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First Lady of American Letters
By Michael Ann Sullivan
Erna Fergusson was born on 10 January 1888 to a prominent Albuquerque family. Her mother was Clara Mary Huning, the daughter of the successful merchant Franz Huning. Franz had emigrated to New Mexico from Germany in 1849. He worked as a cowboy along the Santa Fe Trail until he settled in Albuquerque. In addition to his downtown mercantile store, Huning invested in real estate and operated a flour mill. By the time of Erna’s birth, her grandfather was a very wealthy man. He lived in a mansion on a street named after himself in an eccentric miniature castle like the ones he left behind in Germany. Paul Horgan, Erna’s friend and fellow writer describes the city landmark before its demolition in the 1950s. “It was made of adobes,* with wooden flourishes, allees of trees, a ballroom with a small pipe organ where the boys and girls of my time were dragged to dancing school; its grounds reached through fine cottonwood groves and marshes of tall grass to the Rio Grande a mile or so away.”
Erna’s father, Harvey Fergusson came to New Mexico, from Alabama, in 1882 as a young lawyer representing a client on a mining claim. Fergusson stayed and became a prominent lawyer in White Oaks, New Mexico. He tried many of his cases in the historic Lincoln County courthouse. He met and became friends with Albert Fall, Emerson Hough, and William C. McDonald—all to become, like himself, prominent in New Mexico business or government. Fergusson moved to Albuquerque in 1883 where he became friends with Franz Huning. He married Huning’s daughter in 1887 and Franz gave the young couple his former home, La Glorieta, located across the street from “Castle Huning”. Harvey Fergusson became New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress and the first official Congressman for New Mexico when it became a state in 1912.
Erna grew up in La Glorieta the eldest of four children. In descending birth order, her siblings included: her brother Harvey, who became a noted novelist; sister Lina, who married and moved to California; and her youngest brother Francis, a professor and literary critic. Although La Glorieta was her family residence she also had full run of Castle Huning and her grandfather’s 700-acre grounds. She also spent some of her formative years in Washington, D.C. when her father served as a delegate to Congress (1897-1899). Fergusson graduated from Central (Albuquerque) High School in 1906 after doing preparatory work at the University of New Mexico (1904) and the Collegiate School in Los Angeles (1905). She immediately began teaching in the Albuquerque Public Schools. She continued her education earning a Bachelor of Pedagogy Degree from UNM in 1912. In 1913, she completed a MA in History at Columbia University in New York. She taught for a time at Chatham Hall in Virginia and returned home again to teach in Albuquerque.
When WWI began, Fergusson took a job with the Red Cross as the Home Service Secretary and State Supervisor for New Mexico. She spoke Spanish fluently and traveled to remote villages and towns across the state helping the families of soldiers. She described her work as “..fixing things up for…soldiers who had enlisted under a couple of names, for mothers who asked me what the ocean was, and for wives who had forgotten to marry.” In later years she claimed this experience as the first realization that New Mexico “was a very wonderful state to belong to.”
After the war, Fergusson began working as a reporter for the Albuquerque Herald, where she wrote articles about her hometown, capturing the pre-war small town nature of the city. These early articles “Old Albuquerque, Do You Remember,” “Do You Remember the First Street Car,” and “Do You Remember the First Train,” led to other articles on the Southwest published in more national venues. In 1926, Century Magazine commissioned her to write two pieces “Redskins to Railroads” and “From Rodeo to Rotary.” These and other short pieces were collected and published many years later, after she had established herself as a regional writer, in Erna Fergusson’s Albuquerque (1947). Fergusson’s early writing relied on two techniques she would perfect in later work—the oral interview and a conversational prose style. Fergusson interviewed Albuquerque old timers and wrote in a humorous and engaging vein. Her friend and fellow author Paul Horgan claimed of Fergusson, “..no other city has been more fortunate in its biographer…No one is better qualified than she to sketch the history, habits and atmosphere of her town.”
