Kate Cory: Champion of the Hopi People

By Barbara  Patton


Old cemeteries are full of history — and some puzzles. For example, historian and poet Sharlot Hall, founder of the museum that bears her name, is buried within the sloping confines of the Arizona Pioneer Cemetery on Iron Springs Road in Prescott. The Hall family enclosure lies at the top of the hill. There can be found the graves of Sharlot and her parents — and someone named Kate Cory. Visitors often wonder — who was Kate Cory? Why is she here beside Sharlot?

Kate Cory, it turns out, was another remarkable woman — artist, champion of the Hopi people, and a personal friend of Sharlot Hall.

Kate was born in 1861 in Waukegan, Illinois. She was raised with a sense of justice and respect for all peoples. Her father, owner and editor of the Waukegan Gazette, was an avid abolitionist and supporter of the Underground Railroad. His friend Abraham Lincoln visited their home several times.

In the late 1870s the family moved to New York. With her mother’s encouragement, Kate studied art and completed four years at the distinguished Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. She developed skill and success as a realistic landscape artist. At the Pen and Brush Club she met Grace Seton, who helped her become illustrator of the Camp Fire Club’s Recreation magazine, which featured articles about the great outdoors.

At Pen and Brush in 1905 she met Louis Akin, who had been in Arizona painting Hopi portraits and village scenes for the Santa Fe Railroad. Akin’s descriptions of the vivid colors and majestic panoramas of the Southwest and Hopi culture piqued Kate’s interest. She was receptive to the prospect of visiting the West and was interested in Akin’s dream of establishing an artist colony in the Hopi lands. (The art colony was but one of Akin’s failed dreams — years later, Kate would remark: “I was the art colony.”) In any event, in 1905 Kate was on her way to Arizona Territory.

She didn’t plan to stay — she had bought a round-trip ticket. She never used the ticket home. A less brave, less resolute person might have headed home pretty quickly. She got off the train east of Flagstaff at Canyon Diablo. The tiny woman looked at the wide, desolate space stretching to the east and momentarily longed for her stuffy New York apartment. Then she turned west, and seeing the mountains in the distance her spirits were lifted. “That wonderful group of mountains I now saw, like sapphires, bloomed with opal, pulsing on the horizon. They lifted the desolation into the sublime. I’d stay awhile anyway.”

From Canyon Diablo she arranged a two-day wagon trip to the White Village, a government settlement near Oraibi. There she negotiated to rent a room. “Mu-se-nim-ka, the old woman who owned the house, was . . . kneeling at the grinding box and grinding corn on the stone metate. Her eyes were almost closed with that frightful and infectious disease trachoma.” The old woman wiped her eyes and continued her work while they discussed the rental — which at this point Kate wasn’t so sure she wanted. Still, after agreeing to a thorough fumigation, the terms were set, and Kate moved into a little house in the village.

Kate was frustrated with her location at White Village, which was a distance from the main Hopi village of Oraibi. Wanting to immerse herself in Hopi culture, she moved to a new home on the pueblo at First Mesa. This closeness with her neighbors could be unsettling; once, Kate returned from a visit to the Government village to find her landlady and family in her room going through her possessions and cooking in her fireplace.

Kate soon adapted to the simplicity and bare existence of pueblo living, as well as some unusual customs. Often in the middle of the night, she could hear soft footsteps up to the roof above her, followed by the “clarion call from directly overhead penetrating the stillness.” These calls could be a summons for the men to gather in the clan kiva or perhaps to work in a distant field. Dogs and burros would generally add their voices to the call.


Living among the Hopi (1905 - 1912), Kate Cory gained an appreciation and intimate understanding of Hopi culture. Daily life was simple, but their complex spiritual life and colorful ceremonies were unique. Kate’s photographs, paintings and writings leave us today with a vivid picture of the color and mystery of the Hopi Nation.


 Courtesy The Sharlot Hall Museum

The Kate Cory residence, Prescott, Arizona, 1910


One such mystery is the role of the Katsina spirits who come down from the San Francisco Peaks to guide the successful cycle of the seasons. Kate documented the Hopi men impersonating the Katsinas in ceremonies which began with the winter solstice and occurred regularly until mid-July, when the Katsinas return to the mountains.

Beyond the ceremonies, Kate photographed and studied Hopi people in their homes and day-to-day activities - children learning and at play, women cooking and weaving, men working the fields. A book containing some of her work: The Hopi Photographs, Kate Cory: 1905-1912, can be found at the Prescott Public Library.

While in Oraibi, Kate witnessed a split between two groups of Hopi: one group willing to assimilate into white culture; the other committed to maintaining traditional Hopi ways. Ultimately, the dispute forced those unwilling to assimilate to move to an abandoned ruin. Kate said, “I was present at what was probably the last migration of the Indians when in 1906, because of two warring factions in the tribe, one threw the other out. . .” Kate’s moving portrait of the migration is at the Smoki Museum.

In 1909 Kate showed her painting Feather Ceremony in San Francisco, to wide acclaim. It depicted a winter event, largely unknown to tourists. Today, the painting is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

By 1912, Kate was ready to leave the reservation. Her age and the primitive conditions were taking a toll. Plus, the Hopi and the government were placing more and more restrictions on her activities. She painted a farewell to the Hopi: “Return of the Kachinas,” a mystical picture of the Katsinas returning to their mountain home after a visit to the village. This painting is at the Smoki Museum.

Her friend Louis Akin suggested Prescott as a good place for an artist. In 1912, at the age of 51, Kate moved into her little pueblo style house in the Idylwild Tract on Thumb Butte Road. She continued to live simply; a vegetarian, she tended a garden and cooked on a wood stove.

She fulfilled commissions for private collectors as well as the Santa Fe railroad. Her paintings garnered State Fair awards and national recognition. Her painting “Arizona Desert” was shown at the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show in New York.

During WWI, she returned east and worked in a Women’s Land Army garden project raising vegetables for the war effort. She also experimented with camouflage techniques and tested materials used in the construction of aircraft designs.

After the war, Kate joined Sharlot Hall working in the “Way Out West” program, intended to help preserve Native American customs and to raise money for the Frontier Days Rodeo. This organization introduced the Smoki People, townspeople who performed in reenactments of native ceremonies. Kate was an advisor and designed some of the costumes. Sharlot wrote the book The Story of the Smoki People; Kate did the illustrations.

In 1929, Kate was asked to paint Black Canyon before it was altered forever by construction of Boulder Dam. A reporter for the Mohave Miner commented on her painting, “Boulder Dam Damsite” -- “Miss Cory portrays the Black Canyon site in all of its varied colorings and the picture shows the wonderful canyon in all its majesty.”

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In Prescott, she gained a reputation as an eccentric spinster. Her church family at the First Congregational Church was concerned for her welfare; she was thin and dressed in old, worn clothes. Possessions were not important to Kate; she often shared or gave away what she had.


At the age of 97, after a life well spent in pursuit of her art and service to others, Kate Thomson Cory passed away at the Pioneer Home in Prescott on June 12, 1958.


                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012