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Harriman Expedition Retraced



The 1899 Expedition
The 1899


Original Participants

Brief Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Aboard the

History of Exploration
Exploration &

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities


The Collection and Return of Native Objects

The taking of the Native totem poles and other objects from Cape Fox village is one of the most frequently retold episodes of the Harriman Expedition. Earlier in the trip, on Kodiak Island, the artist Frederick Dellenbaugh had met a man who told him about an empty but intact Native village "full of totem poles opposite St. Mary's Island." On the return leg of the voyage, Harriman set out to find the village, comparing the simple map that Dellenbaugh had drawn with navigational charts of the area. South of Wrangell they found the village, with its many weathered totem poles and a string of houses facing the water.

Drawing of bear totem

Drawing of bear totem.
Click image for a larger view

It is not surprising that, within an hour, Harriman ordered several crew members to the beach to lower the poles and take them aboard the Elder. Expeditions to Alaska often included this kind of collection -- at the very least, travelers to the coast expected to buy Native souvenirs made and sold at every steamship stop between Vancouver and St. Lawrence. Large expeditions, like the Harriman, often hoped to bring back pieces of size and importance that would be of value to museums in the United States.

Native Artifact Collection in the 19th Century

Collecting Native artifacts was so much a part of the Alaskan experience for whites in the 19th century that almost no one on the Harriman Expedition protested as the totems came down and the houses were emptied. Only John Muir, in his later writings, referred to it as "a sacrilege."

The collecting of Native objects -- including everyday objects, art and ceremonial pieces, and even human remains -- can, in a way, be traced back to a packet boat that arrived in New York harbor in 1838 with 105 bags of gold on board. This was the fortune of James Smithson, a British mineralogist who had never once set foot on American soil. But he held the ideals of American democracy in such esteem that he left his entire fortune to the creation of an "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Eight years later, the Smithsonian Institution was created; its early curators set out to build collections that would fully illustrate the ethnic history of America. Explorers, surveyors and private collectors were all encouraged to contribute to this growing collection, and other museums followed suit. Indian artifacts seemed particularly valuable because they were remnants of a way of life that was fast disappearing from the continent. When Alaska became a U.S. possession in 1867, it was seen partly as a new and fertile collecting site.

But Alaska had already been a site of much collecting. In some cases, Native tribes sold their objects, and some even crafted objects solely for the collection and tourist trade. Collectors soon learned that prices were lower in winter, and that among most tribes the ceremonial objects were often much more expensive than everyday items, and in many cases were simply not for sale. The more ruthless resorted to thievery when they discovered that the burial boxes and shaman grave houses of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Natives in southeastern Alaska were a rich source for ceremonial blankets, rattles, headdresses and masks. In some cases the human contents of the grave -- bones and mummified bodies -- were removed and placed in ethnological collections. Museums in the United States were eager to assemble "osteological" collections -- human bones -- for research purposes, and the fact that they were willing to pay for such material meant that Native graves were likely to be robbed.

At Cape Fox, the Harriman crew did not open the graves they found there, but Merriam took one of the Chilkoot blankets covering a shaman's grave, and the crew removed a set of carved bears from a burial site. These items, along with several totems, and countless smaller artifacts were taken aboard the Elder over two day's time. Eventually the large totems were donated to museums in the United States, including the Field Museum in Chicago and the California Academy of Sciences. In 1920, one of the poles was donated to the Peabody Museum. Most of the other artifacts were donated to the Smithsonian, or held in private collections.

Repatriation in 2001

In February of 2000, as part of the Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced project, a group of Natives from the village of Saxman, some of them descendants of the Cape Fox tribe, visited New York City and viewed a number of the totems and other objects taken from the village in 1899. This was one of the first steps in a repatriation process that may, in the coming years, see the return of some of the artifacts taken on that July day in 1899.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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