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Looking Back--

"On Land Where the Indians Lived"
Harry Martin Trowbridge
A Wyandotte County Avocationalist

Steve Collins

Until the 1930s, the work of avocational archaeologists remained generally unsung. During that decade, American Antiquity began to praise the contribution of some amateurs to archaeology and encouraged their continued involvement in the field [W. C. McKern, 1938, Editorials. American Antiquity 3: 203­205.] Where antiquarians and casual amateurs collected and commercialized artifacts, avocationalists focused their energies on building knowledge through archaeology. They professionalized their contributions, often consulting and working with trained archaeologists, and involved themselves in the national dialogues about the past. The work of Harry Trowbridge stands as a classic illustration of the avocational archaeologist.

Harry Martin Trowbridge (1888­1976) devoted his life to the practice of archaeology and the preservation of prehistory in Wyandotte County, Kansas. Archaeologist James Brown described him as an "unusually good amateur." Waldo Wedel of the National Museum, who coauthored an article with Trowbridge, commented that "I relied on the information I got from Trowbridge." Trowbridge was an amateur who strove for professionalism. Had he not been, more than half the known Spiro Mound textiles now at the Smithsonian Institution, the locations of many artifacts from Craig Mound, and data concerning the Kansas City Hopewell, might never have come to light. He would today be called an avocational archaeologist. He made every effort to authenticate his collection by keeping careful records for each artifact he excavated or collected, and deserves recognition for his accomplishments and his impact on archaeology.

In 1928, Trowbridge purchased a home located almost on top of a Hopwellian site just outside Kansas City, Kansas. When neighbors showed him their collections, he realized there was a village there. This was named the Trowbridge Site and was the first archaeological site to be recorded in Wyandotte County (14WY1). Being a full-time accountant, he explained that "excavations were largely confined to portions of week-ends in the spring and fall . . . Some excavating was done each year over the entire period from 1928 to the time this sheet is being written [February 1, 1942], and will probably be resumed this next spring. This . . . had been known to a few local collectors . . . but it is fairly certain none had done any excavating" (Trowbridge notes, Catalogue No. 2, Trowbridge Collection, Hopewell Village Site in Kansas, 14WY1, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas). Along with the Renner, Deister, and Aker Sites, artifacts from the Trowbridge Site were used as the basis for Johnson's serial ordering of Kansas City Hopewell ceramics (A. E. Johnson and A. S. Johnson, 1975, K-means and Temporal Variability in Kansas City Hopewell Ceramics. American Antiquity 40: 283­295).

Craig Mound face etched into a conch shell from the Trowbridge Collection

Trowbridge excavated his Kansas City Hopewell site from 1928 until 1945. During this phase of the Classificatory-Historical Period, Willey and Sabloff say that "facts were gathered and systematized, and care and exactitude were beginning to be stressed in field and excavation procedures. In both the United States and Canada, amateurs were beginning to be brought under the eye of the professional" (G. W. Willey and J. A. Sabloff, 1993, A History of American Archaeology, pp. 147. University of Pittsburgh, W. H. Freeman, New York). Throughout all his excavations, Trowbridge carefully recorded the context of his artifacts. His field notes of April 16, 1933, described the provenience of a dog burial "on the west side of Robinson Ravine, about 4 spade lengths uphill from the line post set to mark the Robinson-Barnett boundary, and on the Barnett place, (lot 22), at a depth of 5 ft, was unearthed part of the skeleton of a 'dog-like' animal, and other relics of Indian Life." The burial and more than 3,500 artifacts were sketched, numbered, and catalogued. Trowbridge also used photographs in coordination with sketches to preserve a more accurate representation of his artifacts. He placed all his data in a long series of catalogues, scrapbooks, and notebooks.

Trowbridge experimented with techniques to preserve his finds. "Ambroid liquid cement and thinner . . . were used to strengthen some weak places . . . in the bones of the [dog] skull" (Trowbridge notes, Catalogue No. 2, Trowbridge Collection, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas). In 1931, Trowbridge found a large piece of pottery in very fragile condition. Applying flour paste and writing paper to the exposed side of the pottery, he successfully reconstructed about one-fourth of the vessel.

Trowbridge's careful field notes helped him reconstruct pottery vessels, the parts of which were excavated several years apart. These reconstructions would have been impossible had he not kept precise records, but Trowbridge was determined to record and preserve his finds.

The archaeological community was shocked when the Pocola Mining company dug up artifacts from Craig Mound near Spiro, Oklahoma, solely for commercial reasons. Warren K. Moorehead, director of archaeology at Phillips Academy (Massachussetts), declared that "the destruction of the Oklahoma mound was an archaeological crime." Wedel bemoaned the "very unfortunate manner in which the antiquities have been excavated and sold for private gain." Richard G. Morgan, curator of archaeology of the Ohio State Archaeological Society, felt it was a tragedy that the artifacts had been "scattered all over this country." Trowbridge, however, had familiarized himself with the known artifacts from this site.

