In large measure, archives have made our careers. From Nash’s first book on the history of tree-ring dating in the American Southwest[1] to Colwell’s intellectual history of the first Native American archaeologist, Arthur C. Parker,[2]we have depended on archives to illuminate anthropology’s fantastic and twisted story. In 2009, we applied for a Save America’s Treasure’s grant,[3] which provided funding to hire an archivist, Aly Jabrocki, to garner intellectual and physical control over several of the key collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), including materials donated by the famed pioneering anthropologist Ruth M. Underhill (1883-1983). The grant enabled us to explore this neglected historical resource—half-archived but entirely unstudied and unpublished since the materials were donated twenty-five years earlier. We were astounded by the result of Aly’s efforts. Rumors we had long heard of the archive’s historical wealth proved to be true. The Underhill Collection runs eighty-five linear-feet and includes such finds as original ethnographic notes from her work with Native Americans, syllabi and class notes from 1930s Columbia University, hand-corrected manuscript drafts, nearly three thousand photographs, and original sound recordings—all created during a life spanning more than ten decades.[4]

As we began to study the collection, Aly pointed us to a particularly unique resource: about one hundred typed pages that Underhill drafted, likely intending it to be her autobiography. Our DMNS colleague Carla Bradmon carefully retyped Underhill’s memoir into digital format. When we were finally able to read the manuscript, although it was disordered and at times sketchy, we were immediately taken by Underhill’s biting frankness and thoughtful reflexivity. We saw that her life provided rich insights into the valiant struggles of a woman about to break free from the Victorian age and become one of her generation’s great anthropologists. Ruth M. Underhill had a remarkable story to tell.

Despite our immediate recognition of the memoir’s significance, we could see that it was incomplete. Key periods in Underhill’s life were missing. Key people went unmentioned. Many of the poetic and Biblical quotations Underhill used, not to mention her pop culture and literary references, now fell listlessly on our ignorant twenty-first-century ears. By itself, Underhill’s drafted autobiography was too unfinished.

Fortunately, we could draw history from another archival well. The DMNS archives also held a string of interviews Underhill conducted—mostly with the museum’s staff—between 1979 and 1982. Luckily for us, too, Underhill remained lucid in her 90s, and she had answered questions in long paragraphs of sharp, candid, droll, and pensive reflections on her life. And so, with more than a thousand pages of additional material from interviews, we could fill in the voids left in Underhill’s rough draft of a memoir. The award-winning, edited book, An Anthropologist’s Arrival: A Memoir was the result.[5]

[1] Stephen E. Nash, Time, Trees, and Prehistory: Tree-Ring Dating and the Development of North American Archaeology, 1914-1950(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999). 

[2]Chip Colwell, Inheriting the Past the Making of Arthur C. Parker and Indigenous Archaeology(Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009). 

[3]“The Federal Save America’s Treasures grants program began in 1999 and helps preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections that convey our nation’s rich heritage to future generations of Americans. Since 1999, there have been almost 4,000 requests for funding totaling $1.54 billion. In response to these requests, $315,152,000 was awarded to 1,287 recipients.” National Park Service, “Save America’s Treasures Grants,” accessed February 20, 2019,

[4]See the finding aid to the Ruth M. Underhill Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science: The University of Denver also holds Ruth Underhill manuscript materials; see

[5]Ruth M. Underhill, An Anthropologist’s Arrival: A Memoir, ed. Chip Colwell and Stephen E. Nash (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014). 

Chip Colwell: contributions /
Stephen E. Nash: contributions /