In a 1983 Press Democrat column, Gaye LeBaron compared him to a real-life Indiana Jones, “Scaling the cliffs of Indian dwellings preserved for centuries in the dry desert air…such is the stuff from which anthropological adventures are made.” When I recently mentioned his name to archeologists, 2 out of 4 dismissed him using the same description: “Pothunter,” which is an insult that ranks at the bottom near “grave robber” (it means an amateur who vandalizes prehistoric sites searching for interesting and/or valuable artifacts). The man was Jesse Peter. He wasn’t Indy, and it isn’t fair to call him a pothunter, either.
From his death in 1944 until recently, his name was on the Santa Rosa Junior College Museum in homage to his driving role in its creation. Jesse Peter was known in the 1930s for his donations of interesting rocks and Indian relics to the Junior College and for leading some field trips to the pueblos of the Southwest with JC students, documented in some very Indiana-Jonesish photos in the school’s collection. His day job was far less glamorous; he taught shop class at Santa Rosa Junior High, where his challenge was guiding pimpled Santa Rosa boys to use hammers for hitting nails and not their thumbs.
Teaching “manual arts” was a midlife career change for him. Born in 1885, he studied at UC/Berkeley, but never graduated. His father – also named Jesse – had been a miner, and he likewise spent his early adult years knocking around mining camps, starting in the Mojave Desert tungsten mines during the boom period when that ore was considered as precious as gold (think: Filaments for those popular, new-fangled lightbulbs). After that came at least five years in the Alaskan gold fields near Juneau. “Jess” also spent some time as a construction worker and contractor. He was good at these jobs and earned a living, but it was a bit of a drifter’s life.
At the same time, Jesse Peter had another identity as a well-known and respected figure in the world of archeology. In 1933 and 1934 he was among the 75 “experienced men” nationwide invited by the National Park Service to join the prestigious Rainbow Bridge/Monument Valley Expeditions. The group trekked into the vast, 3,000 square-mile “Four Corners” region of the Southwest – then accessible only by horseback and mule – to document Navajo culture in the remote area and begin archeological research into the little-known Anasazi people. (There are thousands of photos from the expeditions available here, but participants are rarely identified.)
Closer to home, he documented over 200 archeological sites in the North Bay, more than anyone else of that era. He had an uncommon eye for seeing what other’s couldn’t; his most significant discoveries locally were probably the locations of the enormous obsidian quarry at Annadel State Park and the large Pomo village now covered by Santa Rosa’s City Hall.
That Peter spent his last decade associated with the Junior College and the creation of its museum gives a nice arc to his biography – he was just about the same age as a SRJC student when he made his astonishing debut as an archeologist. In 1907, when he was just 22 years old, he donated to UC/Berkeley a collection of over 600 artifacts that he had excavated near Santa Rosa, apparently on his family’s farm. These “finished and half-completed mortars, spear points, knives, and ceremonial instruments,” according to a university newsletter, included “several pieces of types that have not been discovered before and are therefore of particular importance.” Over three decades later, it was still described as one of the most important private archeological donations ever made to Berkeley.
Given his lifelong interest in the field, it may seem strange that Jesse Peter didn’t become a professional archeologist, but you have to consider his time; had he finished a degree at the university he would have been a member of the class of 1907, when there were few career opportunities in archeology aside from college teaching or working as a museum preparator. There was also less stigma to being an “avocational” scientist in those days; another example from Peter’s generation was John A. Comstock (eldest brother of Judge Hilliard Comstock), who became the acknowledged expert on California butterflies despite having no former education whatsoever. The difference between Comstock and Peter, however, was that Comstock published his research (always the academic yardstick of accomplishment) while nothing by Peter appeared in print – even as his field notes, maps, and artifacts were recognized as important and were being collected by the University of California and other institutions.
Peter’s reputation is further diminished by our modern revulsion over the destructive nature of archeological practices of a century ago. In the photo seen to the right (CLICK to enlarge), he is counting tree rings to calculate the age of a log shaped by Native Americans. While modern scientists have the technology to bore tiny core samples into wood, it appears here that the hewn tip of the log was sliced off with a saw, destroying much of the worth of this object – and possibly the entire site – to future researchers.
And finally there’s the “pothunter” label, which likewise has to be understood in the context of the day, when the belief was that important objects had to be taken away and preserved before they were grabbed by treasure hunters, accidentally destroyed by development, or ended up on someone’s knicknack shelf. “Everyone picked up objects back then,” an SSU anthropologist told me, “including the most well-known names. You can’t point fingers.”
MAKES GIFT TO UNIVERSITY
Jesse Peter, a former well-known young man of this city and a graduate of the high school here, has presented the University of California at Berkeley a valuable collection of prehistoric implements obtained by him principally from the deposits around the warm spring two and a half miles east of Santa Rosa on the Peters place. The specimens were found at varying depths ranging down to more than twenty feet below the surface. The collection includes more than six hundred pieces, of which many are rare objects not commonly represented in museums. It is of special value because all of the material has been obtained from a limited area and the facts relating to the discovery are all available.– Press Democrat, August 24, 1907
JESSE PETER’S GIFT TO THE UNIVERSITY
Archeological Remains Found Near Santa Rosa Are Given to Museum at Berkeley
The University of California Weekly News Letter acknowledges a gift from Jesse Peter of this city of archaeological remains unearthed near Santa Rosa. The letter says:
“Jesse Peter, of Santa Rosa, California, has presented to the Museum of Anthropology of the University a collection of archaeological remains from the vicinity of Santa Rosa. This collection comprises several hundred pieces, including finished and half completed mortars, spear points, knives and ceremonial implements. There are several pieces of types that have not been discovered before and are therefore of particular importance. Of special interest is a large series of chipped obsidian implements and charm stones, all found in a large spring where they were evidently for a long period deposited as offerings by the Indians of prehistoric times.”– Press Democrat, February 2, 1908