Betty Jo Rivers, an adventurous woman who mingled with intellectuals in post-war Paris and recorded stories of American slaves, pioneers and indigenous people on archaeological projects at California state parks, died May 9 of cancer, her family said. She was 88.
Before moving to Davis in 1976, Mrs. Rivers enjoyed a romantic life that took her from Paris to New York to the California coast. She went to France in 1949, studied at the Sorbonne and joined a community of artistic and literary expatriates, including James Baldwin and Richard Wright. She married a painter, returned to America in 1954 and worked for about a year as a copy editor at Sports Illustrated in New York.
Twice divorced, she was raising five children alone by the late 1960s in the Big Sur area, where she met and volunteered with archaeologists doing early survey work. She joined the California Department of Parks and Recreation and participated in digs that led to the discovery of remains from prehistoric villages along the rugged coastline.
Skilled at writing, researching and field work, Mrs. Rivers devoted herself to preserving the roots, history and culture of people on archaeological projects at state parks throughout California. During the 1970s, she edited publications about findings from excavations in Old Sacramento. She also took on personal projects, including a series of interviews she conducted with Ramsay Blake, an elder of the Pit River Indian tribe and one of the last remaining speakers of his Atsugewi band’s language.
Her most notable work included efforts to restore Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, which the state purchased in 1974. The site marks the historic town of Allensworth, a Tulare County settlement founded in 1908 by former slave and Army chaplain Allen Allensworth and other settlers as a planned agricultural utopia for African Americans.
Besides shoveling dirt, Mrs. Rivers interviewed contemporary and past residents of the settlement, which had declined by the 1920s. She collected and shared stories about the community for the state parks website, including an overview about the the town’s First Baptist Church at tinyurl.com/RiversFBC.
“Betty was a very good listener,” retired state archaeologist Glenn Farris said. “She framed excellent questions, and she had a really good rapport with people. She came across as someone people could trust and feel good about.”
The daughter of an oil field pipe fitter and a schoolteacher, Betty Jo Robirds was born April 28, 1926, and raised in the Los Angeles area. A gifted child who learned to read at 2, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and folklore at UC Berkeley.
A woman ahead of her time, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris and fell in love with Haywood Bill Rivers, an African American painter. To circumvent French laws forbidding interracial marriage at that time, they traveled to England and married in 1951.
They had four children and lived in Berkeley before the marriage ended in divorce. She married Donald Anderson in 1964 and had another child before the couple divorced after two years.
In her work as an archaeologist, Mrs. Rivers conducted research that was instrumental in the preservation of 9,000 acres in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. In Davis, she advocated for preservation and relocation of two historic homes to J and Third streets for use as cooperative housing.
Slight in build and quiet by nature, she was a warm, upbeat woman with a curious mind and genuine interest in people, friends said. A cancer survivor for more than nine years, she hosted annual gatherings for friends at her Davis home and pursued interests in the arts, history, literature, music and politics.
She performed marriages for more than 40 couples as an ordained Universal Life Church minister since 1970. Last year, she taught a popular class, “Paris in the 1950s,” for UC Davis Extension.
“Betty was a woman who grabbed a hold of life with gusto,” friend Tammara Norton said. “I think she was fascinated people and history and culture, and it just seemed to come together in her ethnographic and archaeological studies. She traveled in so many circles and had so many friends, and she just wove it all together into quite a beautiful tapestry that was a very rich life.”
Mrs. Rivers was predeceased by her son Paul. She is survived by four daughters, Cezanne Totton, Maya, Bela and Renata Anderson; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A private memorial is planned. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Doctors Without Borders or to the Davis Heart of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Davis Extension.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.