Historical Society - from the Knoxville Journal Express - June 6, 1957

Woodrow Conrey was the speaker of the evening and told of "The Famous Explorer."

Miss Elizabeth Kilgore Steen, daughter of Britt and Emma Steen was born on April 21, 1886 in Jackson Township, Washington county. When she was a child, the family moved to Knoxville. She was graduated from the local high school in 1905 and later taught in the Old English Settlement, a few miles east of Knoxville.

Miss Steen possessed a brilliant mind. She received recognition as an anthropologist-explorer, going into the jungles of Brazil where no white woman had gone before and where only a few white men dared to venture. She attended several colleges and universities and received many degrees.

She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Emanuel Missionary College, Berrien Springs, MI, her Master of Arts Degree from Columbia University, New York City, her doctorate from University of California and she was a graduate of Pratt Institute Brooklyn, New York.

Two important and outstanding events took place and pointed the way for her famous career as an antrhopologist-explorer. The love she had for art kept her constantly moving about. It was responsible for making a trip to New Mexico, where she studied primitive drawings. From that time on she became infatuated with primitive peoples and planned to take up anthropology as her life's work.

In 1925 while she was teaching at San Jose high school she made a tip to Brazil to see her brother, T.W. Steen, who was teaching in a Brazilian college (actually he was the college president of an Adventist College in Sao Paulo from 1918-27). While there she visited two Indian tribes returning home, she entered Columbia university and in 1926 received her Master of Arts Degree.

After Miss Steen left Columbia University, there was a lapse of four years, which are unaccounted for. It was possible that it was during this time that she went to Europe, to study primitive art in England, France, Germany and Austria. In 1929 she was enrolled in the University of California as a student of Anthropology; She left the university to make a study of tribes of little known Indians in the interior of Brazil.

Her one-woman expedition accomplished field work among the half-wild Caraja Indians, along the Araguaya River, in Central Brazil. later she penetrated the unexplored regions of Matto Grosso where she worked among Indians entirely uninfluenced by civilization.

Brazilian authorities recognized her as the first white woman to have gone up the Tapirape river and to have visited the Indians of the same name. She was accompanied only by members of the Brazilian Indian Service and native guides.

cont 6-27-57

Miss Elizabeth Steen, at the age of fourteen, came to Knoxville with her parents. She spent some time as a school teacher, teaching in several rural schools near the city. One particular school, located a few miles west of here, had a very interesting circumstance which concerned Miss Steen and her pupils. Mrs. Tressa Wilbur and her husband were well acquainted with her, and were very good friends of Miss Steen and her mother. Many happy hours were spent by the families in visiting with each other. During one of these visits Miss Steen told Mrs. Wilbur of the incident that happened at that particular school.

Before she came there to teach the teacher she would replace was forced to resign because of the actions performed by her pupils, especially the boys. They were unruly and uncontrollable. At the time Miss Steen accepted the position, the boys believed it to be a very easy matter to get rid of her also.

One day a boy named Ernie, bought a sack to school. He placed it on her desk and said, "Miss Steen, here is a present for you."

A few minutes later noises and movements attracted her attention to the sack. Her mind immediately warned her that a snake was in the sack.

Finally, turning toward Ernie, she address him, "Ernie, I am going to open your present" Picking up a poker with one hand, the sack with the other, she shook the contents from the bag. Out came a rattlesnake. Gathering her wits about her, Miss Steen busied herself in disposing of the snake with the poker. The children were equally as busy--except that they all were leaving the room through all available exits. the doors and the windows. She called Ernie inside and made him hold the snake to the floor With a sharp knife, she proceeded to skin the rattlesnake. Much to his horror and discontentment, Miss Steen showed no sign of fear. He became aware that there was a woman to reckon with. Thereafter, Ernie gave her no more trouble and to her delight became one of her best students.

In order to pay for her education, Miss Steen painted and sold pictures. One of them was purchased by Mrs. Wilbur, having it still in her possession, Mrs. Wilbur prizes the painting very highly in sentiment value.

Mrs. Stroud remembers Miss Steen when the two were in high school It was only a slight acquaintance fifty-four years ago. Mrs. Stroud remembers quite well Miss Stenn's mother, Emma. She was a nurse and once took care of Mrs. Stroud's grandmother, Mrs. James Harriet Gregory. The Gregory home was located in the spot where the Swift hotel now stands.

Miss Jenny Johnston once lived not far from Mrs. Steen. She can recall the publicity attributed to the famous explorer. According to Miss Johnson, the physicians examining Miss Steen had warned her against making her later travels and explorations in the jungles. The physician's believed her heart was not well enough to stand the rigors of the jungles. She went against her physician's advice and at the risk of her own life, made it possible for others to reap the harvest of her labours.

Miss Steen, although not known as an author, wrote a book titled "Red Jungle Boy." It was a story of a young Caraja Indian youth and gave very vivid description of the way in which the South American Indians lived. The Knoxville Library presented a copy of this book to the Marion County Historical Society, and it is now preserved in the local museum, located in the back of Belknap's jewelry store.

Broken in health, suffering from a heart ailment and a jungle disease which had stricken her during her explorations, Miss Steen retired to Loma Linda, California on July 1, 1938,[12th] at the age of 52 years. Miss Steen passed away. She died with the request that no funeral be held. The body was cremated in Montecito Memorial Park. Thus death brought an end to the brilliant career of Miss Elizabeth Steen, famous woman explorer.