During her tenure at the Herald, Fergusson also launched a touring company with her friend Ethel Hickey. Fergusson explained, “When the war ended I began to dude wrangle. I dragged tourists all over New Mexico, Southern Colorado, and Arizona to see Indians and Indian Ceremonials. They blamed me bitterly for almost everything, but some of them liked it and came again.” The two young women named their company Koshare Tours after the Pueblo dancers who were emissaries of the gods. Promotional brochures stated that, “Koshare Tours were created to reveal to you the delights of a land as yet but little known to the traveler, to invite you to get away from the railroad and shake hands with a thousand years.”
Koshare Tours motored guests throughout the desert Southwest introducing them to native cultures and providing them with all the amenities and conveniences of modern life. A Sunset magazine profile on Fergusson and Koshare Tours gave the following glowing report: “She provides them every night with the best bed available, at a hotel if there is one within striking distance, or an air mattress under the sky or perhaps in an Indian home or a remote rancho; feeds them iced cantaloupe and crisp salads in the middle of the blistering desert in summer, and hot tea and sandwiches in late winter afternoons when dinner is several chilly hours further up the highway. And she tells them more than they can possibly remember about the history, folk lore, and customs of the people they visit.”
As a native New Mexican, although Anglo, Fergusson had access to places that an outsider would not have. Her engaging personality and wit earned her friendships with both Pueblo and Hispanic villagers. Fergusson claimed that the Indians named her Shikya-wa-nim, Beautiful Swift Fox, after she won a footrace at the annual Snake Dance at Hopi Pueblo.
Impressed with Fergusson’s success, the famed western hotel and restaurateur Fred Harvey bought Koshare Tours and hired Fergusson to direct the new venture—Indian Detour Service. The tours left from railroad depots and took guests to pueblos and Spanish villages. Fergusson outfitted an army of female couriers to ferry tourists through what Harvey called, “Indian Country.” Guide uniforms resembled a cross between forest rangers and indigenous finery. Couriers wore tailored tan slacks with velvet Navajo blouses and concho belts. To keep the hot sun from their faces, Fergusson’s guides finished their look with a Stetson hat with a narrow brim.
National reviewers saw Fergusson’s Koshare Tours as a different and more authentic experience for travelers. A 1927 Woman Citizen article claimed, “On most sight-seeing tours, the man with the megaphone conducts you. In the Indian country of the Southwest, a soft-spoken girl courier is your guide. …One merely shows strangers the sights. The other plays hostess to friends.”
Fergusson’s experiences as a journalist and “dude wrangler” came together in the next phase of her life—a thirty-year effort to chronicle the Southwest for a wider audience. In 1925, Taos poet Witter Bynner introduced Fergusson to the publisher Alfred Knopf. She and Knopf talked about her experiences at the Indian dances she visited with tourists. This conversation led to a contract to write a book about Indian ceremonials which Knopf published in 1931 as Dancing Gods. This book earned Fergusson a national reputation as an expert on the Southwest. Dancing Gods chronicled first-person accounts of thirteen seasonal dances that tourists would be allowed to see. Reviewers found it to be an excellent popular book and the author able to capture the mystery and magic of the Southwest.
Dancing Gods and her later travel writing encouraged people to visit out of the way places but also provided the reader with an armchair experience if they could not undergo the arduous travel involved in a trip to the Southwest or Latin American of the 1930s and 1940s. In describing the fifth day of the sword-swallower dance Fergusson recounts, “We got up before dawn and went to the sacred plaza. Crossing the village was an eerie walk. It was cold. Lights in only a few houses. No sound at all. Occasionally a blanketed figure slipped from a door and melted into the shadow, not seeing us. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could with many blankets in a corner of the deserted plaza and waited.”
