Born in 1875 in St. Louis, Missouri, David Ives Bushnell, Jr. was introduced to archaeological and ethnographic material at an early age. His father, David Bushnell, Sr., served on the Advisory Committee at the Missouri Historical Society for many years, was appointed the vice-president at one time, and was a trustee from 1898-1913. Never formally trained as an anthropologist, David I. Bushnell Jr. enjoyed a wide range of interests in the field of anthropology, archaeology and ethnography. Bushnell extensively photographed his numerous expeditions, many of which resulted in the publications he produced throughout his life.
Schooled in St. Louis and later in Europe, Bushnell was never a student at Harvard University, but was associated with the University from 1901-1904 as an archaeological assistant at the Peabody Museum. He was later appointed as an editor at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) where he remained from 1912-1921.
His widespread interests and his reputation as a scholar and collector began in 1899 when Bushnell embarked on his first anthropological expedition to Northern Minnesota where he observed and recorded life among the Chippewa and Ojibwa as well as participated in an archaeological excavation at Mille Lac. In 1902, he studied saltmaking at Kimmswick in southern Missouri.
In 1904, Bushnell excavated at the Cahokia Mounds. That same year, he also took a trip with his mother to Europe and documented North American ethnographic material housed in European collections and museums. While in Switzerland, he excavated and collected specimens from peat bogs.
He returned to Charlottesville, Virginia in 1907 and was hired as a contributor to the Handbook of American Indians. He continued his anthropological investigations in 1908-1909 to study the Choctaw in Louisiana, and later returned to the area in 1917-1918. In the decades to follow, Bushnell devoted much of his time to excavations in Virginia, specifically in the James and Rappahannock Valleys, as well as to documenting soapstone quarries in the region.