Swanton, John Reed
Swanton, John Reed
John R. Swanton (1873-1958) spent his entire scientific career at one institution, the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution. No other staff member has exemplified more faithfully the bureau’s tradition of historical anthropology, and none has left a larger monument of accomplishment. Born in Gardiner, Maine, Swanton was trained at Harvard, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1896 and his master’s in 1897. After two years of graduate study in ethnology and linguistics under Franz Boas at Columbia, he was awarded the PH.D. at Harvard in 1900 and immediately joined the staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology, where he remained until his retirement in 1944.
Swanton’s first field work was in British Columbia in 1900-1901 and southeast Alaska in 1903-1904 as a member of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition organized by Boas. He contributed two volumes on the Haida Indians to the Jesup expedition monograph series: Contributions to the Ethnography of the Haida (1905a) and Haida Texts —Masset Dialect (1908a). The former is still regarded as the definitive work on this tribe. In all, Swanton wrote some twenty monographs and papers on the languages, ethnology, and folklore of the Northwest Coast Indians, including one of the basic works on the Tlingit: “Social Conditions, Beliefs, and Linguistic Relationship of the Tlingit Indians” (1908b).
Swanton’s Northwest Coast work led to further and highly significant contributions to ethnological theory. He was the first to oppose the nineteenth-century dogma of linear evolutionism, which postulated a universal progression from original promiscuity, through group marriage to matrilineal clans, then to patrilineal clans, and finally to the bilateral family and patrilineal descent. In three papers (see 1904; 1905b; 1906) Swanton showed that the clan structure was absent among many of the most primitive American groups, while the individual family was universally present; that tribes having matrilineal clans were for the most part more culturally advanced than those which were clanless or traced descent in the paternal line; that there was no evidence that maternal descent had preceded paternal descent or that any system of kinship was correlated with any stage of cultural development.
Around 1905 Swanton’s interests shifted to the southeastern United States, which became his permanent area of specialization. It was an area peculiarly suited to his talents and interests. The smaller tribes had disappeared completely; and the larger ones, such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Caddo, had long since been removed to reservations in Indian Territory. Field work among these highly acculturated groups could in itself yield only meager results to an ethnologist bent on reconstructing their early history and culture, although Swanton did make an assiduous effort, on numerous field trips, to extract as much information as possible. Fortunately, however, there was an abundance of documentary material—Spanish, French, English, and American—on the southeastern Indians, beginning with the chronicles of the De Soto expedition of 1540; and Swanton utilized this mine of information most effectively. With an unsurpassed knowledge of the historical literature, supplemented by gleanings from his own field work, he produced 16 large monographs and over one hundred shorter papers, in which he recorded everything that was known on the early history, tribal movements, languages, social organization, material culture, and religion of the Natchez, Chitimacha, Atakapa, Caddo, Timucua, Tunica, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other Muskhogean and Siouan tribes of the area. These massive contributions to the aboriginal history of the southeast, with their skillful meshing of ethnology and history, laid the groundwork for the discipline now known as ethnohistory.
Swanton was one of the founders of the American Anthropological Association and later its president and the editor of its journal, the American Anthropologist. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and served as president of the American Folklore Society, president of the Anthropological Society of Washington, and chairman of the U.S. De Soto Expedition Commission. He was awarded the Loubat Prize and the Viking Fund Medal in recognition of his monumental contributions to anthropology. In 1940, on the occasion of his fortieth year with the Smithsonian Institution, his colleagues honored him with a volume, Essays in Historical Anthropology of North America in Honor of John R. Swanton.
Swanton was a lifelong adherent of the Swedenborgian faith. He was a kind and gentle man, a man of high ideals with a deep sense of social justice and fairness. He was modest to the point of shyness, yet courageous and determined in opposing any form of intolerance, aggression, or injustice.
Henry B. Collins
[Directly related are History, article onethnohistory;Indians, North American; and the biography of Boas
1904 The Development of the Clan System and of Secret Societies Among the Northwestern Tribes. American Anthropologist New Series 6:477-485.
1905a Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida. American Museum of Natural History, Memoirs, Vol. 8, Pt. 1. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill; New York: Stechert.
1905b The Social Organization of American Tribes. American Anthropologist New Series 7:663-673.
1905c Haida Texts and Myths. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 29. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1908a Haida Texts—Masset Dialect. American Museum of Natural History, Memoirs, Vol. 14, Part 2. New York: Stechert.
1908b Social Conditions, Beliefs, and Linguistic Relationship of the Tlingit Indians. Pages 391-486 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Twenty-sixth Annual Report. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1909 Tlingit Myths and Texts. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 39. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1911 Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of Mexico. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 43. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1911 Thomas, Cyrus; and Swanton, John ReedIndian Languages of Mexico and Central America and Their Geographical Distribution. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 44. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1912 Dorsey, James O.; and Swanton, John ReedA Dictionary of the Biloxi and Ofo Languages. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 47. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1919 A Structural and Lexical Comparison of the Tunica, Chitimacha, and Atakapa Languages. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 68. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1922 Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 73. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1928 Social Organization and Social Usages of the Indians of the Creek Confederacy. Pages 23-472 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Forty-second Annual Report. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1931 Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 103. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1942 Source Material on the History and Ethnology of the Caddo Indians. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 132. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1946 The Indians of the Southeastern United States. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 137. Washington: Government Printing Office.
1952 The Indian Tribes of North America. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 145. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Fenton, William N. 1959 John Reed Swanton: 1873-1958. American Anthropologist New Series 61:663-668.
Kroeber, A. L. 1940 The Work of John R. Swanton. Pages 1-9 in Smithsonian Institution, Essays in Historical Anthropology of North America in Honor of John R. Swanton. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 100. Washington: The Institution.
Smithsonian Institution 1940 Essays in Historical Anthropology of North America in Honor of John R. Swanton. Washington: The Institution.
Steward, Julian H. 1960 John Reed Swanton. Volume 34, pages 329-349 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington: The Academy.