A Wild West Tale of a Boston Heiress,
Her Lhasa Apso and a Navajo Medicine Man
Several months ago, a beautiful antique photo caught my attention: a portrait of a distinguished woman cradling a lovely Lhasa Apso. The photo identified the woman as Mary Cabot Wheelwright, 1878-1958. But I was most curious about her dog! How did she come to choose this sacred dog breed of the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet? What roads did she travel during her lifetime?
Mary was a wealthy heiress from a prominent Boston family who came to the desert southwest after her parents’ death. She was 40-years old on her first trip to a dude ranch in northern New Mexico! She had been schooled at home and was very protected, but felt a genuine awakening to explore the world. The Wild West — cowboys and riding horses on trail drives — captured her spirit. The cowboys who took her on those first camping trips in the early 1900s insisted she learn to ride western style in the saddle with no whining about cook-stove food or how hard her bedroll was each night! They did tease her about her need to be lady-like, drinking tea instead of their boiled coffee. In 1923, with fellow trailblazers, Mary completed a 550-mile journey on horseback in 29 days, climbing the sacred Navajo Mountain to reach the famous stone arch of Rainbow Bridge, a revered and holy site to Native Americans. President Teddy Roosevelt made his own pilgrimage to this naturally formed 300-foot high rock formation in 1913.
During one of her many trail rides, Mary was introduced to a famous Medicine Man from the Navajo tribe. She was more than curious about his life and honored to accompany him to many tribal ceremonials throughout New Mexico and Arizona. Mary felt called to preserve these wonderful stories, myths, and rituals of the Navajo Indian and asked Hostiin Klah to be her guide. She fearlessly embraced the Navajo culture as her life’s destiny.
Mary never lived full time in New Mexico, but returned from her cabin off the coast of Maine several times each year to continue her exploration of the Native American culture with visits to trading posts and challenging journeys deep into the red hills of the southwest. She asked the owners of a dude ranch if they knew of a home she could purchase in the area. They took her to Alcalde, NM to see a run down Spanish colonial adobe with acreage. She immediately bought the crumbling ranch house with numerous outbuildings and asked them to restore it for her. The ranch is called Los Luceros, Spanish for “bright star.” She hired a groundsman, a housekeeper and eventually added a chauffeur to navigate a car over winding dirt roads for grocery shopping, ranch supplies, and to meet her arrivals at the train depot after trips east. She graciously opened her home to visitors during her absence while traveling abroad. Mary hired a young woman writer from Texas, Maria Chabot, to manage the ranch and arranged in her will, for Maria to inherit Los Luceros.
In 1934, Mary joined an expedition to Asia, sailing from Vancouver to China in a three-month adventure from April-July. She greatly anticipated the journey to the Wutai Shan Mountains (highest mountains in China), sacred site of five mountain peaks and home to over 40 Buddhist monasteries, temples, and a surviving building from the ancient Tang dynasty. The trip was perilous and demanding as Mary and her party traveled by lurching Peking carts and often on foot. She loved meeting the people of the region, studying their language, culture, art, and the Buddhist and Tibetan faiths. Sharing food and stories with pilgrims, being welcomed as special guests of monastery priests—all of these experiences provided Mary with opportunities for collecting Asian artwork, prayer wheels and Tibetan mandalas. Especially touching to my own heart, Mary brought home her first and favorite Lhasa Apso. She named the little lion dog Tai-Tai.
Just a note on the Lhasa Apso or Lhasa Terrier breed:
“Also called the ‘Lion of Tibet’, these small dogs were bred as watchdogs in villages, near Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet and center of Tibetan Buddhism. They were used as inside sentinels in monasteries and noble homes. They were never sold in Tibet, but throughout the long reign of the Manchu Dynasty in China (1583-1908), the Dalai Lama sent them in pairs as sacred gifts to the emperors and imperial families.”
The early Asian bloodlines of the Lhasa Apso are as tangled as a bowl of noodles. Very thankful for those intrepid explorers of Tibet and China who recognized the distinctive, long-haired breed and committed their hearts, time and quality breeding to insure the dogs’ survival.