The first relic hunter at Craig Mound, J. W. Balloun, learned of Trowbridge through a fellow collector, J. G. Braecklein, and visited Trowbridge. Balloun had uncovered what he claimed to be textiles from the central mound at Spiro. Trowbridge recalled that "I rubbed my eyes several times. It seemed unbelievable that mound-builders' fabrics should be in that box, and yet the mass of dirty, lime-bearing material had every indication of being genuine" (Trowbridge to Moorehead, July 31, 1937, Scrapbook No. 6, Trowbridge Collection, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas). Trowbridge felt he had to respond quickly:

I did not remember seeing or reading about any except very small bits of fabrics salvaged from mounds. If this was genuine mound-builders textiles, I thought I had a duty to perform right then, as it was plain that the relics would be scattered the next day, and few would have the interest to preserve them as they should. Consequently the risk was assumed, and as every inquiry made afterward, pointed to their genuineness, I bought all this vendor had (Trowbridge to H. C. Shetrone, director of the Ohio State Museum, Columbus, Ohio, Dec. 25, 1936, ibid).

The cache included copper sheeting, beads, engraved conch shells, and textiles from the central chamber at Craig Mound. Trowbridge knew he had purchased important Spiro artifacts and focused his attention on the preservation of the textiles. Over the next two years, Trowbridge slowly unfolded, stretched, and cleaned thousands of particles of lime from the textiles to preserve the ancient cloths. Trowbridge traveled to Spiro Mound on a Labor Day weekend to survey the mounds. Luckily for archaeology, he interviewed both John Hobbs, and W. G. Cooper, two of the original Pocola diggers. Both men drew maps of the central mound and noted their recollections of the locations where they had discovered artifacts.

Trowbridge was referred to Wedel by A. T. Hill, director of the Nebraska Historical Society. He wrote to Wedel describing the Spiro textiles and his efforts to preserve them. They became friends and through their association, Trowbridge was introduced to other professionals whose assistance he sought in analyzing the textiles. Although Trowbridge had previously published a paper on the textiles based on a Bureau of Standards Report (H. M. Trowbridge, 1944, The Trowbridge Collection of Spiro Mound Artifacts, Journal of the Illinois Archaeological Society July: 21­23), he sought to refine the analysis through correspondence with Charles C. Willoughby of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Willoughby advised him on the best techniques for preservation of his textiles and, from samples provided by Trowbridge, identified the Spiro weaving techniquesthe simple twined and twill-twined weaves. Willoughby provided Trowbridge with diagrams of each type and congratulated him on his excellent treatment of the textiles. To house the textiles, Trowbridge eventually built a fireproof and humidity-controlled vault in his private museum in the basement of his home.

Trowbridge wrote the National Museum of Natural History to solicit further information for understanding the textiles. A. C. Whitford, a research scientist associated with the Smithsonian, wrote to Trowbridge, asking to analyze the materials for his study of Native American textile fibers. Whitford used photomicrography to analyze the textile samples sent by Trowbridge and concluded that most of the textiles had been made from muskrat and jackrabbit. Whitford introduced Trowbridge to New York textile manufacturer Sylvan Stroock because of Stroock's interest in the textiles for contemporary manufacturing purposes. Trowbridge anticipated the field of applied archaeology when he told Stroock:

. . . your linking up in a study of these Spiro textiles, the prehistoric with the most recent weaving, and largely from a practical business standpoint, has a significance which I believe will, if known, be grasped by all students of archaeology and its kindred sciences . . . and proves archaeology may be of value even in the realm of modern business (Trowbridge to Stroock, January 10, 1941, Scrapbook No. 6, Trowbridge Collection, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas).

Trowbridge is the only contributor to the Smithsonian Spiro collection who carefully catalogued his records. Recognizing the value of his collection, the Smithsonian paid him $20,000 for the accession in 1960. Trowbridge also published two of the earliest articles concerning these textiles [H. M. Trowbridge, 1938, Analysis of Spiro Mound Textiles. American Antiquity 4: 51­53; 1944, The Trowbridge Collection of Spiro Mound Artifacts. Journal of the Illinois Archaeological Society July: 21­23].

