For more than two hundred years, the American Philosophical Society (APS), the oldest scholarly society in the United States, has been promoting the study of the indigenous peoples, cultures, and languages of the Western Hemisphere. This work continues today, through research, collecting, and collaborations with Native American communities.
Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues founded the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1743 “for the promotion of useful knowledge” in the growing colonies. At the time, “philosophy” referred to many branches of knowledge, reflecting the wide-ranging interests of the early members.
Thomas Jefferson, who served simultaneously as President of the United States and President of the APS, initiated the Society’s collections in Native American cultures, with a particular focus on language study. Paradoxically, Jefferson sought to record and preserve indigenous cultures, even as his governmental policies, at times, led to the displacement of Native American tribes.
By 1815, the APS had established a “Historical and Literary Committee” to gather documents and information about the history of the country. Jefferson’s own comparative vocabularies of Native languages, along with the original journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1804–06 westward journey, were among the most significant papers in these early collections.
Often overlooked is the fundamentally important collaborative role played by Native Americans themselves in the preservation work of Jefferson, Lewis, Clark, and other collectors. While the materials at the APS were often collected because Native American communities were believed to be disappearing, this imaging project strives to emphasize the essential Native contribution to the Society’s collections and the enduring role that Native people continue to play in maintaining their own culture.
Throughout the 1800s, the Society continued to research and record indigenous cultures, and its journals published over 100 papers on American ethnographic topics between 1840 and 1900. Images from this era in the APS collections range from Titian Ramsay Peale’s drawings of Plains Natives (1820s) to Désiré Charnay’s photographs of ancient Mesoamerican temples (1880s).
In 1895, APS member Henry Phillips, Jr. left a portion of his estate to the Society to support research in archaeology and philology. These funds later became earmarked for Native American studies, which currently include preservation efforts by members of Native communities. Phillips Fund fellows deposit all of their field notes, photographs, and other documentation at the APS Library, further enriching the collections.
By the late 1800s, the study of Native American cultures began to develop into the modern discipline of anthropology. German-born Franz Boas, a pioneer in fieldwork among the Inuit of the Arctic and the First Nations of the Northwest Coast, is often called “the father of American anthropology.” His papers are now in the collections of the APS.
In contrast to earlier scholars who had viewed Natives as less “civilized” than people of European descent, Boas argued that there were no universal laws governing the evolution of human cultures. Rather, every culture possesses its own integrity and reason, and differences among people come from variations in geographic, social, and historical conditions.
Throughout the 1900s, and into the 21st century, anthropologists followed in Boas’s footsteps, working in the field, sometimes for years or decades, to learn and understand Native languages, histories, and cultures. The APS holds the papers of several of Boas’s most prominent students, including Frank Speck, John Alden Mason, and Elsie Clews Parsons (one of the earliest women anthropologists).
A more recent offshoot of anthropology, the interdisciplinary approach to Native American cultures known as “ethnohistory,” is also well-represented in the APS collections by the papers of Paul A. W. Wallace, his son Anthony F. C. Wallace, Ruben E. Reina, and others. Ethnohistory takes a holistic approach to culture, combining approaches from ethnography, linguistics, archaeology, history, literature, and ecology. Its practitioners collaborate intensively with the people they study, believing that oral traditions and codes of conduct possess a cultural authority that needs to be recognized as augmenting written history.
Today and Tomorrow
Today, the APS Library holds over 200 anthropological manuscript collections containing more than 113,000 images of or related to the original inhabitants of North, Central, and South America. These images—photographs of all sorts, original drawings by artists (including Native American artists) and anthropologists, and printed illustrations—date from the early 1600s to the present day and range from the high Arctic to the Amazonian rainforest.
A three-year grant (2007–2010) from the Getty Foundation supported the surveying and description of these pictures. Several hundred sample images were scanned and catalogued, and this website was developed to provide an introduction and a portal to these unique collections. At the same time, a grant from the Mellon Foundation has made possible the digitization of over 1,000 hours of audio recordings of eighty endangered or extinct Native languages.
For many years, the APS has been working to make its collections and resources available to scholars and the public, including Native American researchers and communities. In turn, the Society has greatly benefited from the knowledge generously shared by many Native individuals and groups. Now, improved access to the APS’s vast archives of manuscripts, images, and sound recordings will help forge new connections and collaborations in the years to come.