Revisiting U.S. Indian Schools with the Indian Rights Association

I’m posting this on behalf of Jenna Marrone, intern for the processing of the Indian Rights Association records.

The story of Native Americans in the United States is not an unfamiliar one.  Most of us are at least somewhat aware of the complicated and tragic relationship between the U.S. government and Indian tribes throughout the country’s history.  For contemporary audiences, well-known phrases like “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” and “Kill the Indian…and save the man” sound like bad dialogue from an old Western film.

Much of what we know about Native American history is shrouded in mythology.  Certainly, that’s how I felt as I began to process the Indian Rights Association (IRA) papers with Willhem Echevarria, project archivist at HSP.  My first task was to sort through boxes of loose newspaper clippings that spanned from the 1870s to the 1980s.  As I organized the clippings, I scanned through them, noting the strange evolution of public opinion on the “Indian situation” over time.  Anytime I came across a particularly offensive headline or a quirky handwritten note, I thought hopefully, “Well, maybe they’re just being ironic.  Herbert Welsh, such a kidder!”

I suppose the Enlightenment thinkers were right, however, and seeing is believing, because it wasn’t until I found visual evidence from the U.S. Indian Schools files that I began to get a clearer picture of the so-called “Indian situation.”

“Are you serious!” I exclaimed one afternoon as I flipped through a 1918 yearbook from the Carlisle Indian School.  Willhem glanced up from his desk with an are-you-working-or-are-you-playing-with-the-documents-expression.  “Look!” I said, shoving the yearbook at him.  It was open to a picture of students dressed for a theatrical production – dressed, may I add, as conquistadors and explorers, among other famous figures from history.


Carlisle Students dressed for a theatrical performance, 1918

“Who would make a Native American dress like Cortez?” I asked as we shook our heads over the picture.  There are many more images like this one in the collection, scattered throughout the annual reports and yearbooks for schools like the Haskell Institute, the Hampton Industrial and Agricultural School, and the Sherman Institute.  The philosophy behind these boarding schools was simple: transform young Native Americans into “good citizens” and productive members of society.  To achieve this end, Indian schools focused on teaching industrial trades to boys, while girls learned housekeeping or nursing skills.  Some children were forcibly removed from their reservations, and many students were given new Anglo names upon arrival.  While I’m sure (or rather, hope) that there were some legitimately good intentions floating around there, underneath the positivist rhetoric remains a constant intention to Anglicize the Native American population.

Carlisle Students “Before and After” – from 1909 Annual Report

So, what was the IRA’s role in the Indian school movement?  What were their intentions in lobbying for Native American rights?  And how might we measure their success?  The Indian Rights Association records contain answers to all these questions and more.   Among the surprising headlines, the occasionally appalling images, and the revealing notes lies a new story waiting to be told.

Indian Rights Association records

Work on processing the Indian Rights Association records (Collection 1523) has begun and will continue for the next three months. This is another one of the Civic Engagement collections funded by NHPRC. Since portions of the collection had been previously processed here at HSP our work will consist of arranging the part of the collection that haven’t been touched (multiple boxes of unsorted materials), integrating it to the processed portion, and creating an updated guide to the collection. To help with all this work we have the help of a wonderful intern, Jenna Marrone that comes to HSP with previous archival experience obtained with the PACSCL/CLIR project.

The Indian Rights Association records (IRA) is a very rich collection featuring materials of interest for those researching the history of Native Americans, particularly the work and lobbying done on their behalf in the nation’s capital. The IRA was founded in 1882 by Hebert Welsh and Henry S. Pancoast  with a main office in Philadelphia and a field office in Washington. The organization had two chief purposes: to protect the interests and welfare of the American Indian, and, in the association’s own words, “to bring about the complete civilization of the Indians and their admission to citizenship”. Paternalistic attitudes aside, the IRA was for the first forty years of the twentieth century the major non-governmental organization offering support and protection to Native Americans. Besides its work as a lobbying group on behalf of Native Americans, the association monitored the policies and actions of the Secretary of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Board of Indian Commissioners. They also helped create or promote legislation favorable to the Indian cause, and in some cases actively supported legal cases in both state and federal court. To spread knowledge about Native American culture and the association’s work, the IRA published many pamphlets and a serial titled Indian Truth.

Documents in the collection span form 1830 to 1986 and include correspondence, organizational records, pamphlets, annual reports, draft legislation, photographs, audio-visual materials, maps, and clippings. Also in the collection we can find materials from the Council of Indian Affairs, documents about traditional Pueblo Indian dances, and legal papers about struggles faced by the Oklahoma Indians, and papers generated by Herbert Welsh.