Mary was often described as being passionate, stubborn, driven and not always easy to be around. She found great comfort and friendship with animals, especially the wild birds on her ranch and in the company of her Lhasa Apso dogs. Tai-Tai was bred with dogs Di Di and Menkie at Los Luceros, producing several litters of puppies, among them Foo, Chumbi, Go Long, Fluffy and Povi. Keeping with Tibetan tradition, Mary gave puppies as special gifts to the following friends: Augustine Stoll, Louise Lambert, Alice Goodwin, Miss Bieber, and Mrs. McComb. Her dogs were entered in the New Mexico Kennel Club Dog shows, often winning ribbons, some for best in breed. Housekeeper Mildred Posey took care of all the dogs while Mary traveled, following Mary’s orders for carefully feeding/measuring food and maintaining a long row of dog beds in the ranch home’s entry way.
As Mary’s collections of Navajo recordings, Native American and Asian art grew, she approached the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe to build a museum housing all of her cultural objects. However, they opposed her idea of creating the museum in the shape of a traditional Navajo hogan (a Navajo dwelling). Friend Amelia Elizabeth White donated her land for the museum, located near the Laboratory of Anthropology. The museum was established by Mary and Hostiin Klah in 1937 and named The House of Navajo Religion. Two years later, the name was changed to The Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art and in 1977, it became known as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
On July 29, 1958, Mary passed away quietly in her cabin on Sutton Island, Maine. A cherished Navajo song-prayer was recited at her memorial service in Santa Fe:
“Before her it is beautiful
It shows the way
Behind her it is beautiful
It shows the way
This that is beautiful
It shows the way
May she ever walk in beauty.”
I like to believe Mary’s spirit flew across the Rainbow Bridge to be with her beloved Lhasa Apso Tai-Tai. May they always walk together in beauty!
Kathy Rasmussen, March 2, 2017
(Be sure to scroll to the end for photos!!)
For a much fuller, detailed description of Mary Cabot Wheelwright’s life, a new biography has recently been published: Mary Wheelwright, Her Book by Leatrice A. Armstrong Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico
For my research I used these additional publications: History of the Los Luceros Ranch, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, By Corrine P. Sze, Ph.D.
Maria Chabot – Georgia O’Keeffe Correspondence 1941-1949 (Over 700 Letters) Editors: Barbara Buhler Lynes & Ann Paden
Ladies of the Canyons ~ by Lesley Polig-Kemps
A Quilt of Words: Women’s Diaries, Letters, and Original Accounts of Life in the Southwest 1860-1960 ~ by Sharon Niederman
Heaven’s Window: A Journey Through Northern New Mexico ~ by Michael Wallis
Albuquerque Journal Newspaper New Mexico
New Mexico Kennel Club Dog Show article, July 15, 1937
Photocopies from research publications and from the Mary Cabot Wheelwright Archives, Wheelwright Museum
I encourage you to visit The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and explore Mary’s incredible collections, celebrate her legacy.
Address: 704 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
Make arrangements to tour the Los Luceros Ranch, off State Route 68 in Alcalde, New Mexico Phone: (505) 476-1165
Make a pilgrimage to Sutton Island, off the coast of Maine, where Mary spent several summers in an old shipmaster’s cottage.
Thank you to: ALAC Breeders (The American Lhasa Apso Club); Debby Rothman, Fleetfire/Timbers for Sweet Pete (2004-2016); Fran Strayer, El Minja for Tess, aka Tempest in a Teapot; Vickie Kuhlmann, ALAC Board Member and Lhasa Apso Rescue Colorado
Patient and kind research librarians:
Laura ~ Jefferson County Public Library, Lakewood, CO;
Allison Colborne ~ Laboratory of Anthropology Library, Santa Fe, NM
Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Chippewas of Rama First Nation)
PR and Web Coordinator Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
Encouragement/Laughter/Prayer: My Posse of Gal Pals
Love from my very own Cowboy: Joe
Two photograph sites online of Mary Cabot Wheelwright with her Lhasa Apso dogs from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
» Mary Wheelwright- Her#22EFF99 Two photos of Mary Cabot Wheelwright with her dogs from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
Mary, 20 years old, in her Boston home with her Lhasa Apso sitting on the floor beside her.
» Photo portrait of Mary Cabot Wheelwright with her Lhasa Apso sitting on her lap. Taken in 1954 at the Los Luceros Ranch home by Colorado Springs photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979).
» A Certain Fire- Mary #22EC05B Photo of Mary Cabot Wheelwright, standing by her car with her Lhasa Apso dog on a leash. Photo file scrolls left to right at the top of this site from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
Kathy Rasmussen has long been an Apso fancier and graciously provided this article detailing her research on Mary Cabot Wheelwright.