Lt. George Emmons
Image # 328741, American Museum of Natural History Library.

George Thornton Emmons

Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons (1852–1945) acquired more than 11,000 Northwest Coast and Alaskan objects in his lifetime.1 He was the most active and persistent collector on the Coast, and was at times a complicated and controversial figure.2 Emmons collected largely from the Tlingit when he served as a Naval officer in southeast Alaska from 1882 to 1899, and was interested not only in exquisite carvings, textiles, and other ceremonial apparatus, but also in tools and household belongings. He was a freelancer, selling objects in large batches to museums across North America and appending detailed notes about their context and use. Emmons was not formally trained as an ethnographer, yet he was observant, systematic, and spent more time among Native peoples than many anthropologists of his generation.3 Some of his research was published in his lifetime, to both praise and critique.4 Emmons’s massive, uncompleted ethnography, The Tlingit Indians, was extensively emended by anthropologist (and Boas student) Frederica de Laguna and released in 1991. He also arranged exhibitions of objects he collected and kept some as mementos of his time in Alaska, displaying them in his residences there and in Victoria, BC.5

Emmons was born in Baltimore in 1852 in circumstances that directly influenced his career. His father, Naval officer George Foster Emmons, had participated in the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838–1842) that collected Northwest Coast objects. In 1867 his father commanded the ship that took U.S. diplomats to Sitka to transfer Alaska from Russia. Although some members of Emmons’s family denigrated Native peoples, George Thornton aimed to understand the cultures he encountered. However, he shared the widespread assumption that Native cultures were disintegrating, a major driver of his collecting habits. Emmons also exhumed shamans’ graves to obtain many objects and exercised his local military authority in ways that probably influenced his collecting success. Nonetheless, he was conscious of the social and economic conditions of Alaska Natives and often advocated for their property rights and perspectives, including to President Theodore Roosevelt.6

Emmons arrived in Sitka in 1882 as a thirty-year old junior lieutenant tasked with patrolling the area and intervening in village disputes. He would later travel between villages by canoe to collect and make notes, and enjoyed much personal time in Tlingit company. His first collection, which amounted to three tons of material, was sent to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in 1887, and in 1893 Emmons followed this with an even larger lot that he had displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.7 Although Emmons maintained a long relationship with AMNH, Boas remained skeptical of both his commercial motivations and his untrained ethnographic observations.8

By the end of the nineteenth century, Emmons claimed he had “gleaned” and “cleaned out” all that he could from his familiar Alaska and Yukon areas, and the museum market for Northwest Coast objects softened considerably.9 Although he acquired the lion’s share of items directly from Native villages, after leaving Sitka in 1899 he intermittently turned to other sources, such as non-Native friends, curio dealers, and others in his vast network, which affected his ability to offer well-contextualized pieces to museum clients.10 However, he still managed to exhibit a new collection of 1,900 pieces in Seattle at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which eventually sold to the Burke Museum.11 While in Seattle, Emmons obtained for AMNH a replica of a copper that had been illustrated in Boas and Hunt’s 1897 volume. After 1926, Emmons stopped conducting fieldwork but still traded out of his considerable personal collection.12 Before he died of pneumonia in 1945 in Victoria, British Columbia, he arranged for a last batch of objects to be sold to the Royal Ontario Museum.13

Other major Emmons collections can be found at the Field Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of Natural History. Smaller collections abound elsewhere, largely outside of Alaska.14 These repositories reflect Emmons’s compulsion to obtain and preserve all he could—materially, intellectually, and emotionally—from a region in which he felt intensely invested.

By Laura Allen

Objects Collected by Emmons

  1. de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer,” xix
  2. Carpenter, “Collectors and Collections,” 63; de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer.”
  3. de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer;” Glass, “Conspicuous Consumption,” 279. 
  4. de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer,” xx; Cole, Captured Heritage, 149.
  5. Low, “George Thornton Emmons.”
  6. Low, “George Thornton Emmons” and “Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons;” de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer.”
  7. Low, “George Thornton Emmons”; Cole, Captured Heritage, 142–143.
  8. Jonaitis, From the Land of the Totem Poles, 112-13.
  9. Newcombe to Dorsey, 24 July 1900 and Emmons to Jesup, 25 July 1896, cited in Low, “Lieutenant,” xxxiv; Cole, Captured Heritage, 212.
  10. Low, “Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons,” xxxv–xxxvi. 
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.; de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer,” xvii.
  13. Cole, Captured Heritage, 243; Low, “Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons,” xxxviii.
  14. Cole, Captured Heritage; de Laguna, “George Thornton Emmons as Ethnographer,” xix.
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