As a sample of the contents of the collection here’s a letter by a William Phillip Knight, asking IRA for help with a freedom of religion problem while incarcerated in Ohio in 1984.

An updated finding aid for the collection will be published in the upcoming months, though you can access the current finding aid on our website here.

Assessing collections with the HSP survey method

If your archives has limited resources and lots of collections that need attention, how do you decide which ones to focus on? In the HSP Archives Department, one of the main tools we use is the HSP collection survey methodology, which has become a model for collection assessment work at dozens of institutions around the U.S. In this blog post I’d like to give an overview of our survey method — how it works, how we use it, and where we’re headed with it in the future.

The HSP survey methodology uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to assess collections. Each collection is rated on a 1-5 numerical scale for physical condition, quality of housing, physical access, and intellectual access, with 5 being the highest. A research value rating is determined by adding together separate 1-5 ratings for a collection’s interest and documentation quality. Surveyors also record notes that provide substance and specifics to help explain the numerical ratings.

As an example, the numerical ratings for the Beath family menu card collection, 1860-1913 (7.5 linear feet) look like this:

Beath collection survey ratings

The General Note and Conservation Note for this collection look like this:

Beath collection survey notes

Here are a couple of examples of what the different survey ratings mean. Before it was processed in 2010, the George G. Meade collection got a middling score of 3 for quality of housing. This photo is above average for that collection — closer to a 4 than a 3:

volumes in Meade papers box

By contrast, the Belfield papers got a 1 for quality of housing — as low as you can go. This image from the PACSCL processing project blog shows why:

Belfield papers box

Numerical survey ratings enable us to set priorities across all of our archival collections. Generally speaking, a collection that gets a high research value rating (7 or above) and low ratings for physical condition, housing, and/or access is a high priority for processing (and in many cases for conservation work). This helps us pick collections to include in grant proposals, feature in our Adopt-a-Collection program, and assign to staff members and interns. We don’t rely on ratings alone to make these selections, but they are a starting point.

Suppose we want to put together a grant proposal focusing on business history collections. Using database query functions, we can generate a list of candidate collections that have specific rating combinations and feature business-related keywords in their descriptions. If we want, we can factor in collection size, span dates, or other attributes as well. Then we can go through the candidate list and pick out the collections that are most appropriate for this particular grant. This stage usually involves staff discussion, poking around in the collections themselves, and considering issues that the survey data can’t capture. (Is a given collection likely to grow or shrink when it’s processed? Could we feature it in a publication or public program? Does it tie in with particular interests of the funder we’re going to pitch to?)

Querying the survey numbers usually turns up some high priority collections that are already on our radar, but there are often some surprises as well – collections that have lots of potential but haven’t gotten any attention since they were surveyed years ago. I used to think HSP didn’t have any sports history collections to speak of. Then I crunched some survey numbers and rediscovered a 100-linear foot collection that documents the development of a local tennis tournament into an international event.

The HSP survey methodology was developed by David Moltke-Hansen, who was HSP’s president from 1999 to 2007, and Rachel Onuf, who led a Mellon-funded project to survey HSP’s manuscript and graphic collections in 2000-2002 and then headed HSP’s Manuscripts and Archives Department until 2004. Since then, the Mellon Foundation has funded survey projects based on the HSP methodology by Columbia University, the University of Virginia, the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) in Chicago. Other institutions that have conducted collection surveys based on the HSP method include the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Chicago History Museum, and Penn State University (for a survey of Civil War homefront collections at small repositories around Pennsylvania). Each of these institutions has adapted or modified the survey method to some degree to meet its particular needs.

In 2009, the developers of Archivists’ Toolkit, an open-source archival collections management database application, added an assessment module based closely on the HSP survey method. This made it possible for HSP to begin shifting our collections management data from our old MS Access database to AT.

At HSP, we have attempted to make surveying an integral part of the accessioning workflow. This has not always been successful, mainly because of lack of time, but after a hiatus we are back to surveying regularly and chipping away at the small backlog that has built up. Currently, each new collection larger than 1 linear foot (and some smaller ones) gets surveyed within a couple of months after it is acquired. Cary Majewicz (HSP’s technical services archivist) and I do the surveying together as a team. Sometimes we invite other staff members or interns to join us, both to get the benefit of their knowledge and expertise and to help more people understand the survey methodology and its uses as a collections management tool.

Numerical ratings have an aura of objectivity that can be misleading. Inevitably, different people looking at the same collection will sometimes come up with different ratings. This is especially true when assessing a collection’s research value, where individual interests and biases most easily come into play. It’s important for surveyors to have a grounding in different areas of knowledge, be familiar with broader trends in historical research, and learn to set aside their own likes and dislikes as much as possible. Working in teams also helps to even out differences between individual surveyors. In the end, we see the survey ratings as an imperfect but useful tool. They’re not fully objective, but they do provide a consistent yardstick and shorthand for comparing different collections.

