Stevenson, Matilda (1849–1915)

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Stevenson, Matilda (1849–1915)

American anthropologist. Name variations: Matilda Coxe Stevenson; Tilly Stevenson. Born Matilda Coxe Evans on May 12, 1849, in San Augustine, Texas; died in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on June 24, 1915; daughter of Maria Matilda (Coxe) Evans and Alexander H. Evans; educated at Miss Anable's Academy in Philadelphia; married Colonel James Stevenson (an explorer and ethnologist), in 1872.

Matilda Stevenson, or Tilly, as she was commonly known, was born in San Augustine, Texas, in 1849. She discovered her life's work through her husband James Stevenson, a government geologist who became an officer of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1879. That year, she accompanied him on an expedition to Mexico to study the Zuñi for the newly founded Bureau of American Ethnology. For several years, Stevenson continued to work alongside her husband with little recognition (her research paper "Zuñi and the Zuñians," published privately in 1881, went unnoticed), until the famed British anthropologist Edwin B. Taylor brought her contributions to light in 1884. In an address before the Anthropological Society of Washington, Taylor noted the unique ability of women to obtain data on domestic and social life that was not readily disclosed to male researchers, and encouraged his colleagues to be more accepting of women in the field.

Stevenson continued her research on the Zuñi, with particular attention to the roles, duties, and rituals of Zuñi women. Her first major publication, "Religious Life of the Zuñi Child," published in the Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1883–84, was the earliest study of its kind to consider children. In 1885, she became the founder and first president of the Women's Anthropological Society of America. The organization was dissolved in 1899 after the establishment of the American Anthropological Association, which included women among its charter members.

Upon the death of her husband in 1888, Stevenson was appointed to the staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology. The following year, she undertook a study of the small tribe at the Sia pueblo in New Mexico (reported in the bureau's Eleventh Annual Report, 1889–90), after which she concentrated most of her work on the Zuñi, with whom she had established a trusting and affectionate relationship. Her later studies were broader in scope, encompassing every aspect of Zuñi life and examining the changes in the culture brought about by contact with outside influences. Her major work, The Zuñi Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Fraternities, and Ceremonies, a 600-page study with hundreds of illustrations, appeared in the Twenty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1901–02. It was followed by "Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians" in the Thirtieth Annual Report, 1908–09.

Over her 25-year association with the Zuñi, Stevenson collected a herbarium of over 200 plants used by the tribe, as well as a number of sacred masks, which she donated to the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to her major publications, she also contributed articles on the Zuñis to American Anthropologist and other journals. In 1903, she prepared an exhibit of Zuñi artifacts for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

In her later years, Stevenson lived and worked near the San Ildefonso pueblo, concentrating much of her research on the Tewa Indians. Failing health forced her to return east to Oxon Hill, Maryland, where she died in the home of friends on June 24, 1915.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Stevenson, Matilda (1849–1915)

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