Mary Cabot Wheelwright, born on October 22, 1878, was the only child of Andrew Cunningham Wheelwright and Sarah Perkins Cabot Wheelwright. The Cabots were a distinguished and wealthy Boston family. At age 40, after both of her parents had died, Mary traveled to the southwest, where she found and embraced "a more primitive type of civilization, more adventuresome and more exciting than the safety of Boston." She stayed at a dude ranch in Alcalde, N.M., from where she set out on repeated car and pack trips to the Four Corners area and Navajo reservation. She became fascinated with Navajo religion. In 1921, Wheelwright met Arthur and Franc Newcomb, who owned a trading post at Nava, N.M. and introduced Wheelwright to medicine man/singer Hasteen Klah. Klah was concerned about maintaining traditional Navajo religious practice, and had been contemplating a strategy to preserve his knowledge. Wheelwright was committed to learning about Navajo religion. Wheelwright and Klah quickly developed a relationship of mutual respect and began working together. Klah shared many of the Navajo ceremonies with Wheelwright, who recorded and translated them.
Wheelwright divided her time, living part of the year in the eastern United States, traveling the world hoping to find links between cultures and religion, and returning to the home she maintained in Alcalde, N.M. nearly every year. Throughout those years, she continued to record ceremonials given by Klah and other medicine men, fifty-eight in all. She also collected reproductions of ceremonial sandpaintings in mediums such as watercolors, sketches, and textiles, created by Franc Newcomb, Laura Adams Armer, Maud Oakes, Mrs. John Wetherill, Hasteen Klah, and others.
By the late 1920s, the need to build a museum was apparent. Wheelwright states, "My purpose through all the work (collecting and recording the ceremonies), has been to establish a Museum to contain all the material we had collected, as well as all the available material collected or published by others, for the use of future students of Navajo religion, art and culture." After failed negotiations to incorporate this museum within the Laboratory of Anthropology, Amelia White offered to donate 8.32 acres adjoining the Lab's property on which Wheelwright could build her museum. The museum, called the House of Navajo Religion, designed by William Penhallow Henderson, was opened to the public in November 1938. In 1939, the museum was renamed the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, and in 1977, the name was changed to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Mary Wheelwright served as director until her death on July 29, 1958.
Sources: Wheelwright Museum website ; Wheelwright Museum docent training manual; New Mexico Magazine, Dec. 1958; Santa Fe New Mexican, July 30, 1958.
From the guide to the Mary C. Wheelwright Autobiography and Related Materials, 1979-1992, (Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.)