Ephraim Squier (1821-1886) is well known in American anthropology. The son of Joel Squier (1798-1891), a Methodist minister, and Katherine Kilmer Squier (1797-1833), Ephraim was born in Bethlehem, New York. Because of his father's itinerant preaching and sparse income, Squier had little opportunity to receive a formal education and thus attended school intermittently. At his father's behest, he initially began his career as a teacher. Realizing his disdain for pedagogy, Squier then trained to be a civil engineer. This career, however, did not prove to be lucrative. Having an interest in poetry, Squier became increasingly engaged in writing and was eventually drawn to journalism. In the early 1840's, he edited and published several unsuccessful magazines and journals, such as the short-lived Poet's Magazine. He then edited and wrote for The New York State Mechanic, publishing articles on prison reform. His gradual involvement in politics and social issues led to a position in 1843 as co-editor of the Hartford Journal, for which he wrote articles in support of the Whig party. In 1845, he took a job in Chillicothe, Ohio, as editor of the Scioto Gazette, a publication that also had Whig inclinations.
Despite his productive writing career, Squier is best known for his influence in the founding of American archaeology, and for his contribution to ethnology. It was during his time as editor of the Gazette that Squier became interested in the remnants of Mississippian culture in Ohio. Although he continued to engage in politics, as evidenced by his appointment in 1846 as House Clerk to the Ohio House of Representatives, the lure of ancient cultures and their material remains still intrigued him. He proved to be as prolific a writer of anthropology as he was as a journalist. His seminal publications are Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848), which he wrote with Edwin Hamilton Davis (1811-1888), and Aboriginal Monuments of the State of New-York (1849). Both volumes were based on extensive survey work conducted by Davis and Squier in Ohio and Squier himself in New York, and published by the Smithsonian Institution. As serious and ambitious anthropological works, the volumes contain cross-cultural analogies and provide detailed maps of survey work of mounds and earthworks, thus yielding a great deal of insight into the prehistory of New York and the Ohio Valley.
In 1849, Squier was offered a diplomatic position in Nicaragua. During his one-year tenure, he negotiated a treaty with Nicaragua for the construction of an American canal. Despite his diplomatic responsibilities, he was still able to find time to explore local archaeological sites, and to investigate and write on anthropological topics. Thus, his focus shifted to the archaeology of Central America. One publication that he wrote during this period was The Serpent Symbol and the Reciprocal Principles of Nature (1851). In 1852 he then published Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments and the Proposed Inter-Oceanic Canal, which addresses both archaeological and ethnohistorical questions.
In addition to Nicaragua, Squier acquired other diplomatic positions in Central America in order to have access to archaeological sites, although he also used his station to promote development in the region. In 1853, he put forth the idea of building a railroad across part of Nicaragua and Honduras. However, the Honduras Interoceanic Railway Project never reached fruition. In the early 1860's, Squier once again returned to journalism, this time as an editor for a publishing firm owned by Frank Leslie (1821-1880). A few years later, he was appointed United States Commissioner to Peru between 1863 and 1865, after which he wrote his last major publication, Peru: Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas (1877). In 1868, he was appointed Consul-General of Honduras. This was his last diplomatic appointment.
In 1873, Squier and his wife, Miriam Florence Follin (1828-1914), divorced. Shortly thereafter, he began to show signs of mental deterioration and was committed to an asylum before eventually becoming the ward of his brother Frank. He died in 1888. Although his anthropological pursuits ceased during the latter part of his life, Squier is nonetheless remembered as a passionate intellectual who attempted to answer theoretical questions about human behavior and the nature of the organization of societies. Above all, he sought to understand trans-historical and cross-cultural similarities between ancient societies, which has earned him a prominent place as one of the forerunners of modern anthropology.