By 1939, Trowbridge was again regularly excavating the Trowbridge Site. He considered the discovery of a worked bone (HMT Cat. No. 1894) to be the most significant artifact recovered. This specimen was found in characteristic camp refuse without any unusual features. However, worked bone at the site had been rare. This bone was notched and mushroom-shaped. Trowbridge believed it to be a tool used to create uniform designs on Hopewell pottery. Wedel agreed and speculated that the uniformly carved bone solved a long-standing puzzle:

Many years ago Professor Holmes suggested the probability that certain pottery types of the mound area were ornamented with a roulette . . . Since no tool of this nature has ever been recovered, the existence of the type has been challenged and it has become customary to refer to the markings as dentate stamp. Your find, in my opinion, vindicates Holmes' original suggestion (Wedel to Trowbridge, January 25, 1940, Scrapbook No. 6, Trowbridge Collection, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas).

The bone was identified as a roulette marker. Wedel was so impressed that he asked Trowbridge to coauthor "A Prehistoric Roulette from Wyandotte County, Kansas" (W. R. Wedel and H. M. Trowbridge, 1940, Proceedings of the U. S. National Museum 88: 3091).

Trowbridge had always been concerned with the permanent curation of his collection and wanted a regional museum of archaeology to be built in or near Kansas City. But before a museum in Wyandotte County was constructed, he loaned his collection of Hopewell and Spiro artifacts to the Kansas City Museum. They built a specially designed fireproof room to house his textiles. However, disagreements over presentation of his artifacts resulted in his removal of the collection in 1958.

This event lead Trowbridge to work toward what was to become the Wyandotte County Museum. Trowbridge successfully lobbied for a special county tax to support the museum. He personally supervised the architecture of the original building, and with the funds from the sale of his collection to the Smithsonian, he financed the construction of a Trowbridge wing to the museum to house and display his remaining personal belongings and artifacts. His personal papers and research catalogues are now in the Harry Trowbridge Research Room of the museum. Museum archivist John Nichols recently commented that without Trowbridge's tireless effort and financial support, the museum would not exist.

Trowbridge has a distinguished history of promoting an understanding of Native Americans and educating the public. He arranged countless tours through his home museum, hosting guests ranging from high-school students to nationally-known archaeologists. Steve Dolinar, a Trowbridge neighbor, informed me that while others criticized Native Americans, "Harry Trowbridge was interested in the anthropology of the Indians. That's one reason I admired Harry. You know he even built his home on land where the Indians lived."

When economic development threatened the Huron Cemetery, a Wyandot Indian cemetery in Kansas City, Trowbridge played a major role in protecting it, even corresponding with President Harry S. Truman to enlist his support (President Truman to Trowbridge, March 13, 1959; Trowbridge to President Truman March 7, 1959; April 30, 1959. Vault of Harry Trowbridge Research Library, Trowbridge Collection, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas.) Not only did he care deeply about the artifacts he collected, but Trowbridge carried the concept of preservation into the community in which he lived.

Harry Martin Trowbridge devoted his life to the collection, preservation, and display of Native American artifacts. He was no mere amateur or pot-hunter, wanting simply to collect artifacts; he strove to preserve them and use them to educate those interested in the prehistoric past. Trowbridge was an avid reader and student of history, but he recognized his limitations and consulted professional archaeologists. When necessary, he tenaciously pursued their opinions to identify the important artifacts he excavated and collected. Wedel and others visited his home to view his famous museum, and Neil Judd, curator of the Division of Archaeology of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote that he hoped to come to Kansas City, "if only to see the treasures you have brought together" (Judd to Trowbridge, September 8, 1938, Scrapbook No. 6, Trowbridge Collection, Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas). Trowbridge's work impressed the professional community with the seriousness of his commitment and in turn, it helped him make his invaluable information accessible to the public.

Craig Mound design etched into a conch shell from the Trowbridge Collection

Trowbridge's work contributed to the national dialogue about two significant archaeological culturesthe Kansas City Hopewell and the Spiroan Southern Ceremonial Cult. His contributions to the field prompted Warren K. Moorehead to endorse his membership in the Society for American Archaeology. In November 16, 1937, W. C. McKern, then-editor of American Antiquity, wrote to him, "you are, in my estimation, the type of student-collector most needed in our organization."

Trowbridge promoted the appreciation of archaeology and the preservation of the prehistoric past through educational tours of his home museum; he helped preserve many local sites, including the Huron Cemetery, after which the county and museum are named; he loaned his collection to local and national museums, eventually selling a majority of his specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. Trow-bridge wished his collection to be preserved for others to study after his death. His collections may today be seen both at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum and the Trowbridge Wing of the Wyandotte County Museum. Harry Trowbridge thought of himself as a "serious amateur," yet he strove for professionalism in every aspect of his work. Without his careful preservation of the artifacts he collected, a significant archaeological link with our collective past would be lost forever. ·

Steve Collins is at the Department of Anthropology at the Kansas City Community College.

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