The second installment of the story of Knoxville's famous explorer, Elizabeth Steen. As told at the Marion County Historical Society meeting

Miss Steen once narrowly escaped capture by the tribal chief who wanted to make her his bride. She waded rivers, pulled and pushed canoes, tramped overland through dense jungles and in a blazing sun at times without water and too thirsty to eat. She was constantly annoyed by thousands of unmerciful insects, fire ants, sting wasps, wood ticks, mosquitos, etc. Danger lurked everywhere.

When she was about to enter Matto Grosso between the Araguaya and Xingu Rivers, she was unable to find a man courageous enough to go with her. Money was no inducement as men had been killed there. Somewhere in the wilderness, Colonel Fawcett had disappeared, and no trace of him had ever been found, but there lived Indians as yet untouched by the white man's culture, and she was determined to visit them. She couldn't take along Caraja Indians as the tribes were enemies.

She met Pedro, a Brazilian and former slave, a little lame and old, but she thought him to be the whitest black man she had ever seen. He volunteered to go into Matto Grosso with her. She bought beans and rice, and river food, and started out on her dangerous mission. Although it turned out that Pedro was unable to go another Negro and a boy went along. She discovered that the two were not much help as far as the work was concerned, and she had to literally paddle her own canoe the 200 miles to the government outpost.

She persuaded a Brazilian army officer and his men to take her to the Tapirapes. This was the hardest and most difficult trip she had ever taken and the strangest country she had ever known. They found the tribe, but since she was the first white woman they had ever seen, new troubles arose. She was able to stay long enough to take some motion pictures and make observations of their customs, characteristics and language, known to the anthropologist as culture. She brought back to the United States considerable anthropological data on the Caraja and the Tapirape Indians and a collection showing their material culture for the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

cont 7-4-57


There is possibly a third reason for her interest in anthropology and in exploring. Her many years of experience in studying and teaching art made it ideal for this transformation. However, in order to clarify this reason, an explanation of the scientific field should be given.

There are two divisions of anthropology--physical and cultural. Physical anthropology deals with human history and processes leading to physical change and stability. Cultural anthropology , on the other hand is concerned with the various kinds of culture man has developed. This division is divided into four groups --archeology, ethnology, social and linguistics. It is assumed that Miss Steen was an ethnologist. However, since archeology is one of the most important groups which the ethnologist uses, it is also included. Archeology deals with the early story of man's culture and his physical development. Its aim is to collect all of the materials that assist in the interpretation of the life and customs of former times. The archeologist gathers all objects of material culture, potsherd, stone and earthenware, metals, idols, statues, ornaments, and weapons. He studies details of house construction, arrangements of villages, evidence of agriculture, animal husbandry and hunting. With the aid of this material, he is able to trace the growth and spread of a culture, as well as to help trace the development of the people or peoples involved.

Ethnology is the study of living peoples and their culture. Its aim is to observe and understand the total culture of a people. In most cases the ethnologist has discovered that cultures seldom have a random distribution, but those which are similar tend to cluster in definite geographical areas. With the use of archeology. It is possible to trace cultures back through the ages of time and thus observe how they have grown and spread, and to what extent they are put to use. The use of the other branches of anthropology may give hints or positive proof of migrations of peoples into or out of an area or an ancient origination of the people being studied.

One may wonder why this discussion of anthropology is of important. Perhaps a few examples may clarify and justify its inclusion. Many scientists believe that there were migrations into Brazil of Polynesians, Tasmanians, Melanesians, Mongols, Malayans, tec. These migrations occurred over a space of thousands of years, so long ago that it is impossible to record. The Indians discovered by the explorers, such as Miss Steen are the result of a mixture so complicated, scientists have yet to discover the source or sources of their origination.

Ancient and modern tribal rites and ceremonies, such as burying the dead in urns or funeral baskets, headhunting, cannibalism and mythology are believed to give indications of a migration common contacts, or common ancestors.

There could be some correlation between headhunting among the Indian tribes of South America and the method of scalping victims practiced by the Indians of North America. Cannibalism, the act of eating human flesh, was known to flourish over a vast area in South America. At least one Indian tribe of the Southwest United States was known to be cannibalistic during part of its earlier history.

Miss Steen in her travels to South America(Brazil) took pictures of a Caraja Indian woman as she made a burial urn similar to those used by an ancient civilization. The explorer traveled through areas where Indians (Cernaks) were only two years removed from headhunting and cannibalism, while others were still conducting these tribal and ceremonial rites. Members of one tribe the Kalapoles(sic), boasted that they not the Chavantes, killed and ate Colonel C.P. Fawcett, after his disappearance in 1925. Men investigating his disappearance were surprised of this boast, as the Kalapoles were not known to be cannibals. Of the Chavantes, it was another matter, evidence supported the investigators beliefs that they were definitely cannibal.

These are other cultures, such as art, religion, mythology, etc. are the subjects studied by the cultural anthropologist. Among these scientists was Miss Elizabeth Steen, a famous explorer who spent part of her early life in Knoxville, Ia.

Return to Elizabeth K. Steen Homepage