100 years ago, early in the morning of March 29, 1911, a great fire destroyed much of the New York State Capitol building, including most of the holdings of the New York State Library, as well as much of the large archaeological and ethnological collections that were on display on the building’s fourth floor. The archaeological
and ethnological artifacts had been collected by the early American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, as well as another great 19th century authority on the Iroquois, Harriet Maxwell Converse, and more recently, the State Museum’s young archaeologist, Arthur C. Parker.
Parker’s relatives were an important Seneca Indian family and had assisted Morgan with the collection of artifacts to form the original New York State anthropology collection, circa 1850. Years later, while making archaeological surveys in western New York and conducting excavations at the Ripley and Silverheels sites, Parker renewed significant Iroquois ethnological research, including the collection of objects, oral history, information about customs and practices, and folklore (such as published in his book, Seneca Myths and Folk Tales, 1923, and William Fenton’s compilation of Parker’s monographs, Parker on the Iroquois, 1968).
Much of what we know about the destruction of the anthropological collections (along with vivid descriptions of the fire itself) comes from Parker’s own pen in contemporaneous reports on the tragedy. These writings include Parker’s letter to his father and a report he issued in American Anthropologist. The letter is quoted in Joy Porter’s 2001 biography of Parker, while the American Anthropologist report is excerpted in Elizabeth Tooker’s 1994 book, Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material
Culture. After “the great roar of flame” had passed, Parker and his assistant rushed in to save what they could through clouds of smoke, with cases burning and weakened walls crashing. Parker wielded a museum specimen of great personal and cultural significance, the Cornplanter Tomahawk (once owned by an illustrious ancestor) as a fire ax to assist the rescue. In the American Anthropologist report, Parker tells us that the “continual dropping of masses of cracked rock from the walls made work of rescuing valuable objects most hazardous.” He also relates how “long sheets of flame…burst through the large corridor windows” and “The archaeological cases suffered most from breakage brought about by the crumbling of the sandstone ceilings…The falling of the ceilings in great blocks broke the shelves that had so far resisted the fire and spilled the specimens into the water and debris.” Porter quotes the report in an Albany newspaper that Parker was shocked and made ill by the loss, “sick abed for several days afterward.”
Much was lost, but some was saved intact and other artifacts, although fire or water damaged could be recovered and potentially restored. Parker’s remark that “…despite the choking smoke, the sudden bursts of heat, and the falling walls the majority of the more valuable objects…were carried to safety” must be understood with due consideration of what was indeed lost. Significant Iroquois textiles collected by Morgan were destroyed. Morgan’s mid-19th century color illustrations of Indian models dressed in traditional garb presented iconic images of Indian ethnicity. The loss of the textiles poses a loss to the understanding of authenticity, as well as the appreciation of the cultural objects, which many people who would never see them could have enjoyed and appreciated. Regarding the extent of damage to the Morgan collection (and sounding optimistic) Tooker (1994:84) has stated “Fortunately, Morgan’s descriptions are…as valuable in their own way as the objects themselves.” They are ever more valuable to the extent that the actual objects have been destroyed.
In terms of the actual numbers of objects affected, much of the damage occurred to the archaeological collection due to the crashing of the ceiling and walls. Some of the stone, ceramic, bone archaeological specimens , and some durable ethnological artifacts could be recovered, although, as Parker notes, many had paper labels that were destroyed. With the loss of the paper labels (typically pasted onto the artifacts), the keys to artifact provenience and the circumstances of collecting were lost. Echoing Tooker’s observation noted earlier, in its own way this information was as important as the artifacts themselves, at least to anthropologists and museum professionals. Hopefully, objects and descriptions could be reunited in some cases to re-access lost provenience and cultural context information (cf. Tooker 1994:xvi). In retrospect, Parker could advise that the most durable labels were made in waterproof ink applied directly to the surface of the artifact. These labels had much greater survivability. Still, Parker reported that 10,000 artifacts had been on display, but only 512 could be identified by labels containing their catalog numbers.
Thus it seems that destruction or damage appears to have been greatest to the most flammable objects themselves, and to the labels of many of the more durable artifacts. Items spared include 50 artifacts from the Morgan collection that Parker earlier had removed to his office for study, plus the portions of the collection that Parker and his assistant were able to carry to safety during the fire: most notably the Converse silver collection, the wampum belts, the archaeological collection from the Ripley site, and the medicine masks. Without directly mentioning actual miracles, Parker seems to be reporting one in the American Anthropologist article: “One of the odd features of the calamity was that hardly a single object connected with the ceremonies of the Iroquois totemic cults or the religious rites was injured.” The hair of the medicine masks was “not even singed.”
What we have to remind us of cultural roots- of who came before us- is extremely fragile, and may be so even when well-cared for, as we have seen in the present-day looting of museums in Iraq and Egypt. On this 100th anniversary of the New York State Capitol fire, it is important to commemorate the courage of Parker and his assistant to rescue the anthropology collection, while we also realize that many others, including fire-fighters and librarians, did what they could to save the building and the State Library on that sad day.
Fenton, William N. (editor)
1968 Parker on the Iroquois. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.
Parker, Arthur C.
1911 Fate of the New York State Collections in Archaeology and Ethnology in the Capitol Fire. American Anthropologist 13:169-171.
1923 Seneca Myths and Folktales. Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo. Reprinted 1989, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
2001 To Be Indian: The Life of Iroquois-Seneca Arthur Caswell Parker. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
1994 Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.