William Edward Myer

William E. Myer was a leading figure in the early twentieth-century transformation of Tennessee archaeology from a casual hobby to a professional science and in the development of both overland and river transportation systems. Myer was born in Kentucky in October 1862, but at about age six, he and his family moved to Carthage, where he spent most of the remainder of his life. In 1878 he entered Vanderbilt University and began his lifelong interests in business, transportation engineering, and archaeology.

Throughout his early life, he worked tirelessly in the development of the transportation infrastructure of Middle Tennessee. His leadership as president of the Cumberland River Improvement Society and Tennessee Good Roads Association eventually resulted in bridges over the Cumberland and Caney Fork Rivers. As organizer of the Cumberland Navigation Company, Myer operated a fleet of steamers on the upper Cumberland and took an active part in the development of river navigation.

Myer retired from his commercial pursuits in 1915 to focus research on the archaeology of the Cumberland River valley. His efforts were briefly interrupted in 1917, when he was called into the service of Tennessee during World War I as U.S. Fuel Administrator. Returning to his archaeological interests at the end of the war, Myer moved to Washington, D.C., in 1919, and became a Special Archaeologist with the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology. Between 1919 and 1923, Myer mapped, surveyed, and conducted excavations at some of the most significant prehistoric archaeological sites in Tennessee, including Mound Bottom in Cheatham County, Gordontown in Davidson County, Pinson Mounds in Madison County, Castalian Springs in Sumner County, and Fewkes in Williamson County.

Unfortunately, in the midst of his work, Myer died of a heart attack on December 2, 1923. Although his most significant book, Stone Age Man in the Middle South, has not yet seen publication, a number of posthumous publications of his work by the Smithsonian Institution remain classics of southeastern archaeology. Unlike most of his predecessors and contemporaries, Myer left substantive records of his research in both published and unpublished forms.

As a testimony to the national respect earned by Myer as Tennessee's first professional archaeologist and as a scholar in many fields, the Engineering Association of Nashville, the Tennessee Academy of Science, the Froelac Literary Club, the Tennessee Historical Society, the American Anthropological Association, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Tennessee Ornithological Society passed resolutions praising both his scholarship and his personal qualities. The transformation of William E. Myer from an educated antiquarian into a nationally recognized archaeologist marks the beginnings of the science of archaeology in Tennessee.

Suggested Reading

John H. DeWitt, “[Obituary of] William Edward Myer,” Tennessee Historical Magazine 8 (1924): 225-30; Warren K. Moorehead, “Mr. W. E. Myers Archaeological Collection,” Science 60 (1924): 159-60

Citation Information

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  • Article Title William Edward Myer
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date October 20, 2021
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018