Thursday, September 12, 2019

William Penhallow Henderson | Wheelwright Museum

Hosteen Klah (left) and William Penhallow Henderson (c1936)
Franc (née Frances) Johnson Newcomb was born on March 30, 1887, in Jacksonville WI (near Tomah). Her parents were Frank L. Johnson, an architect, and Priscilla (Woodward or Woodard) Johnson, who taught in a Wisconsin school that included Menominee Indian children. Both parents died before Frances had reached her teens. Later, she adopted the professional name of Franc, in tribute to her father, and, in research publications, she is nearly always cited as Franc Johnson Newcomb.

Following high school, she remained in Wisconsin, and taught Menominee Indian children for several years at Keshena. In 1912, partly for health reasons, she moved to New Mexico territory, and taught Navajo children at a government boarding school at Fort Defiance. In one of her books, she recalls the initial resistance of the Indian children when she tried to teach them English. The breakthrough came when she asked them to teach her to speak Navajo, in the process of which they also learned to speak English.

While at Fort Defiance, she met a young trader, originally from Manchester IA, named Arthur J. (known as A.J.) Newcomb. They married in 1914, and went on to operate trading posts on the Navajo Reservation, in remote, isolated regions of northwestern New Mexico. Their primary post was located about halfway between Gallup and Farmington, at a place now known as Newcomb. Their marriage continued for 32 years (they divorced in 1946), during which they raised two daughters, Lynette and Priscilla.

A.J. bought part of the Newcomb Trading Post in 1913 and moved there to learn the business. One of the first Navajos to befriend him was Hosteen Klah, an influential chanter, medicine man, and weaver. When Franc arrived as A.J.’s wife in 1914, she too became a close and long-term friend of Klah. Fifty years later, she wrote a book about his life. While respectful of the rituals and traditions of Native Americans, she also helped them to adapt. When medicinal plants and other remedies were ineffective against diseases brought by Whites, she provided modern medicines, often traveling to remote hogans. She became known as Atsay-Ashon or Medicine Woman. 

Newcomb Trading Post

As Franc Newcomb earned the trust of Hosteen Klah and other leaders, she was gradually permitted to observe rituals that non-Indians had strictly been excluded from. These included sandpainting ceremonies in which symbolic patterns were painstakingly made of colored sand, then promptly destroyed when the ceremony ended. At first, as a silent observer, she memorized features of the sandpaintings, then made drawings afterwards. “Since pencil, paper, or camera were not allowed in the lodge, I had only my memory to depend on,” she later wrote, “…[but] In later years I trained myself to concentrate, and if allowed to remain in a ceremonial hogan for a half-hour, I could reproduce the painting without an error.”

With Klah’s and others’ approval, she gained increasing access and was eventually permitted to replicate about 500 sandpaintings, which she recreated in paint on board. Some Navajos opposed this, condemning it as sacrilege, but Klah consented cautiously. Forty-four of these were reproduced in her first book, Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant (1937), while other surviving paintings by her have been preserved and exhibited at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe.

Although she made hundreds of paintings that replicated Navajo sandpaintings, it is unlikely that Franc Newcomb ever considered herself an “artist” in the usual sense. She was a writer and amateur ethno-anthropologist for whom her paintings were a tangible means of preserving sandpainting tradition. She did this in other ways as well. For example, Hosteen Klah had been a weaver of Navajo rugs since the late 1880s. One day, she asked if he might consider weaving monumental rugs (as large as 12-foot square) that would replicate ceremonial sandpaintings. While reluctant at first, he eventually agreed, providing that they would be wall tapestries, not floor rugs to be walked on. 

His first such tapestry was purchased by the wife of King Gillette, who had made a fortune from his invention of a razor with disposable blades, the iconic Gillette razor. Klah’s second rug was purchased by a wealthy heiress named Mary Cabot Wheelwright of Boston, who would establish the Wheelwright Museum in 1937. By the time of his death in that same year, Klah had woven twenty-five large tapestries, based on ceremonial sandpaintings.

