Washington Matthews U.S. Army Surgeon and Ethnographic research of Navaho and other Native American Peoples
Matthews (1843-1905) graduated from the University of Iowa in 1864 with a degree in Medicine, enlisted in the Union army as a surgeon at Rock Island barracks in Illinois. There he tended to confederate prisoners, many of whom would become the Galvanized Yankees that fought on the frontier, when there was an outbreak of smallpox. He later became famous for his studies of Indians, their languages and customs.
Matthews was born in Ireland but his mother died and his father brought him and his brother to the United States to when he was a child they lived in both Iowa and Wisconsin. His father was a medical doctor and started to train his son in medicine. He got his degree in Medicine when the Civil war was raging. Matthews volunteered for the Union Army when he graduated and served at Rock Island, Illinois where there was a prison camp for captured confederates. Many prisoners had died of smallpox and his work there helped build his reputation.
At Rock Island he got to know many of the southern prisoners who were later enlisted in the Union army who were dubbed Galvanized Yankees. It served well in later assignments out west where he dealt with many of the galvanized Yankees.
After the Civil War
He remained in the Army after the civil war as a U.S. Army surgeon and served at several camps and forts in the western part of America. These ranged from the plains of the upper Missouri river, to California, Nevada and New Mexico. Like many Army doctors of the times he followed other scientific interests in his spare time. He was interested in collecting plants but he was more interested in the ethnology of the native peoples. He did extensive studies of the Hidatsa and Navajo cultures, which gave him international recognition. Even today Navajos look to his works for knowledge of their heritage. One such work was Navaho Legends, which was published in 1897.
Civil War surgery
Western Forts and assignments
Fort Union 1865: Here, was in what later became Montana, he first developed his interest in. the Indians and their cultures.
Alcatraz Island: While stationed in this San Francisco Bay location he did research and wrote papers about the Modoc language.
Army Medical Museum
Matthews was posted to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. from 1884-1890. While there he conducted research and wrote papers on physical anthropology, specifically about craniology and anthropometry.
Fort Berthold;This fort is is in the Dakota Territory. Matthews learned to speak the language of the Hidatsa fluently. He wrote about the language and culture. Grammar and vocabulary of the language, aas well aas a ethnographic monograph of the Hidatsa was included.
Camp Independence: He was stationed at Camp Independence in 1876 where he treated civilians as well as military, including vaccination of hundreds of Owen’s valley Native Americans against smallpox. He exhibited some sports ability by coming in second in an archery contest near the courthouse, as well.
September 1880 he was assigned to Fort Wingate, N.M. where he started to study the Navajo and their culture. His army career ended when he suffered a stroke before the age of 50 years. However, he did continue his Navajo studies and his first book, The Night Chant: A Navajo Ceremony was published in 1902, not too long before his death.
Sources for this article are:
The Galvanized Yankees by D. Alexander Brown
Wikipedia article on washington Matthews
Who's in a Name? by Larry Blakely.
Charles Darwin quoted Matthews in his works on emotion. Darwin cites him on the expression of emotion and other gestures among various peoples of America.
Washington Matthews was a man of many accomplishments. Since he graduated from the University of Iowas he practiced medicine for the military and became famous for his ethnographic research of the Navaho and other Native American tribes.
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund
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