Fergusson’s success with Dancing Gods was followed by numerous travel books, and several histories: Fiesta in Mexico (1934), Mexican Cookbook (1934),Guatemala (1937), Venezuela (1939), Our Southwest (1940), Our Hawaii (1942), Chili (1943), Cuba (1946), Albuquerque (1947), Murder and Mystery in New Mexico (1948), Let’s Read About Hawaiian Islands (1950), Hawaii (1950), New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples (1951) and Mexico Revisited (1955).
Fergusson always did the research for her books herself, reading voluminously on her topic before setting out for the adventure. Paul Horgan describes an early adventure to Mexico just a few short years after Pancho Villa’s raids in Chihuahua and New Mexico. “I remember seeing her off for Mexico with her brilliant and lovely friend Catherine Chaves Page in the times when highways in Mexico were still better suited to oxcarts with cottonwood wheels than to modern cars with vulnerable rubber tires.” In this description Horgan captures Fegusson’s spirit—fearless, adventuresome, and capable.
In addition to her written work, Fergusson was active in the Albuquerque community. She participated in the UNM Lecture-Under-the Star series begun by university professor and editor of The New Mexico Quarterly, T.M. Pearce in 1935.
She helped found the Albuquerque Historical Society in 1942 and was involved with efforts to preserve many downtown structures. The University of New Mexico awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1943. She died in 1964 and was mourned by many friends and colleagues. No less a figure than UNM president Tom L. Popejoy eulogized her as did the prominent Albuquerque attorney William A. Keleher. Fergussons’s personality is perhaps best described in Paul Horgan’s introduction to New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples: “She was a tall person who held herself beautifully and moved with energetic grace. …It was always a delight to hear her in anecdote—beautiful framed words, a voice of fine timbre, her hands held palm upward as if bearing her opinion and making gestures of circular support for her story, which was often droll and punctuated with little runs of laughter.”
In 1962, Clark Powell dubbed Fergusson “First Lady of New Mexico Letters” in a feature article on her in New Mexico Magazine. Fergusson introduced a whole generation of Americans to the remote land that she loved. Her popular writings described the grandeur of the landscape and argued for inter-cultural understanding. She epitomized the fierce independence and trail blazing of the modern woman of the early twentieth century.
In the second addition of her 1951 classic New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples, she introduced her beloved state in characteristically picturesque language.
"New Mexico is the scene of the longest span of human development in the Western Hemisphere. Traces of earliest man have been found in a mountain cave; on a high plateau the atomic bomb was made. Much of the long drama of human development has been only faintly reflected in New Mexico, but the acts that have been played here have left to the modern state vestiges of a pageant of three peoples. The rites of prehistoric Indians and of Europeans of the Middle Ages are still practiced here. The two frontiers—Spanish and United States—met and fused here in New Mexico. This is important for the record. It is of greater value, now that our country has been forced into world leadership, that in New Mexico the peoples of three cultures have successfully worked out a life together."
Fergusson wrote six books and over twenty-five articles on New Mexico and the Southwest. She also wrote seven other travel books largely on Latin America. Although by today’s standards Fergusson’s work on the Southwest seems quaint and laced with ethnocentric observation (the three cultures analysis among others), she perhaps laid a stronger claim for describing and depicting the Southwest and its inhabitants than the more famous Eastern writers and painters that flocked to New Mexico and made it their adopted home and sanctuary.
*Castle Huning was actually made from terrones, sod bricks, rather than adobe (see Marc Simmons, "Albuquerque, A Narrative History" pg. 279; Johnson & Dauner, Early Albuquerque, 1981, pg. 149; and Mo Palmer's Albuquerque Then and Now, 2006, p. 22. Thanks to Joe Sabatini, Retired, Special Collections Library, Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library System for this information).
Erna Fergusson. New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973.
Robert Franklin Gish. Beautiful Swift Fox: Erna Fergusson and the Modern Southwest. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1996.
David Remley. Erna Fergusson. Austin, Texas: Stech-Vaughn Company, 1969.