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Ruth Underhill Papers

Identifier: M060


Anthropologist Ruth Murray Underhill served as Supervisor of Indian Education with the U.S. Indian Service from 1942-1948 and was professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver from 1948-1952. She was born in Ossining, New York on August 22, 1883 and graduated from Vassar College in 1905 with a B.A. in comparative literature. She earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1934 and worked for the U.S. Indian Service (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Underhill was involved in the Indian Visiting Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a peace and service organization affiliated with the Quaker Church. Her publications that have manuscripts in this collection include Earth people: the story of the Navaho; First came the family; Red Man's religion; Red Man's America; and Southwest Indians.

Ruth M. Underhill's papers consist primarily of materials from 1950-1969 and include course materials from her teaching at the University of Denver: lecture notes, exams, syllabi, course descriptions and bibliographies. Her work with Native American tribes in education, training, employment and political issues is reflected in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs publications and memos, newspaper clippings, newspapers, newsletters, convention papers, booklets, and correspondence. Also includes manuscripts, galley proofs, and typescripts of books as well as journal articles, journal reprints.


  • 1888-1987
  • Majority of material found within 1950-1960


Language of Materials

Texts primarily in English. Navajo, Spanish and German also noted; most likely there are additional languages. Sound recordings are in multiple indigenous languages.

Biographical / Historical

Ruth Murray Underhill, University of Denver professor of anthropology and world-renowned anthropologist, was born in Ossining-on-the-Hudson, New York, on August 22, 1883 to an upper-middle class Quaker family. She graduated from Vassar College in 1905 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature. After graduating she traveled to Europe, and studied at the London School of Economics. She worked for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. After the war she found work in New York as a social worker in poor Italian communities. Fascinated by different cultures and societies, she decided to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University. There she met Ruth Benedict, and studied with Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology.

In the early 1930s, Underhill traveled to Arizona to conduct fieldwork for her doctoral program. There she met Chona, an elderly Tohono O'odham woman, whose biography she wrote in 1936 -- the first biography of an American Indian woman. During this work Underhill developed a life-long affection for the Tohono O'odham people and other southwestern tribes, including the Mohave and the Navajo. After receiving her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1934, she went to work for the U.S. Indian Service (later the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs). She was Assistant Supervisor of Indian Education from 1934-1942, and was Supervisor from 1942-1948. Upon her retirement, at the age of 65, she moved to Denver, Colorado and taught at the University of Denver until 1952. She remained active with the University and the Department of Anthropology until two years before her death in 1984. She was accorded many honors during her lifetime. In 1962 she received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Denver. The University of Colorado awarded her an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1965. The American Anthropological Association honored her with a Special Recognition citation in 1984. She also received a Friendship Award from the White Buffalo Council of American Indians.


14.25 Linear Feet (21 containers)

Scope and Contents

The Ruth Underhill papers consists primarily of materials from the latter half of her life. The collection contains course materials from her teaching tenure at the University of Denver--lecture notes, exams, syllabi, course descriptions and bibliographies. Her work with American Indian tribes in education, training, employment, and political issues is reflected in a variety of materials including Bureau of Indian Affairs' publications and memos, newspaper clippings and newsletters, convention papers and correspondence from such groups as the National Congress of American Indians. Underhill was involved in the Indian Visiting Program of the American Friends Service Committee, a peace and service organization affiliated with the Quaker Church. Materials concerning this program and other Quaker activities are included in the collection. Underhill's publishing activities in the 1950's and 1960's are represented by manuscripts, galley proofs, and typescripts of a number of her books, including Earth People: The Story of the Navaho, First Came the Family, Red Man's Religion, and Red Man's America. Finally, a large part of the collection consists of magazine articles and reprints of journal articles about topics of interest to Underhill. These topics range from anthropology and archeology of North and South American Indians to astronomy, climatology and geology, the origins of humans, biology, genetics, the human brain, religion and mythology. Underhill's broad professional and personal interests are reflected in this collection, which focuses on her later years.


This collection is arranged in five series: 1. Research Materials, 1888-1984; 2. Additional Research Materials, 1894-1977; 3. Phonograph Records, 1941-1987; 4. Lantern Slides, 1941-1987; 5. Audio

Series 1 is organized alphabetically into topics and types of materials: I. A-E. II. F-Na. III. Ne-R. IV. S-Y. V. Galley Proofs. VI. Oversize clippings. VII. Notecards. Series 2 is in its original order established and numbered by Dr. Underhill.

Books that came in with this collection were removed and cataloged individually. They can be located by Library of Congress call number classification in the University Libraries book stacks and in Special Collections. A list of these books is available in University Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Ruth Murray Underhill, 1976. Additional materials received from the Denver Art Museum, 2004.


No further accruals are expected.

Related Materials

Related materials may be found in the Ruth Murray Underhill papers, 1959-1965 (Ax 570) located at Division of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon, USA.

Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and Archives Repository

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