Speck, Frank G.

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Speck, Frank G.



Frank Gouldsmith Speck (1881-1950), American anthropologist, was born in Brooklyn, New York. After being trained by Franz Boas at Columbia University, he became a Harrison fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in 1907 and founded the department of anthropology there. Under his leadership a program of undergraduate and graduate instruction was initiated. He remained the senior member of the department for forty years and was chairman for most of this period. He was the author of the first monograph in the “Anthropological Publications” that the museum of the University of Pennsylvania began to publish in 1909, and he was the founder of the Philadelphia Anthropological Society, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1962.

Speck’s boyhood interest in Indians, natural history, and languages reached scholarly fruition in his mature years, when the wide range of his specialized interests and the nature of his field work made him a unique figure in American anthropology. His interest in the field of natural history, combined with his anthropological knowledge, led to pioneer articles in “ethnoscience,” such as his “Ethnoherpetology of the Catawba and Cherokee Indians” (1946). While still an undergraduate he became interested in eastern Algonquian languages (Pequot-Mohegan and Delaware Mohican), which were thought by some to have already died out; however, he found and interviewed surviving speakers of these languages. This continuing interest in retrieving Indian languages from oblivion gave Speck a head start in anthropological linguistics and set a pattern for further studies. He expanded his knowledge to include other Algonquian tongues, learning to speak several of them and recording texts. Speck attained competence in the languages of four other linguistic stocks: Uchean, Muskhogean, Siouan, and Iroquoian. In his Catawba Texts (1934) he salvaged all that he could from the last speakers of this eastern Siouan language.

Speck did his first ethnological field work in 1904 among the displaced Yuchi of Oklahoma, when the state was still the Indian Territory (1909; 1910). He also published material on southeastern Indians: Creek (1907a), Chickasaw (1907b), and Osage (1907c). The investigation of the remnants of the Algonquian tribes of the eastern United States occupied him for many years thereafter. In his last years he studied Iroquois groups, stimulating a fruitful revival of interest in these Indians. Thus, while other American ethnologists were devoting themselves chiefly to Indians west of the Mississippi, Speck, almost singlehanded, was surveying Indian communities of Algonquian tradition, however much acculturated, from Labrador, through New England, Delaware, and Virginia, to the few surviving Machapunga in North Carolina. Few ethnologists have been known personally in so many communities or over so wide a geographical area or been so warmly welcomed. Speck studied Indians with delight, lived with them, and befriended them.

In addition to his work on languages, Speck collected a formidable body of folklore, some in text; did pioneer work in ethnomusicology, beginning with his publication of Ceremonial Songs of the Creek and Yuchi Indians (1911); studied religious beliefs with particular interest; and systematically collected material on decorative art and technology. His monographs cover such subjects as moose-hair embroidery, wampum, Cherokee basketry, the use of birch bark, gourds and masks, the double-curve motif in decorative art, and shamanism. Speck’s discovery of the hunting-territory system of the northern Algonquians is well known, as is his defense of its aboriginality as a form of private property. This ran counter to the then current unilinear doctrine of cultural evolution, according to which this form of ownership was impossible at the hunting stage of human development. He began mapping hunting territories before 1915. His empirical approach prepared him for local variations and led him to modify some of his original conceptions. In the 1920s he also made and published detailed and definitive maps of the linguistic and ethnic boundaries of the Indians of southern New England. His monographic studies of the Naskapi (1935) and the Penobscot (1940) are among the few publications available that give a rounded picture of the life of the Indians of the eastern woodlands.

Speck’s interest in arts and crafts led to indefatigable collecting, which became an integral part of his field work. Although no precise records are available, thousands of objects must have passed through his hands in the course of his career. In addition to the museum of the University of Pennsylvania, half a dozen other museums in the United States and several in Canada benefited from his collecting activity, as did the Pitt-Rivers Museum in England and the Danish National Museum.

The details that reached the printed page in Speck’s work were never assembled in haste. They were always evaluated against a wide-ranging and masterly knowledge of relevant linguistic and ethnographic facts and historical documents. Speck was always an ethnohistorian, although this term appears only in his later writings. In this perspective particularly, the geographical scope, variety, and quality of his observations and interpretations of data can be seen as a unique contribution to North American ethnology.

A. Irving Hallowell

[See alsoIndians, North American; and the biographies ofBoas; KROEBER.]


1907a The Creek Indians of Taskigi Town. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, Vol. 2, part 2. Lancaster, Pa.: New Era.

1907b Notes on Chickasaw Ethnology and Folk-lore. Journal of American Folk-lore 20:50-58.

1907c Notes on the Ethnology of the Osage Indians. Pennsylvania, University of, Department of Archaeology, Transactions 2, part 2:159-171.

1909 Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians. University of Pennsylvania, Museum Anthropological Publications, Vol. 1, no. 1. Philadelphia: The Museum.

1910 Yuchi. Pages 1003-1007 in Handbook of American Indians. Washington: U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology.

1911 Ceremonial Songs of the Creek and Yuchi Indians. University of Pennsylvania, Museum Anthropological Publications, Vol. 1, no. 2. Philadelphia: The Museum.

1934 Catawba Texts. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1935 Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

1940 Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

1946 Ethnoherpetology of the Catawba and Cherokee Indians. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 36:355-360.


Hallowell, A. Irving 1951 Frank Gouldsmith Speck: 1881-1950. American Anthropologist New Series 53: 67-75.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1951 The Frank G. Speck Collection. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 95:286-289.

Witthoft, John 1951 Anthropological Bibliography: 1903-1950. American Anthropologist New Series 53: 75-87.