The Bancroft Archives


As with all archives my words are in blue, Bessie's in red and the letters to Bessie in brown. This was my first break. While initial searches of the Bancroft netted nothing, that only meant that Elizabeth was not in the digital record. I was lucky enough to encounter (on-line) David Kessler, who saw my serious desire to find information and went the extra mile in his search.

He located the first of the archived materials between Bessie and her professor Albert Kroeber.

The letters in this archive actually netted less solid and interesting information than the others, yet without this initial breakthrough and finding material existing about her, I might have given up!

Sometimes it is the unspoken and even unknown encouragement we give others that leads us to precisely what we need, and I needed the encouragement and kindness that David Kessler provided to a me, complete stranger.

Most of the letters in this file are actually introductions for Elizabeth to various people in support of her lectures which were apparently her major source of funds after her return from Brazil in 1931. Several earlier letters written in 1929 are written by Dr. Kroeber on Bessie's behalf.

In one, to Mr. Frederick S. Dellenbaugh of the Explorers' Club in New York City, Dr. Kroeber asks that Mr. Dellenbaugh advise Bessie " From what she tells me I gather that her plan is going to be difficult and venturesome to carry through, but she has the determination and energy which sometimes accomplishes the seemingly impossible. Will you give her the benefit of your practical advice and experience, and refer her to such other people as could help her with information? I shall be much obliged."

He wrote a second letter to Dr. Marshall H. Saville, of the Museum of the American Indian for the same purpose. These letters were one of the first indications of Bessie's character which seemed to borne out in all the research I have done. She was completely determined! There was a charming letter from Elizabeth to Dr. Kroeber on April 6, 1930 from Sao Paulo Brazil. Of all the people in all the archived materials she seems to have a real softness and respect for Dr. Kroeber, and his letters seem to reflect a paternal interest in her as well.

Dear Dr. Kroeber,

Well here I am in Brazil about ready to make the plunge into the interior. It certainly has been strenuous so far. I received helpful letters from prominent people thanks to your kindness in starting me off. Had it not been for your advice and letters and the help those men gave me I never could have gotten along.

The Smithsonian Institution sent a box of snakes to the museum here by me and I had to keep the things cold all the way, but they seemed glad to get them. I don't know why for they seem to have a great supply of their own down here.

Mr. Jayne, of the University Museum of PA has asked me to bring him a collection from the Araguaya cultural region. The National Geographic Magazine has asked for an article and pictures. So has the Saturday Evening Post.

I met Mr. Dellenbaugh, Dr. Seville and Dr. Schuller. They were very helpful. I was quite distressed over some of the things the papers have been saying. I have tried so hard to be careful what I give out to the reporters, but they just go wild and say things and misquote me and I didn't know what to do about it. One day, I went to Dr. Seville nearly in tears over some article, but he tried to console me and told me it always happened. (part of this next part is illegible) _______press had made him out just to _____(many times and that there was no use to refuse to talk to reporters as they would publish something anyway, so I felt better.

The people of Brazil have been very kind. The Minister of the interior has given me written permission to enter the Interior and the Department of Agriculture and Indian Service has been most courteous, helped me plan and even has offered an escort as far as the last post from there on it will be up to me, but that much is very helpful indeed.

I am taking every precaution and not going to is my thing rash or fool hardy. I hope to find either the Tapirape or if not them then the Cavaes and live with them if possible. and study them. I have cameras, paints and note books. I shall do my best to get something worth the while.

Again I thank you for what you have done for me. It has been almost uncanny the way your predictions have come true. Everything is fine so far.

Respectfully yours, Elizabeth Steen.


In a letter dated almost a year to the day later Elizabeth tells Kroeber that she is in New York, and that the University Museum at Philadelphia has purchased her collection and she had made a "little" ($200.00) for snap shots for the Sunday papers here. She expresses some distress that her films are ruined, and that she will be more careful and do a better job of preparing before the trip.

She says " My health is excellent. With the exception of the Brazilian Colonel and another Brazilian official, I seem to be the only person who has gone into these insect infested places of Brazil who didn't take the fever or something. This was, I believe, because I took every precaution possible. True I did get pretty weak and trembly at first and felt so bad I thought I wasn't going to be able to make the grade, but I got stronger all the time and was able to go through some great experiences and hardships O.K.

I will return to California in time to enter the University in August. It is good to be back, although I wouldn't take anything for my years experience in Brazil, now that it is over.

I have a little collection that I hope to give to our Museum when I come home.

