Harlan I. Smith

Harlan I. Smith
Harlan I. Smith

The bare outline of the life of Harlan I. Smith is to be found in Who's Who in America and other such standard books of reference, but that gives you no idea at all of the man himself. No one who knew him well can ever forget him.

It was October, 1923, and a blazing sun. I was grubbing in the black, dry dust of a shell-head near Esquimalt, and finding but few specimens, for West Coast middens are poor pickings, when I heard a friendly voice call, "Hello, are you interested in dead Indians, too?" I glanced up to see a tall, bearded figure scrambling nimbly down towards me at the bottom of the slope. "What luck are you having?" "Not much, I'm afraid," and I pointed to the few specimens I had laid aside. "but I started only half an hour ago." "And what's the matter with this one?" he asked, as he stooped to pick up a nicely chipped point which lay at my very feet, and slipped it into his pocket. It was this chance meeting with "Harlan I." that marked the beginning of a close and greatly cherished association which continued until his death in 1940. Picking up arrowheads, as well as less familiar evidences of aboriginal life, had been at first a hobby and later his profession. In boyhood, near Saginaw, he had made a collection of Indian artifacts in stone and pottery, and acquired a knowledge of the archaeology of the Saginaw Valley. While he was still only a boy, aged nineteen, he discovered that archaeology could be more than a hobby, and plunged headlong into scientific work.

In the next three years, 1891-1893, he led a life of ceaseless, of almost incredible, activity, for he was, during this period: an assistant at the Peabody Museum in Harvard; a student at the University of Michigan; in charge of the anthropological collections in the museum there; and he had charge of the anthropological exhibts at the World's Fair in Chicago. In the same period he managed to get in three field-trips: in 1891, with Professor Putnam on the Madisonville Village Site in Ohio; in 1892, at other sites in Ohio; and in 1893, he investigated mounds near Madison, Wisconsin!

A position with the American Museum of Natural History followed, in 1895, and here he remained till 1911, when he came to Ottawa as archaeologist for the Dominion Government, a post which he retained till his retirement in 1937.

But a settled position did not mean a lapse into inactivity. In New York, as in Ottawa, he turned constantly from one phase of archaeological research to another: he was a lecturer on the New York Board of Education; he gave a course of lectures on the evolution of industries at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; he published comprehensive reports of his excavations in the United States; and served as archaeologist on the Jesup Expedition (1897-1902). He organized the winter lectures for school children at the National Museum of Canada, a series which, thirty or more years later, is still continuing, with a growing attendance; he was the first on the museum staff, and one of the first in America, to use the moving picture camera for recording the present-day life of the Indians, principally in British Columbia and the western prairies.

In the 1920's he turned his attention to restoring the totem-poles which, threatened by decay, were on the verge of disappearing for ever; he wrote, during the War of 1914-18, of the activities of a museum in wartime, and showed how vitally it could assist the national effort to victory. Imagine, if you can, his feelings to-day, could he know that the museum to which he gave the greater part of his life was closed!

Another aspect of anthropology to which he gave much time was the compilation of a series of aboriginal designs, in the hope that they would be used by manufacturers of Canadian products, and would serve also as a stimulus and source of inspiration for native arts and crafts, for his interests were not confined to the "dead" Indians over whose extinguished fires we first met, as will be seen by his detailed studies of the life and environment of the Bella Coolas, and only slightly less complete notes on the Carriers and some of the Chileotin groups. The outstanding monument to his industry is the "Archaeological File": eleven four-drawer filing-cases overflowing with detailed information on the archaeology of Canada, the most complete file of its kind. In it are to be found the basic data for any phase of the archaeology of Canada, for any district, for any type of artifact.

His enthusiasm for work was boundless; even when no longer a young man, he would carry heavy loads of plaster of Paris on his back for miles through the dense forests of the British Columbia coast to make moulds of petroglyphs, secretly doubting the while that they would ever be used, but determined that they should not go unrecorded. For "recording the facts" was another of his great enthusiasms, and he made the most detailed record of all specimens, all photographs, all observations. Perhaps only one characteristic was as strong as his enthusiasm, and that was his boundless impatience with red tape and its incredible stupidities; his anecdotes concerning thick-headed bureaucrats were many and pungent!

But no man is immortal, though his work well may be. All who knew him regret his passing, but they know that he laid firm the foundation of his science in a new land: that is a task that the gods grant to but few, and not all of these accomplish it.

Douglas Leechman
National Museum of Canada

Images of Harlan I. Smith kindly made available by Geneviève Eustache and Louis Campeau of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull.

The scanned text of the bibliography was carefully checked by Claire Vachon and Pauline Lacombe

Previously published in the Canadian Field-Naturalist, Vol.56:114, 1942.