Into the Woods: The Anthropologist, the Archives and the Historian

Ann Plane

Bird skin, Frank Speck Papers, Box 1, Folder 12, Phillips Library.

Bird skin, Frank Speck Papers, Box 1, Folder 12, Phillips Library.

Most archival work is pretty predictable—the usual mix of letters, sketches, and other paper-based materials. It’s not every day that you page up a box, open up a folder, unfold the notebook in the folder, and find a songbird skin. Throughout my summer as a Malamy Fellow, I found all manner of interesting things while combing through the materials that make up the manuscript collections of Frank G. Speck at the Phillips Library.  The bird skin looked a little the worse for the wear, but there it sat, feathers and all, nestled among field notes, correspondence, photographs, maps, and much more.[1]

Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies Part 2 Cover, Frank Speck Papers, Box 4, Folder 3, Phillips Library.

Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies Part 2 Cover, Frank Speck Papers, Box 4, Folder 3, Phillips Library.

A few specialists know Frank G. Speck (1881-1950) as the founder of the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the most prolific collectors of east coast Native American objects, folklore and culture in the first half of the twentieth century.[2]  Relatively few are aware that he left materials outside of the substantial archive at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.   The richest of these are held at the Phillips Library of the PEM. Speck had a long connection with the Peabody Museum.  He counted Ernest S. Dodge (1913-1980), the longtime curator, as a friend and collaborator.  Through the connection with Dodge, Speck acquired numerous Native American objects for the museum—the list of objects associated with Speck numbers in the hundreds at least, judging by an initial search of the Museum Registrar’s records.   Near the end of his life, which was cut short by heart failure at age 68, Speck was appointed “Honorary Curator,” a title that recognized his long association with the Peabody.[3]

Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies Part 2, Frank Speck Papers, Box 4, Folder 3, Phillips Library.

Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies Part 2, Frank Speck Papers, Box 4, Folder 3, Phillips Library.

Speck had an even longer connection with the region, however, with especially deep roots in Cape Ann.  His mother, Hattie Staniford, came from an old farming family near Rockport, Massachusetts.  Though she grew up in Brooklyn (where she met Frank’s father, Frank Sr.), Hattie’s wedding gift to her son and his bride in 1911 was a small newly constructed cottage in the Riverview area of Gloucester, which was eventually dubbed “The Wigwam.”  Every summer, Frank and his wife, Florence (Insley), would take the railroad from Philadelphia to its endpoint in Gloucester.  Over the years, an endless succession of students, scholars, informants, and friends would beat a path to “Doctor Speck’s” door at his summer quarters by the river.  Here, the indefatigable ethnographer and collector worked away, typing up rough notes with his two thumbs, and scribbling in directions to his typists back in Philadelphia about what needed to go in the next version of this latest book project or article.  Some days he would invite a visitor to tour the local historical sights with him—anything to do with American Indians was sure to draw his attention.  Other times he finagled his brother (a year-round Rockport resident) or a graduate student into driving him down to Salem, where he spent countless hours with “Ernie” (Dodge) talking over their latest collaboration.

June 25, 1929 letter from Richard White to Frank Speck, Frank Speck Papers, Box 8, Folder 3, Phillips Library.

June 25, 1929 letter from Richard White to Frank Speck, Frank Speck Papers, Box 8, Folder 3, Phillips Library.

Speck had developed his interest in any sort of woods-lore during an unhappy adolescence in New Jersey.  Finding his way to Columbia University where his father, a businessman, wanted Frank Jr. to study either for business or for the ministry, a linguistics professor discovered the young man’s interest in Native American languages, and put him onto the new field of Anthropology.  The renowned Franz Boas took Speck on as well, and found the young man a place at the American Museum of Natural History and, later, at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.  The young scholar promptly began to expand Penn’s already prominent ethnographic materials through frequent collecting trips to the New England and eastern Canadian coasts.  While Speck maintained a lifelong interest in amphibians and reptiles (he permanently alienated one student’s wife by insisting on carrying several dozen salamanders in their car after one outing), his main passion lay in the study of Native American cultures of the eastern Canadian provinces and the eastern states in the US.  While some field methods would be considered highly questionable by today’s standards of ethnographic practice, anyone who works in this area will inevitably come across objects, theories, and other cultural materials initially collected by Speck.  In the critical biography of Speck that I hope to write, I intend to build a broad and deep cultural context in which to understand his life, his work, and his complicated legacy for the anthropology of eastern North America.  Above all, I hope to do justice to the richness of Speck’s lifelong devotion to understanding North America’s eastern woodlands and their peoples.

Ann Marie Plane is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, teaching early modern colonial history, and holds appointments in Feminist Studies, Religious Studies and Global Studies.  She has authored two books on relations between Native Americans and English colonists: Colonial Intimacies (Ithaca 2000), and Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England (Phila. 2014). She is presently working on a biography of the early twentieth century anthropologist, Frank Gouldsmith Speck (1881-1950).


[1] Frank G. Speck Papers,(E44) Series I: Research Material: A. Tribes: 4. Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi): Box 1, Folder 12: Notebook, undated [circa 1919-1931], Essex Institute Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

[2] For details, see the obituary by A. Irving Hallowell, “Frank Gouldsmith Speck, 1881-1950,” American Anthropologist, N. S. 53:1 (Jan-Mar. 1951): 67-87.

[3] Walter Muir Whitehill, The East India Marine Society and the Peabody Museum of Salem: A Sesquicentennial History (Salem: Peabody Museum, 1949), p. 174; on the collaboration with Dodge, see William N. Fenton, “Frank G. Speck’s Anthropology, 1881-1950,” pp. 9-23, in Roy Blankenship, ed.  The Life and Times of Frank G. Speck 1881-1950, University of Pennsylvania Publications in Anthropology No. 4 (Philadelphia: Department of Anthropology, 1991),

 

 

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