Hoping everything is progressing nicely at the University this semester and that you are all enjoying the best of health, I remain,

Very Sincerely,

Elizabeth Steen

Elizabeth came back to the depression though she and many other Amercians did not know it yet, everyone's life would be deeply effected by the stock market crash of 1929. Because she had no funds she had to find creative ways to earn funds. She speaks frankly about her financial situation, "I am quite happy over it(the bookings) for the few dollars I had left were in the San Jose (CA) Building and Loan and they closed their doors so that isn't good." She had a booking agency schedule her to speak at various organizational conventions. A Mrs. Naylor of the Pond Bureau was apparently successful at booking her into engagements, and ultimately she booked herself. She spoke at State Teachers conventions in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, and also spoke at several colleges and Normal schools. Bessie enclosed one of the folders that was made for the purpose of selling her as a speaker. In this letter dated May 14, 1932 she says,

"I have a number of slides and four rolls of standard sized motion pictures and a map. I not only describe customs of the Indians and some of my experiences but also give a description of some of the institutions of these simple societies which to me are very interesting in the contrast which they offer from our own complicated and strenuous civilization. I can't help but do a little philosophizing to my self - for I honestly believe that our complicated civilization is not adapted to the human organism and that we will have to simplify our lives a bit or we will crack up. But I don't know how we can do this and I am not sure that we will do it. I have no theories of reform however and all that I can give the public is data, my theories would be of no value. I am anxious to talk over some of the data with you. "

One of the more interesting items in this archive is a brochure which advertises Ms. Steen as a speaker. It is titled Six Months Among Brazilian Savages: Exploring an Unknown Jungle! There are quotes in this brochure from the Brazilian Indian Service official, Alencarliense Fernandes Da Costa, who accompanied her up the Tapirape. Another quote is from the American Ambassador to Brazil, Edwin Moran.

There follow a number of letters in response to inquiries about her. One of my favorites is a response to a letter from Mankato Stae Teachers College which questions Ms. Steens sincerity and accuracy of her scientific data. Dr. Kroeber says,

"Miss Elizabeth Steen was a graduate student in our Department for either a year or a semester, I forget which. She had previously studied antrhopology at Columbia. She made her Brazilian trip upon my advice, but her expedition was private and this University was not in any way concerned or responsible. How authentic her results were I have no means of knowing; but I have no doubt whatever as to Miss Steen's sincerity."

A second letter affirming her abilities is written by Dr. Gifford. I know it is dangerous to hear between the lines, but I sense a certain vociferousness in these words.

"Her expedition to Brazil, personally financed, was encouraged by memebers of our department who realized the anthropological value of direct contact with native people. Knowing Miss Steen as I do I can assure you that she does thoroughly whatever she undertakes. This certainly applies to her lecture, which conveys a vivid impression of Amazonian Indian life."

The last letters mostly regard the publication of the Red Jungle Boy. The last two letters are very poignant. The first of the two is to Dr. Kroeber and Elizabeth tells him that she has returned from her third field trip to Brazil.

"My book on the child life of the Caraja is off the press and am sending a copy to you - "Red Jungle Boy"

My 35 mm films taken when I lived with the tribe on a previous trip and 5000 feet more taken this past year are ready for editing. These illustrate the simple culture of these primitive people. My plan has been to edit these myself and present in story form. Due to my ill health and lack of improvement, I am forced to abandon plans for completion of this project. These films include such shots as catching the eating food, masked fertility dance or devil dance, their home life, the making of bows and arrows, close ups of children in action feeding animals, gathering turtle eggs, the killing of stingerees, following stingless bees thru jungles and securing the honey, fishing with the harpoon for the giant piraracu, shooting small fish with bow and arrow, burial ceremonies, runs, etc. This totals 7000 to 8000 feet which I made with the professional 35 mm. camera.

Since I am unable to handle this myself, perhaps the best thing is to sell it to some school or museum for educational purposes. I thought that the University of California might be interested in this. I shall appreciate your suggestions, Dr. Kroeber.

I noticed in the press that you have recently received an honorary degree. Please accept my congratulations.

Very sincerely yours,

Elizabeth K. Steen

The last letter in the file is from Dr. Kroeber to Elizabeth

Dear Miss Steen:

Thanks ever so much for Red Jungle Boy. I read it with interest and with appreciation of its sound ethnography. I also tried it out on my eleven-year-old, who gave it his unqualified approval after reading it through at a sitting.

As to your film, I do not know what to advise other than to write Dr. Forrest Clements, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK. A year or two ago they were then trying to establish a bureau for making, selling, and renting educational films in anthropology. In fact, they seent out some letters or circulars. I have heard nothing from them lately and do not know whether they are going ahead as planned, but I think it would be worthwhile finding out from Clements where they stand.

I could take the matter up with our Department of Visual Instruction but hardly think it would lead anywhere. They have been very cooperative with us in principle but we have never got anywhere as regards tangible results. Sofar as I can make out they are not a distributing agency but concerned chiefly with showing films which they can exhibit and get a return on. In other words they seem to aim to be a service department of the university. Oklahoma was definitely planning to operate with the colleges of the country as a clientelle.

I am glad you have had a third trip to Brazil

With best regards, I am

Sincerely, yours

A. Kroeber

Return to Elizabeth K. Steen Homepage