoring always to place himself as much as possible in their position, not only physically but intellectually and morally as well, [to] gain insight into their inner life and institutions." His writings on Zuni culture, notably My Adventures in Zuni (1882-1883; repr. 1941), Zuni Folk Tales (1901), and the book represented in this collection, Zuni Breadstuff (1884-1885; repr. 1920) are prized for their invaluable accounts of Zuni myths, stories and culture, though some experts suspect Cushing intentionally introduced mistakes and recorded incomplete accounts, out of respect and allegiance to the Zuni. Nevertheless, Zuni Breadstuffs, in its revelations of Zuni creation myths, agrarian methods, and cooking, serves as an example of how Cushing's keen gift of observation and his passion for Indian ways gave him a unique insight, as described by one modern observer, Curtis Hinsley Jr.:

It is, in fact, the discovery of the importance of the mundane, in artifacts or activities, and their complex connection to the sacred, that was a hallmark of Cushing's ethnography. In other words Cushing came to the vital insight - at direct variance with the prevalent American attitudes of the time - that, far from being lost, Zuni history and beliefs lived on in the daily life of the pueblo.

Between 1886 and 1889, Cushing directed the private Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition, excavating ancestral Zuni sites to investigate prehistoric migrations suggested in Zuni myth and folklore. Near Tempe, Arizona, the expedition discovered the remains of the largest pre-Spanish community ever to have existed in southern Arizona (the objects collected are now housed in the Peabody Museum of Harvard University.) Cushing's final expedition was an underwater excavation at Key Marco in the Florida Keys in 1895-1896, where he discovered the remains of another as-yet unknown American Indian people. Preserved in the mud were thousands of artifacts revealing that the society had built elaborate settlements on piles of seashells over the water (now displayed at the National Museum of the Smithsonian and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.) Recurrent illness, however, which plagued him his whole life, prevented him from completing the scholarly writing necessary to adequately communicate and preserve the significance of both these expeditions. At age forty-two, Cushing died in Washington D.C. of complications resulting from choking on a fish bone.


  • Cushing, Frank Hamilton, Zuni Breadstuff. New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1920.
  • Green, Jesse, "Cushing, Frank Hamilton," American National Biography. Vol. 5. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
  • Hughte, Phil, A Zuni Artist Looks at Frank Hamilton Cushing: Cartoons by Phil Hughte. Zuni, NM: A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, 1994.
  • Ladd, Edmund J., "Cushing Among the Zuni - A Zuni Perspective," Gilcrease Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2. Tulsa, OK: Thomas Gilcrease Museum Assoc., Autumn 1994.
  • Swan, Daniel C., "In the Shadow of Cushing," Gilcrease Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2. Tulsa, OK: Thomas Gilcrease Museum Assoc., Autumn 1994.

Written by Anne-Marie Rachman