The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb

by Patricia Fogelman Lange

Patricia Fogelman Lange has a Ph.D in Art and Culture from New York University. She was a Research Curator for The Morton H. Sachs Collection of Franc Newcomb Sandpaintings and Papers and is currently a Research Associate at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe.

Eight months after New Mexico attained statehood in 1912, Franc Lynette (née Johnson) Newcomb (1887-1970), an Anglo-American, came west by railroad to teach the Navajo Indian boarding school in Fort Defiance, Arizona. She became known as an Indian trader’s wife and was eventually recognized within academic circles as a scholar and writer on Navajo religious ceremonials. Newcomb’s documentation of Navajo art and culture—writing, lecturing, or reproducing ritual sandpaintings onto a two-dimensional painted surface—made a significant impact on Southwestern studies.

Although Newcomb’s name has been linked with other women anthropologists intrigued by the “otherness” of the Southwest’s indigenous people, little has been written about her. Newcomb’s career was shaped and etched by her experiences living on the Navajo Reservation, but her accomplishments remain relatively marginalized.1 The purpose of this paper is to unfold Franc Johnson Newcomb’s life, fieldwork, creativity, and numerous written contributions to Southwestern anthropological and ethnographic literature.

Newcomb was born in 1887 and grew up in the small Wisconsin town of Tunnel City.2 The youngest child of a working-class family, she was named after her father Frank Lewis Johnson, an architect who died when she was three years old. Her father sometimes called her Frances or Frankie, but she later changed her name to Frances (although she signed Franc on much of her work). After her father’s death, her mother, Priscilla Woodard Johnson, taught school to support her three young children—Ella, Raymond, and Franc. Her mother died ten years later. Apparently, Franc developed a strong sense of self from her mother to the extent that she and her older sister, Ella, continued with their education, attending a Normal School, which was equivalent of a teacher’s college. This enabled then to obtain teaching positions paying a meager fifteen dollars per month while living with a nearby German family.

A distant relative named “Auntie” Davenport, teaching in Wagon Mound, New Mexico, wrote and encouraged these strong, adventuresome young women to embrace the sparseness of the West. They followed in the footsteps of others who harbored romantic fantasies of traveling to the Wild West, which as art historian Patricia Trenton wrote:

In contrast to the East, the West was unhampered by tradition and social hierarchy. Western women thus had more freedom than their Eastern counterparts in almost every sphere of creative endeavor, and they pushed the boundaries of their gender farther at a more rapid rate.3

Perhaps the sisters thought the West offered a wonderful opportunity to experience this freedom and to earn a sufficient income. They passed civil service licensing exams permitting Ella to receive a teaching position in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Franc in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Franc arrived in Gallup, New Mexico on a hot 12 August 1912 to her new home where she taught primary grades at the nearby Fort Defiance Navajo boarding school. Directly outside the gate of Fort Defiance stood a Catholic Church and two trading posts. One was a long white store with a red warehouse owned by the traders Lew and Clara Sabin, while on the other side of the road stood a grey stone building managed by Arthur John Newcomb, or A.J., as he was affectionately known.

It was here that Franc Johnson and A.J. Newcomb met and would marry in less than two years. A.J. (1891-1948) had come west from Des Moines, Iowa with his two older brothers Earle and Charlie between 1910 and 1911.4 After Franc and A.J. became acquainted, they uncovered a mutual sense of humor and similar attraction to Navajo culture, as well as a fascination with sandpaintings—the ritual designs singers or medicine men created with colored sand during healing ceremonies.5 Their compatibility blossomed into a relationship, but, as was common practice at this time, her teaching contract forbade marriage.


Franc Johnson Newcomb on “Billy” (A.J.’s horse), 1913-1914. She was a fine horsewoman. Photography courtesy of Priscilla Newcomb Thompson.

In the winter of 1913-1914, the Newcomb’s obtained half interest in the Blue Point Trading Post from the Manning and Maple Wholesale Company in Gallup.6 A.J. was the youngest man to qualify (twenty-two years old at the time) for a post placing him at the bottom of the list held by C.C. Manning as part of an arrangement to relocate men to the Southwest. As a result, he received the most inaccessible and primitive post on the Navajo Reservation with brother Earle as his assistant.7 The Blue Pont Trading Post was located fifty-two miles north of Gallup, seventy-two miles south of Farmington, and approximately six miles southeast of the region known as Two Grey Hills.8 Roads in the area were impassable during inclement weather and under optimum conditions; Gallup was a three to five day wagon trip. It was a stark environment to which inhabitants learned to adjust. Today, the paved main road remains remote and isolated yet hauntingly beautiful. With Franc’s financial assistance, A.J. renovated the post, adding a new roof and cement floor for the trade room and living quarters.

After their marriage in June 1914, the wagon ride between Fort Definance and the post located on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Reservation served as their honeymoon trip. Without gas, electricity, or running water, desert life was simple but harsh. As the post became the central hub of their surrounding Navajo community, the Newcombs became cultural mediators between their neighbors and the outside world.

Franc Newcomb assumed the typical role of a hard-working trader’s wife, and by the summer of 1915, their many invited, as well as uninvited visitors, created a need for additional rooms beyond their original quarters.9 Her responsibilities increased as she provided food and facilities for travelers, whether o horseback or in chauffeured touring cars. Over time, prominent guests such as European royalty and government officials visited the post. One such couple was Mr. and Mrs. King C. Gillette of the Gillette Razor Company who, with a group of friends en route to Mesa Verde National Park, dropped in between 1919-1920. When they saw the “Whirling Log” rug that Navajo leader Hosteen Klah was weaving, they immediately wished to purchase it. A.J. convinced them to wait several months so it could be displayed in the upcoming Navajo Ceremonial in Gallup. Mrs. Gillette was so pleased with the rug that she ordered two more.10 At another time, Newcomb received an unexpected visit from the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Louisa in 1926. Franc was notified on morning by a reporter that the prince and his retinue of twenty would be at the post in two hours for lunch. Indicative of her ability to handle a difficult situation, she prepared a fine meal on short notice served on her best tableware.11 On yet another occasion, in response to a government request from officials in Washington, D.C., the Newcombs provided escort services to a Navajo ceremony, as well as sleeping accommodations for a British Lord and Lady.12 Busy working as the post and providing for the needs of guests, the energetic Newcomb gave birth to daughter Lynette in 1918, followed by Priscilla in 1923.

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