I began the quest for the ladies of the canyons more than a decade ago.
At the time, I was looking for a woman who had gone missing in history. Her name was Carol Bishop Stanley, and although she was the founder of Ghost Ranch, the place that would achieve celebrity status as the faraway nearby home of the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, there was little to nothing written about Stanley in the Ghost Ranch story.
From oral histories and a handful of written accounts and letters, I learned that in 1931 Stanley, a middle-aged divorcée from Boston, moved all that she owned to el Rancho de los Brujos, the Ranch of the Witches, the place she called Ghost Ranch, and with limited financial resources set about creating a home on the high desert of northern New Mexico. But how and why this woman had come to live in this austere, remote, and wildly beautiful landscape was lost to living memory.
O’Keeffe never acknowledged Stanley’s role in the creation of Ghost Ranch. But that was in character, since O’Keeffe rarely acknowledged that anyone, male or female, held a prior claim to Ghost Ranch, although she herself never legally owned more than 10 of the ranch’s nearly 30,000 acres.
Arthur Pack, the millionaire who bought the ranch from Stanley in 1935, did mention Carol Pfäffle (her married name) in his memoir “We Called It Ghost Ranch,” and in doing so provided some of the only recorded glimpses of her life: “Close-in under the sheltering protection of magnificent buttes and sheer sandstone cliffs huddled a single low adobe building whose every door and window staggered crookedly. From it appeared a woman who spoke in cultured tones unmistakably Bostonian. … This homestead, which her ex-husband was said to have won in a poker game, was all that Carol Pfäffle had left in the world except for a beautiful grand piano.”
Pack likely knew more about Stanley’s life than he shared in his memoir — like how a cultured woman from Boston came to be living alone (with a grand piano) in a decrepit homestead on the edge of the Colorado Plateau in the first years of the Depression.
But Pack, like most chroniclers of his era, did not consider the immigration story of an ordinary woman worthy of more than a passing reference that gave context to his own story. “When you go looking for missing persons, you may not find them,” the historian Virginia Scharff wrote, “but you are bound to find out a lot of other things.”
I did find Carol Stanley. I also found a lot of other people and things I did not even know to go looking for.
While searching archives and public records for Ghost Ranch’s founding mother, I discovered a narrative that connected Stanley to an informal alliance of remarkable women. Women who, like Stanley, had left the security and comfort of conventional society in the first decades of the 20th century and journeyed to Indian Country in search of a wider, deeper view of themselves and the world.
Natalie Curtis Burlin, Alice Ellen Klauber, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, and Stanley were members of an intrepid group of ladies whose lives became entwined with and altered by the people and landscape of the Southwest outback.
Natalie Curtis’ work to preserve native music would receive international recognition and influence federal policy toward Native American language and culture. She had impeccable credentials. She was a classically trained musician, the daughter of a respected New York doctor, and the niece of Roosevelt’s friend and political ally, William Curtis. But perhaps of more importance to the president in 1903, Natalie Curtis was an astute eyewitness of current events in Indian Country. She had traveled into Native America and undertaken what she believed was important work in a difficult, even hostile environment. She had also managed to make friends with the elusive Hopis.
Natalie Curtis’ friend and Southwest expedition companion, Carol Stanley, born on Nahant Island, Massachusetts, was educated at the New England Conservatory of Music and taught at a private girls school in Baltimore before traveling to Kayenta, Arizona where she stayed with Louisa and John Wetherill in the spring of 1915. Stanley loved the desert on sight, and made Santa Fe and northern New Mexico her permanent home before World War I. With her cowboy husband, she managed early dude ranches on the Pajarito Plateau and in the Española Valley, and after divorcing her first husband, moved to what became Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, and built the guest ranch where Georgia O’Keeffe made her home for 50 years.
When Stanley met Louisa Wetherill she was a respected Bilagaana among the native people of the Four Corners region. Born in 1877 in Nevada, Wetherill grew up in Mancos, Colorado, near the ranch of her future husband’s family. She spoke nearly fluent Navajo and was known and trusted by the Navajos, Utes and Paiutes she had lived among since childhood.
After witnessing Wetherill’s interactions with the Indians who came to trade at the Wetherills’ post during his stay in Kayenta, Roosevelt commented that she was not simply versed “in archaeological lore concerning ruins and like, she was also versed in the yet stranger and more interesting archaeology of the Indian’s own mind and soul. …[Louisa Wetherill] not only knows [the Navajos’] language; she knows their minds. … They trust her so fully that they will speak to her without reserve about those intimate things of the soul which they will never even hint at if they suspect want of sympathy or fear ridicule.”
The league of extraordinary women also includes California-born Alice Klauber, a painter, who traveled Europe with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, and who lunched with Gertrude and Leo Stein and their salon of famous ex-pats in Italy and France. Klauber was with Natalie Curtis when she rendezvoused with Roosevelt on the desert at the Hopi Snake Dance at Walpi in late summer of 1913. Klauber was also among the celebrated artists and archaeologists who together created the 1915 Pan-American exhibitions at Balboa Park in San Diego, and who were also involved with the establishment of the Museum of Art on the plaza in Santa Fe.
Boston Brahmin Mary Cabot Wheelwright joined this loose association of women friends and colleagues in the Southwest after World War I. Her passionate and consuming interest in the preservation of Navajo chants, songs, stories, and culture led to her more than decade-long collaboration with the esteemed Navajo medicine man Hostiin Klah. Their work and subsequent collection of valuable Navajo art and cultural items became the foundation of Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
As a single woman in the first decades of the 20th Century, Wheelwright, like her friends Stanley and Klauber, and the half dozen other women chronicled in “Ladies of the Canyons,” undertook her work with little personal or professional support or encouragement. It was only after their deaths that the remarkable contributions of these extraordinary women were recognized, if they were recognized at all.