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Washington Matthews U.S. Army Surgeon and Ethnographic research of Navaho and other Native American Peoples

Updated on December 10, 2014

Washington Matthews


Washington Matthews

 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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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Medicine has advanced since his time.He was probably better educated than most doctors of his time and even later since many did not go to medical school.Thanks for your comments.

    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 7 years ago

      What an interesting and obscure topic, dahoglund! I saw your explanation of how you came across this nugget, and am glad you added it, cause that's what I was wondering as I was reading! Washington Matthews is such an interesting character for his time. Of course, he would have lived to at least 80 today! It is sad that most of our history lessons are focused on wars, politics, and acquisitions. Thanks for expanding my perspective!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Glad you found it of interest. thanks for the comment.

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Lots of good information. Enjoyed. Thanks. ..fills in the "big ideas" of history.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for commenting. I think the general public is unaware that there were people who did such research on Native american Peoples back then.

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 7 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      Thank you for a very intersting and informative story, thank you for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for commenting. I did in fact write an article about Ira Hayes as well.

    • profile image

      randslam 7 years ago

      What a great story from history. Washington Matthews is a name I have not heard either.

      I'm impressed by his vaccination of the native citizens of the land--as others practiced giving the indigenous peoples of the West small pox-infested blankets to remove them from the face of the earth.

      I wish he'd have studied the Pima tribe, near the Navajo tribe region, as Ira Hayes was a member of the Pimas. You may remember Ira Hayes from the Johnny Cash song?

      Thanks for the great hub--historical stories of heroic figures like Matthews are fantastic lessons of civility.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the encouragement. I guess instead of writing about Rock Island Arsenal as a hub I am taking it on a bit at a time. Previously I had mentioned slaves escaping in one direction and confederate prisoners in another.Then I stumbled onto the Galvanized Yankees. Matthews was mentioned in the book about them. And so it goes.

      I appreciate your comments and support.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for bringing to light such people as Washington Matthews of whom I may never have known anything were it not for your hub. I really like how you delve into these subjects and teach us more about history all of which is important and interrelated.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Yes. I guess that is what attracts me to them. History in schools when I was growing up was only about wars and politicians. One good thing in the 1960's was the discovery of "social History", Indian History, black History, woman's history.All of which is part of history.

    • ahorseback profile image

      ahorseback 7 years ago

      Hello Dahoglund , I love these history lessons outside of the "normal" chains of education. Very informative. proves my point . There are a vast number of unknown heros in history. So many unknown faces . Thanks for sharing.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for commenting.The popularity of someone pursueing a science like this probably does not reach the general public. I think he did do some pioneering work in the study of American Indians.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Interesting man. I had never heard of him before. It's amazing that Navahos to this day reference his work. Matthews was obviously a hard worker. It's good that he took some time for himself in archery contests. Great Hub.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Very informative. Thank you.