Over the past couple of years we’ve made a couple of small additions to the survey protocol. First, we added a numerical rating for “Recommended Processing Level,” to represent our five possible processing levels, from basic collection-level record (Level 1) to full-scale traditional processing (Level 5). (We developed this five-tiered processing schema starting in 2007 based on “More Product, Less Process” principles.) More recently, we started including a processing cost assessment as part of the survey record for all collections that get a research value rating of 6 or higher. This makes it easier to plug these collections into our Adopt-a-Collection program [link].

This fall, we’ll be exploring a new use of the survey method. HSP recently launched a pilot project to gather information about archival collections at small, non-professionally run repositories in the Philadelphia area, such as historic houses, small museums, and neighborhood historical societies. The project has the unwieldy name of Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR). Once again, the Mellon Foundation is the funder. (For more information on this grant, see our press release.)

HCI-PSAR surveying began this week at the Byberry Library in northeastern Philadelphia. We’ll be featuring reports on this work both on Fondly, Pennsylvania and on a new project blog to be launched soon. We expect that the HSP survey method will need to be further adapted to address the particular circumstances of non-professionally run institutions, especially given the lack of standard archival management practices. (For example, are materials even divided into discrete collections?) It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

A video introduction to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

We just produced a brand new video introduction to HSP that contains useful information on our policies and procedures.  (Further visitor information can be found on our website.) Whether you’re a first-time visitor, a seasoned patron, or just someone curious to know what we’re all about, we hope you take a moment to watch!

It’s here!

The wait is finally over! HSP is happy to announce its first publication in many years; a facsimile of Ellen Emlen’s Cookbook dated to 1865. The manuscript contains over 200 recipes which are clearly organized with a table of contents. Written by Mrs. Emlen’s own hand the recipes are legible and give a sense of her character that would be lost in printed text.

The book includes many tips and tricks passed down through the family, as well as additional recipes collected from friends.Experienced cooks and those with a sense of adventure will enjoy cooking from this book.

Our purpose in reproducing this primary source is to inspire individuals and organizations to create a better future through historical understanding.

Copies are available for purchase at HSP’s front desk or at our Online Shop.

A New Digital Project About 20th-Century History

I recently began work on a new digital history project here at HSP that will highlight one of our flagship collections related to the history of Philadelphia in the 20th-century: the Albert M. Greenfield papers (collection 1959).

Greenfield (1887-1967) was a prominent Philadelphia businessman involved in real estate, banking and mortgages, retail, and politics. His extensive connections to many civic, political, business, and social affairs make the collection one of the most heavily referenced when discussing 20th-century Philadelphia.

Albert M. Greenfield circa 1936

Our new Greenfield digital project will interpret a historical theme from Greenfield’s papers through a selection of primary source documents, contextual essays, and teacher resources. And given Greenfield’s involvement in so many different things, one of my first tasks has been to narrow our focus to just one topic.

One leading choice is to focus on the early years of the Great Depression and the story of a large Philadelphia bank called Bankers Trust Company that failed in 1930. At that time, no governmental safety net protected people or institutions if the bank where they kept their money failed. So when Bankers Trust failed to open its doors on December 22, 1930, approximately 135,000 depositors despaired that their money was gone for good.

Cover of advertising pamphlet about a Bankers Trust Co. branch in Germantown

Greenfield was a member of the Bankers Trust board of directors and heavily involved in the bank’s activities. His papers include Bankers Trust financial statements and ephemera, correspondence with bank executives, and after the bank’s failure, letters from angry depositors who thought he should help them get their money back.

This writer told Greenfield "all this bank trouble is at your door."

The same writer alleged that Greenfield removed his own money from the bank before it failed. Greenfield strongly denied those accusations for years to come.

We will select several hundred of those documents to digitize, transcribe, and annotate using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines, which allow sophisticated searching and analysis of digital documents.

This two-year project is part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation to highlight HSP’s 20th-century holdings. We will also be awarding a new research fellowship in 20th-century history, creating a web portal focusing on HSP’s 20th-century collections, and completing additional archival processing work on the Greenfield papers. You can read a bit more about how these efforts relate to our Civic Engagement Collections project in Matthew Lyons’ blog post from September.

I look forward to keeping you updated on our progress in the weeks and months ahead.

October 25, 2010 — An historic day at HSP

Yesterday, HSP received its historical marker!  This commemorative blue and gold sign sits just a few yards up from the southwest corner of 13th and Locust streets.  This year, HSP is celebrating our building’s 100th anniversary.  You can learn more about the history of our building in our online exhibit and past blog post; and be sure to check out photos from yesterday’s dedication on our facebook page.

