The Adventures Begin
Charles Fletcher Lummis was a journalist, adventurer, preservationist, librarian, poet, and life-long activist on behalf of Native Americans. He was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1859. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was two, and he was homeschooled by his father. Lummis attended Harvard, paying his tuition through the sale of a collection of his poetry, Birch Bark Poems, which he self-published (on actual thin birch bark).
Even though Lummis never graduated from Harvard, he gained acclaim as a poet, met and befriended classmate and future president Theodore Roosevelt, and married medical student Dorothea Rhodes, the first of his three wives. In 1884, whilst working for a newspaper in Cincinnati, he was offered the job of City Editor with the Los Angeles Times, and famously decided to walk to Los Angeles, a journey of roughly 3,500 miles. He chronicled his 143-day journey in his book, A Tramp Across The Continent, published several years later in 1892. During the leg of his journey through the southwestern states, he became enamored with the Native American people, forming relationships and becoming immersed in their culture and history.
A noted workaholic, Lummis suffered a stroke while working at the Los Angeles Times that
left him partially paralyzed. In 1888, he moved to San Mateo, New Mexico to recuperate and began his career as a freelance
writer. Some of his articles shed light on deep corruption within in San Mateo society, and resulted in death threats. Lummis decided to relocate to the Pueblo Indian Village of Isleta, New Mexico. While there, he partially recovered from his paralysis, but was then shot by a hired gunslinger. He also divorced his first wife and married Eva Douglas who lived in the village. In 1893 and 1894, Lummis spent ten months exploring Peru, after which he returned to California with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Back in Los Angeles, he became the editor of a regional magazine, Land Of Sunshine, and later renamed it Out West. Then he took the job of City Librarian, at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Lummis purchased two lots in the Sycamore Grove Tract in the late 1890s and began building a unique stone Craftsman home, made of river rocks taken from the Arroyo Seco. Completed in 1910, he named it El Alisal, Spanish for "The Sycamore." He frequently entertained writers, artists, and other bohemians with lavish, decadent parties he referred to as "noises." From 1965-2015, El Alisal was home to the Historical Society of Southern California. It came to be managed by the City of Los
Angeles Recreation and Parks Department. In 1970, it was designated Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument No. 68, and the following year it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Lummis started the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Downtown Los Angeles in 1907. It was the city's first real museum, and the only institution at the time to celebrate the arts and culture of Native American people. Originally, it was populated with artifacts from Lummis' own collections. In 1914, the museum relocated to its building on Mount Washington, which was designed by architects Sumner Hunt and Silas Burns. In 1984, it was designated Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument No. 283, and in 2004, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Lummis' Later Years
Lummis experienced personal and professional setbacks later in life. He went blind for a year, at which time he quit writing, he lost his position at the library, and was divorced from his third wife. Although practically penniless at his death at 69, Lummis left behind a rare and priceless legacy of multiculturalism and historical preservation.