The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Orr, Ellison James
(June 14, 1857–January 25, 1951)

—farmer, teacher, businessman, naturalist, and archaeologist—is considered, in partnership with Charles R. Keyes, as a founding figure in Iowa archaeology. Orr's careful and prolific documentation of archaeological sites and collections bequeathed a legacy of indispensable descriptive data that continues to inform modern studies.

    A self-described "pioneer boy," Orr, a first-generation Iowan, was born in 1857 in his uncle's log house three miles west of McGregor. A boyhood spent roaming the woods, sloughs, and streams of the family farm near Postville fueled a natural curiosity and kindled a memory for detail about the natural world and pioneer life that stayed with Orr his entire life. Early recollections were documented in various newspaper features, occasionally in publications such as Iowa Bird Life, but most fully in his engaging "Reminiscences of a Pioneer Boy" (1933).

    Orr's formal education began in the rural school just north of the family's home and ended with high school graduation in Postville, locations where he later taught. Personal initiative inspired him to extend his schooling, even learning surveying from a Civil War topographical engineer. In addition to farming and teaching, Orr's professions included land salesman, bank cashier, and telephone company superintendent. He served in the Iowa National Guard and on the Iowa State College Board of Trustees. Pastime studies in geology, botany, ornithology, and archaeology were expertly pursued and often published. Orr and his first wife, the former Belle Makepeace (1859-1915), had three sons and a daughter.

    According to Orr, his archaeological pursuits stemmed from a brief foray into politics. In 1878 he ran for superintendent of schools on the Republican ticket. Although he lost the election, treks campaigning in the Upper Iowa valley provided the opportunity to collect and sometimes purchase stone artifacts and prehistoric pottery from local farmer

    Over the next five decades Orr honed his archaeological knowledge and recording skills on sites in northeast Iowa, many of which were later incorporated into Effigy Mounds National Monument. He documented collections, precisely surveyed and mapped major mound groups and rockshelters, recorded rock art, and conducted controlled excavations. In 1913 he published his first papers on northeast Iowa archaeology in the Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science.

    From the start, Orr recognized the finite nature of archaeological reSources: And called for their preservation. In 1915 he became a charter member of the Allamakee County Historical and Archaeological Society, whose goals were echoed in the articles of incorporation for the Iowa Archeological Society, founded 36 years later at Orr's instigation. A congressional proposal in 1915 to preserve nearly 200 earthworks within a national park near McGregor received Orr's published endorsement in 1917. This nascent endeavor came to full fruition with the creation of Effigy Mounds National Monument via sustained efforts and lobbying by both Orr and Keyes.

    Beginning in 1934, federal relief funds permitted Keyes to hire Orr for the statewide Iowa Archeological Survey. Orr's half-century of familiarity with northeast Iowa archaeology, well-informed understanding of geology, and surveying skills afforded Keyes, director of the survey, an excellent field supervisor. Over the next five years, as assistant director, Orr surveyed and excavated sites across Iowa, accumulating information that helped Keyes delineate the state's prehistoric Indian cultures.

    During the last decades of his life, in addition to efforts directed toward creating Effigy Mounds National Monument (established in 1949), Orr continued to conduct fieldwork and to write and organize his archaeological reports. He died at his home in Waukon at age 93.
Sources Orr donated his original 15 volumes of reports, miscellaneous papers, notes, maps, drawings, photographs, diaries, correspondence, publications, and artifacts to Effigy Mounds National Monument, and most are now curated in the monument's archives. Together with comparable materials resulting from the State Archeological Survey, known as the Keyes Archaeological Collection, they form an invaluable resource of type specimens and descriptive data. 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, for a comprehensive bibliography of Orr's published and unpublished materials. Marshall McKusick edited the two-part "Reminiscences of a Pioneer Boy," adding biographical details, in Annals of Iowa 40 (1971), 530–60, 593–630. Biographical sketches also include Henry P. Field, "Ellison Orr," Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 1 (1951), 11–13; Charles R. Keyes, "Ellison Orr: Naturalist, Archaeologist, Citizen," Iowa Bird Life 15 (1945), 25–28; "Ellison Orr: 1857–1951," Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 58 (1951), 58–59; and Dennis Lenzendorf, A Guide to Effigy Mounds National Monument (2000).
Contributor: Lynn M. Alex