Saginaw Valley Archaeologists: Contributors to the Field II – Harlan I. Smith

This post is the second in a planned series highlighting individuals who have made substantial contributions to our understanding of the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley. The first installment, on Fred Dustin, can be seen here.

Harlan I. Smith

1872-1940

Celebrated for his archaeological and ethnographic work in the Pacific Northwest, Harlan Ingersoll Smith cut his archaeological teeth in the Saginaw Valley, Michigan. Smith was born in Saginaw on 17 February 1872, to Alice E. (Ingersoll) Smith and Harlan P. Smith. He spent his formative years in Saginaw and attended the East Side High School. It was during those years that he developed a keen interest in local prehistory – an interest he shared with his schoolmate and close friend, Edward Golson.

Following in his father’s footsteps (an attorney and real estate investor), Smith enrolled at the University of Michigan to continue his education. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1893. Either before he enrolled at U of M, or shortly thereafter, Smith’s chosen career path quickly moved in the direction of archaeology. In the three years between 1891 and 1893 Smith served as a curator of the anthropological collections at the University of Michigan Museum and an assistant curator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. He also served as an assistant to the Department of Anthropology for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he exhibited a cache of bifaces and other artifacts found near the Green Point area of Saginaw by Edward Golson and his mother, Eliza Golson.

This image is a copy of Harlan I. Smith's photo of the Golson Cache #2, found in Saginaw in 1890 by Edward Golson and exhibited by Smith at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

This image is a copy of Harlan I. Smith’s photo of the Golson Cache #2, found in Saginaw in 1892 by Edward Golson. It is not the same cache exhibited by Smith at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

During this period he also conducted fieldwork at several sites in Ohio and Wisconsin and he continued his explorations in the Saginaw valley.

Notes associated with this photo suggest it depicts work on a site along the Cass River while home from college. P. R. Bush, Will Melchers, and Harlan I. Smith are listed - presumably Smith is shown reclining at right.

Notes associated with this photo suggest it depicts work he conducted on a site along the Cass River while home from college. P. R. Bush, Will Melchers, and Harlan I. Smith are listed – presumably Smith is shown reclining at right.

In 1895, he joined the staff at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  During his tenure at the AMNH he served as the lead archaeologist for the Jesup North Pacific Expedition to the Northwest Coast, under the direction of Franz Boas. Much more about Smith’s role in the Jesup North Pacific Expedition can be found here.

In 1911, he accepted a position with the Geological Survey of Canada (later the National Museum of Canada), retiring as Chief Archaeologist in 1937. During his years with the Geological Survey, Smith investigated a number of archaeological sites in Canada and in 1920 began several years of ethnographic work in the Bella Coola Valley of British Columbia. More information about Harlan I. Smith and examples of some documentary photographs taken by Smith in the Bella Coola Valley can be found here.

During the course of his career, Smith wrote dozens of scholarly papers, including several about the archaeology of Michigan and the Saginaw Valley. A few of his publications related to the Saginaw Valley are listed in the References page. Though his career in Michigan was short, his early influence was great. As noted by Fred Dustin, Harlan I. Smith was the first to make a systematic study of the archaeology of the Lower Peninsula and he, more than anyone else of his day, helped put Michigan archaeology on the map (Dustin 1936).

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