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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Keyes, Charles Reuben
(May 5, 1871–July 23, 1951)

—educator, archaeologist, ornithologist, professor of German language and literature at Cornell College (1903-1941), and director of the Iowa Archaeological Survey (1922- 1951)–has been called the founding father of Iowa archaeology. His personal surveys and work for the State Historical Society of Iowa resulted in the accumulation of more than 108,000 artifacts and a correspondingly large set of notes, photographs, maps, correspondence, manuscripts, and memorabilia now known as the Keyes Archaeological Collection. Shortly after Keyes's death, Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Waldo R. Wedel described the Keyes Collection as "the largest and most comprehensive extant assemblage of Iowa archaeological materials."Former State Archaeologist Marshall McKusick observed that the collection "contains numerous outstanding specimens of aesthetic and interpretive importance."

    Charles Keyes was a lifelong resident of Mount Vernon, Iowa. He attended Mount Vernon public schools and earned a B.A. from Cornell College in 1894. After a brief career as a teacher and administrator in the Norway and Blairstown public schools, Keyes enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University, earning an M.A. in German in 1897. He completed a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1923. He had been appointed to the Cornell College faculty in 1903 after teaching several years at the University of California at Berkeley. Keyes taught at Cornell for 38 years.

    Although he published articles dealing with ornithology and German philology, Keyes's most important scientific contributions involved his archaeological investigations, a discipline in which he had received no formal training or education. His interest in archaeology may be traced to his teenage years in the mid 1880s, when he received two projectile points as gifts, apparently from family friends in Wisconsin and Indiana. He then began finding specimens on his own in the Mount Vernon area. He soon realized the importance of documenting his finds, and began the first of a series of catalogs of his archaeological materials in 1897. He also learned that farmer in the Iowa and Cedar river valleys, his favorite hunting territory, already had many more specimens than he would be able to gather on his own, and determined that inventorying local collections would prove just as rewarding as personal finds. Thus through the first two decades of the 20th century Keyes would visit people with artifact collections, identify or describe the materials in small catalogs or notebooks, and acquire such specimens as the owners were willing to give or sell. He described this work as being akin to that of "an itinerant country preacher."Keyes employed this basic approach to his study of Iowa's archaeological heritage throughout his career, although he abandoned the practice of buying specimens after 1910.

    After World War I, interest in a state-level archaeological program began to develop, and Keyes's expertise caught the attention of State Historical Society of Iowa Superintendent Benjamin F. Shambaugh. Two events may have spurred Shambaugh's interest in Keyes. The first was Keyes's 1920 publication in the Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science titled "Some Material for the Study of Iowa Archaeology," which outlined a plan for a statewide survey. The second was Keyes's 1921 survey of archaeological resources in the Iowa Great Lakes region, conducted over several weeks during one of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory's summer sessions in natural history. The survey implemented his proposed research design. Keyes's appointment as director of the Iowa Archaeological Survey at the State Historical Society came in 1922, and he spent his summers over the next 20 years traveling around the state conducting field surveys and interviews, preparing site maps, and record ing field notes. Keyes also attended and helped organize professional archaeological conferences to elucidate Iowa's place in midwestern prehistory. Keyes's success in accumulating specimens for the State Historical Society and in developing and exercising his archaeological expertise was a reflection of his personal charm and strength of character.

    In the early 1930s Keyes collaborated with Ellison Orr of Waukon on several major archaeological investigations sponsored by the Iowa Planning Board, which oversaw Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects in the state. These included a statewide survey of mound groups and village sites, excavations of Native American burial sites in northeastern Iowa, and survey and excavation of the earthlodge sites of the Glenwood locality in southwestern Iowa. Orr's familiarity with many archaeological resources in northeastern Iowa, his skill as a land surveyor and excavator, and his dedication to careful documentation of his archaeological activities made him the perfect complement to Keyes. Their efforts led to the establishment of Effigy Mounds National Monument.

    Upon his retirement from Cornell College in 1941, Keyes continued his archaeological work full time. He directed field school excavations for several years at rock shelter sites at Palisades-Kepler State Park and supervised at least one graduate student thesis. In 1944 he was appointed visiting research professor of archaeology at the State University of Iowa.

    Throughout his archaeological career, Keyes published articles in scholarly journals and in the popular press. As a public employee, Keyes felt obliged to place his archaeological work within the grasp of the average Iowan, and thus considered his contributions to periodicals such as the Palimpsest his most important ones. Keyes died at home in Mount Vernon at the age of 80.
Sources More extensive biographies of Keyes may be found in J. Harold Ennis, "Charles Reuben Keyes," Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 1 (1951), 14–16; William Green, "Charles Reuben Keyes and the History of Iowa Archaeology," Journal of the Iowa Academy of Science 99 (1992), 80–85; and Marilyn Jackson, "Charles Reuben Keyes: Groundbreaker in Iowa Archaeology," Iowan 33 (Winter 1984), 32–41, 52, 54. For a complete bibliography of works by Keyes, see John P. Tandarich and Loren N. Horton, "A Memorial Bibliography of Charles R. Keyes and Ellison J. Orr," Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 23 (1976), 45–144. Keyes's notes and documents are correlated with modern archaeological site records in Joseph A. Tiffany, comp., The Keyes Archaeological Collection: A Finder's Guide (1981).
Contributor: Michael J. Perry

Cite as: Perry, Michael J. "Keyes, Charles Reuben" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 21 December 2014