Labor Day images

While I know I’m a little late, I thought I’d gather some images of workers from our collections in celebration of labor day. The most obvious, I suppose, is the Work Projects Administration (WPA) posters collection. The WPA was created in 1935, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, as a federal agency to provide work to unemployed people.

Next I found this image from our Society Photograph collection (#V59)  of workers from the Torresdale Filter Plant in Philadelphia. The photograph is estimated to have been taken around 1901.

From our Philadelphia War Photograph Committee collection (#V3) is this image of workers making Stetson hats.

And finally from one of our largest collection of images, the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (#V7), this image of Latino workers from the 1940s. This collection consists of the photographs taken for the Philadelphia Record, a newspaper which published from 1879 to 1947, when it was absorbed by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Most of the photos in the collection date from the 1920s to 1940s.


As one of the digitization technicians for the Digital Center of Americana, I come across a lot of correspondence. When I have a moment to read some of the letters I often ask myself what may have caused the writer to send this particular set of words to his loved one, family member, boss, or friend. Many times the letter I am scanning is a response to a letter that we do not have in our collection, and without having the time to research the item I am left to wonder what started the exchange. It’s a little like that game you find yourself playing on the train when you can overhear someone’s cellphone conversation, and you imagine what the person on the other end of the line is saying.

In the last few months no piece of correspondence I’ve seen here at HSP has had as much of an emotional impact as this letter to Mrs. Mary Acton about her husband’s death. It is part of the Edward A. Acton Papers collection. Edward Acton was an officer with the  New Jersey Volunteers during the Civil War. This letter describes his death at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, August 29, 1862.

PhilaPlace project strengthens HSP archival work

Recently the Historical Society of Pennsylvania acquired a small collection called the Pisano and Siciliano Families Papers. Through photographs, vital records, family histories, and other materials, this collection documents two Italian families whose members came to the United States in the early 1900s and settled in South Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. A highlight of the collection is the handwritten poetry of Antonio Nicola Pisano (1894-1979). Mr. Pisano, who immigrated to the U.S. at age sixteen and worked mainly as a shoemaker, had only three years of formal schooling but loved learning. He traveled from house to house, reading his poems to friends and neighbors, sometimes accompanied by musicians. Pisano was also an actor, director, and playwright, and founded a local theater troupe called the Philadelphia Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese. The collection includes several handwritten plays that were probably performed by the group.

Portrait of the Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese, in costume for the
“Passion Play of Christ,” 1931

The Pisano and Siciliano Families Papers were donated to HSP by Donna Meidt, Antonio Pisano’s granddaughter, who also contributed funds to process the collection through HSP’s Adopt-a-Collection program. One of the notable things about this donation is that Donna Meidt came to us through the PhilaPlace project.

As many readers of this blog may know, PhilaPlace is a neighborhood history and culture project, sponsored by HSP in collaboration with several other institutions and community groups. The project, which has sparked enthusiastic interest, includes a website where Philadelphians can share their experiences and memories through photos, documents, essays, and oral history recordings. (See for example, Donna Meidt’s contributions about her great-grandmother and grandfather.) The site also features interactive maps, podcast tours, K-12 lesson plans for teachers, and a blog. Beyond the website, PhilaPlace encompasses public events, teacher workshops, trolley tours, exhibits, and printed neighborhood guides.

Playbill for the “The Passion Play of Christ” presented by the
Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese, 1931

PhilaPlace performs an important community outreach role for HSP as a whole, including the Archives Department. We do not have enough staff to actively seek out collection donations, but have to rely on those that are offered to us. PhilaPlace helps to fill that gap by soliciting stories and images for its website, and more broadly by building relationships with community members and organizations. After making their histories available for use on the PhilaPlace website, sometimes people also become interested in donating their original materials to HSP’s permanent collections. (The reverse is also true: If people approach me about donating collections related to the neighborhoods PhilaPlace is focusing on, I try to also put them in touch with PhilaPlace staff.)

PhilaPlace’s emphasis on collaboration and developing community relationships reflects Project Director Joan Saverino’s background as a folklorist, as well as the hard work she and Project Coordinator Melissa Mandell have put in over the past three years. The project has done a great deal to bring HSP favorable publicity and community goodwill. It has also benefited HSP’s collections work in more specific ways, such as providing much of the impetus to develop a full-fledged collection digitization program. And recently, when I needed an oral history release form to send to a collection donor, I was able to adapt one that was created for the PhilaPlace project.

HSP is currently exploring ways that we can more closely integrate PhilaPlace with HSP’s processing, conservation, and digitization of collections, with a shared emphasis on community networking and collaboration.