A few years after Klah’s death, Franc Johnson Newcomb published a book on Navajo Omens and Taboos (1940), and later co-authored A Study of Navajo Symbolism (1956). In 1964, when she wrote a book about the life of Hosteen Klah, she dedicated it to the memory of her deceased former husband, Arthur John Newcomb, who had died in 1948. He was by then her “ex-husband” because the couple had divorced two years earlier.

Newcomb Trading Poster (October 21, 1921)

A decade before their formal divorce, on May 9, 1936, A.J. was living at their home and trading post. Franc was in Albuquerque, where their daughters were attending school. A news article in the Albuquerque Journal described the devastating fire that destroyed their trading compound and most of their finest possessions that day:

Fanned by a stiff south wind, the whole compound consisting of the Newcomb home, the trading post, the manager’s house, the camp cottages, and the garage were soon ablaze.…One of the loveliest collections of prehistoric pottery in the Southwest, collected by Mrs. Newcomb over a long period of years, was completely destroyed as was her collection of more than 400 pressed specimens of herbs and medicinal plants used by the Navajo medicine men. Also lost was a collection of old ceremonial baskets and hundreds of films of Navajo people and scenes.

A small amount of insurance enabled the post to be partly rebuilt. But the psychological damage was irreparable. According to Franc Johnson Newcomb’s biography in American Women Writers (2000), “When fire destroyed their trading post in 1936, her husband’s alcoholism became actute, straining Newcomb to the breaking point.” She and her daughters moved permanently to Albuquerque, where she established a day-care center for children and a visiting nursing service.

At the same time, she was an active participant in the establishment of the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe (where much of Newcomb’s work is housed). Funded by Mary Cabot Wheelwright, with Klah’s consent, the museum building was designed by the celebrated Southwest painter, designer and architect William Penhallow Henderson (who had designed murals for Frank Lloyd Wright for the Midway Gardens in Chicago). Rejected by some as a styllistic oddity when compared with other museums in Santa Fe, it was wonderfully appropriate for Navajo tradition. It is a Modern-style two-story hogan, in which the past and the future are fused. Given its emphasis on geometric abstraction, it may be of additional value to learn that Henderson had served during World War I as a civilian ship camouflage designer in San Francisco.

Helen M. Bannan has said that “Newcomb’s best work is her nonfiction prose blending history, autobiography, and folklore.” Among the finest examples of that is her final book, titled Navajo Neighbors, which was published in 1966, when she was nearly 80 years old. It is dedicated to her daughters.

Franc Johnson Newcomb died in Albuquerque NM on July 25, 1970.

According to Bannan (2000): Although some historians and anthropologists resented Newcomb as an amateur, N. Scott Momaday applauded her realistic portrayals of Navajo life. To Newcomb, Navajos were people, not objects for study. This basic assumption permeates Newcomb’s works, enhancing their value as a record of the personal dimension of intercultural communication.



Bannan, Helen M. “Franc Johnson Newcomb” in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide. Gale Group, 2000.

Franc J. Newcomb, Authoress, Dies Here. Albuquerque Journal. July 26, 1970.

Johnson, Burges. As Much As I Dare: A Personal Recollection. New York: Ives Washburn, 1944.

Lange, Patricia Fogelman. The Spiritual World of Franc Johnson Newcomb. New Mexico Historical Review. Vol 73 No 3, July 1998. Full text is online at <>. Accessed on September 8, 2019.

Newcomb, Franc Johnson and Gladys A. Reichard, Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant. New York: 1937.

Newcomb, Franc Johnson. Hosteen Klah: Navaho Medicine Man and Sand Painter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Newcomb, Franc Johnson. Navaho Neighbors. Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Was Founder of MNCA: Mrs. Newcomb dies at 83. Santa Fe New Mexican. August 9, 1970.

Note A talk pertaining to this subject is currently available through the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau. In addition, a slightly different version of the above biography of Franc Johnson Newcomb has been shared with AskART.