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Annotations from the Archive: Cather in Santa Fe

Annotations from the Archive: Cather in Santa Fe

Willa Cather's circa 1924 map of Santa Fe
Willa Cather's circa 1924 map of Santa Fe

In the 1910s and 1920s, Willa Cather made several trips to New Mexico, sometimes staying for weeks as she visited friends and relatives, traveling both for pleasure and for research. In the spring of 1926, Cather was reviewing the proofs of My Mortal Enemy and at the same time, finishing the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop; the novel was slated for serial publication in The Forum beginning in January 1927 and as a Knopf book the following September. However, Cather had been planning a return to New Mexico for months following a pleasant and productive summer there in 1925; she refused at least one engagement at Bread Loaf “to be in Mexico and New Mexico all next summer.”

While Willa Cather and Edith Lewis spent at least part of their 1926 trip exploring Arizona's Canyon de Chelly and “Navajo country,” they spent significant time headquartered in Santa Fe. Cather’s map of Santa Fe suggests that she used some of this time to reflect on and refine the details of the landscape and historical settings for Death Comes for the Archbishop. A close inspection of Cather’s map shows her customary hash mark over ten sites; five of them would be referenced by name in DCA, with significant description of the natural surroundings. 

The map itself is unusual and challenges us in our interpretations. The Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce had—for years—been heavily promoting its city as “The Most Wonderful 50 Mile Square in America,” and many versions of Cather’s map exist, dating from the 1910s to the 1930s. Each iteration differs slightly in the details. A collector’s dated 1925 version has many of the same details as Cather’s undated map. Differences become more noticeable when comparing a 1930 version, which features the name of H[arry] H. Dorman, a businessman and the first president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. The map scale differs, and the title block is within the bounding box, and most distinctively, the 1930 map names El Rito Ranch as the hotel at Frijoles Cañon. The 1930 map, in general, shows more named ranches and hotels than does Cather’s map, reinforcing Santa Fe's blossoming tourist economy. Even the fictional Polly Brewster, star of a series of travel and adventure books for girls in the 1920s and 1930s, visits El Rito Ranch in Polly in the Southwest, which was published in 1925, and the El Rito was still prominently featured in excursion advertising for the Santa Fe Railroad in 1931.

In the end, we tentatively date Cather’s map to 1924 or earlier based on its inclusion of Buckman, New Mexico, and a Rio Grande river crossing there, acknowledging that this date is a problematic fit for Cather's timeline. The Buckman Bridge was privately built and maintained by loggers at the turn of the century; it collapsed in 1921. A new crossing at Otowi was constructed in 1924 and is shown on the 1925 map, but the 1925 map shows fewer marked trails than Cather's. Still, knowing what we do about Cather’s travels, it is possible that she picked up this earlier map during her 1925 or 1926 trip.

Interestingly, Cather’s inscription to her father Charles Cather in a pre-publication copy of DCA mentions “the old Southwest, as it was in his young manhood,” a reference, we’ve always believed, to Charles Cather’s journal of his 1872 trip west prior to his marriage. A closer examination of these items, however, reveals that Charles spent only two days in New Mexico not far from Raton before declaring he and his traveling companion had “seen enough of New Mexico.” In this way, Willa Cather, with her horseback trips and cañon explorations, was much more adventurous than her father ever had been.

By October 1926, Cather was back at work in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and wrote to her editor at The Forum, Henry Goddard Leach, before she delivered the second installment of the novel. “It cheers one a lot to have an editor feel really pleased” with the work, she wrote. Her ledger notes that she was paid $2700 for the serialized novel.

In 1943, Cather responded to a letter from Janet Masterton, stating that the “great disadvantage about writing of the places you love is that you lose your beloved places forever . . . .” And yet, this small collection of items related to the Southwest and the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop reminds us that for Cather, New Mexico was never really lost, never a place that she had left behind. Her work to experience both the ancient and colonial history of the place—as well as her engagement with and resistance to 20th century ideas like artist’s and writer’s colonies and tourism—bind the old and new country together in a story for the ages.

You can explore more of our collections digitally on our website, which is constantly being updated. If you’re a researcher who would like to visit the National Willa Cather Center archives, please make an appointment with archivist Tracy Tucker, at ttucker@willacather.org. We are also looking forward to our excursion in Taos in November 2022, and only two rooms remain for this program. You can register online or email Tracy Tucker for details.


Sources include:

  • Letters to Henry Goddard Leach, WCF Collection at the National Willa Cather Center
  • Betty Kort Collection at the National Willa Cather Center
  • Southwick Rare Book Collection at the National Willa Cather Center
  • Southwick Family Collections at the National Willa Cather Center
  • John Murphy's Historical Essay in the Scholarly Edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • WCPM Manuscript Collection
  • Interview with preservationist Alan Watson for the Santa Fe New Mexican "Our Stone Buildings," 4 March 2019
  • The Santa Fe 1912 City Plan: A "City Beautiful" and City Planning Document, by Harry Moul and Linda Tigges
  • History of Buckman, New Mexico
  • Santa Fe Railroad advertising in the public domain
  • Polly in the Southwest, by Lillian Elizabeth Roy