History - the Necklace

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Post-Expedition History

Like a hibernating bear, the grizzly claw necklace remained physically secluded and "off the record" for decades in a Peabody Museum storage room.  Institutional records were unclear as to whether [or not] it had become part of the collection along with other Lewis and Clark objects that were received from the Boston Museum in 1899.  When the Peabody conducted extensive research to identify those expedition related materials, the bear claw necklace could not be located. Then, suddenly, it surfaced in December, 2003, immediately following the installation of a major exhibition of the Peabody Museum's Lewis and Clark collection. Native American elders had guided the exhibit installation process by praying with, speaking to, and handling the objects and by blessing the gallery space and involved museum staff. Since human relationships with bears are everywhere propitiated by ritual, it seemed entirely fitting that the long-dormant necklace should emergence in response to this concentration of energy and activity.

The dramatic "rediscovery" of an important expedition artifact was announced in a New York Times article in early 2004, generating a swell of media attention during the early bicentennial commemoration. The discovery of unrecognized treasures in attics or museum collections is always compelling, and artifacts associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition are rare.  A subsequent editorial observed that while the "point of a museum" is not only to house but to control objects, the reappearance of the necklace made it seem "all the more remarkable – as if it had come fresh from the hands of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark."1

The magic of such "lost and found" stories is of course conjured up by prosaic factors – large collections, old, historic and/or poor records, generations of staff, changing technologies and methods for collections care and management, coupled with a lack of human and fiscal resources. When building their collections during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many institutions acquired materials with little or no provenance (known history), and collections management was in its infancy. Museums and other repositories have by and large been chronically under-staffed and under-funded, while the costs of collections management and care have sky-rocketed in recent decades. Until such work was mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, prompting Harvard University to fund a temporary staff expansion, the Peabody lacked the resources necessary to conduct a thorough inventory of its extensive holdings, which total some 600,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world. Likewise, the Lewis and Clark bicentennial prompted the first comprehensive study of its well-known but poorly understood "Lewis and Clark collection," which proved to be a considerable endeavor.2 Happily, these two initiatives converged at just the right time, so that when the inventory team found this necklace, its identity was recognized.

The known history of the grizzly necklace began when it entered the crowded, eclectic halls of early America's first major museum, established in Philadelphia by the artist and philosopher Charles Wilson Peale in 1795.  At various times, President Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark all presented Peale with Native American and natural history objects acquired on the expedition.  Peale listed most of these acquisitions in his museum ledger, but the objects are described in a regrettably cursory fashion. A microfilm version of Peale's "Memoranda of the Philadelphia Museum" (housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania) and the transcription of his December, 1809 Lewis and Clark list reprinted by Donald Jackson3 guided our search at the Peabody for former Peale Museum materials. Not surprisingly, it soon became evident that Peale's museum records were incomplete.

Unfortunately, the grizzly claw necklace is one of several expedition artifacts that do not appear on Peale's 1809 list. Part of the explanation for this omission may be that Peale never entered into the ledger an account of the objects he received after the unexpected death of Meriwether Lewis, which arrived in Philadelphia with no documentation. More generally, while Peale was unusually conscientious, record keeping was not a focus during the formative era of museums, when even the largest of such institutions were generally managed by individuals and their families. Neither Peale nor the Boston Museum seem to have created numeric catalogues of their holdings, and none of their former objects now at the Peabody were physically labeled or marked in any fashion that would facilitate intellectual control.

Peale did, however, create an exhibit that framed Lewis and Clark as cross-cultural diplomats among the Indians, featuring a wax figure of Lewis dressed in garments given to him by the Shoshone leader Cameahwait and holding a calumet pipe (now lost).  As documented by a floor plan of the museum circa 1820,4 this thematic installation kept his expedition-related objects in a discrete group, and the arrangement seems to have survived until 1848, when the contents of the museum were catalogued for a sheriff's sale.5 Peale's Lewis and Clark exhibit also apparently necessitated the creation of hand-written labels to explain the garments, pipes, and other expedition objects placed on display..

The Peale Museum closed in 1846, and by 1849, a portion of the widely-dispersed contents had been jointly purchased by P.T. Barnum and Moses Kimball, proprietor of the Boston Museum. Kimball had assembled his museum by purchasing the defunct New England Museum and other failed museum enterprises in the Boston area. Fortunately, Kimball seems to have received most of Peale's Lewis and Clark materials, because Barnum's several museum ventures were destroyed by fire. By 1850, there was virtually no public interest in the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the scant surviving records suggest that neither Barnum's American Museum in New York nor the Boston Museum drew attention to related artifacts. After Moses Kimball retired in 1860, the focus of the museum shifted to theatrical performances. In 1893, the Boston Museum began transferring their natural history specimens – some of which had also belonged to Peale – to the Boston Society of Natural History. The bird specimens were sold to a society member and stored in his barn. Although later redeemed by the Society, unfortunately the birds were removed from their mounts and their labels lost before the tattered collection found refuge at Harvard's Zoological Museum (now Museum of Natural History). Only one of those specimens, Lewis's woodpecker, (Melanerpes lewis) has been successfully identified as an expedition artifact, and it is now regarded as priceless.

Following an 1899 gallery fire, the disenchanted Kimball heirs (several of whom were Harvard graduates) next invited the Peabody to select surviving cultural materials for the museum's expanding teaching collections. Curator (and later director) Charles C. Willoughby chose 1441 objects from around the world, which were conveyed from Boston to Cambridge by horse-drawn wagon. Among them were many treasures from Peale's ill-fated collections, including the famous "Feejee Mermaid," the remnants of Lewis and Clark's Native American materials, and George Washington's blue watered silk sash, to name but a few. The Boston Museum collection was recorded in the Peabody's large leather ledger book as accession 1899-12.

Fortunately, Willoughby also secured an assortment of original object labels, although they had become disassociated from their referents. The labels are themselves fascinating and tactile artifacts, richly resonant of nineteenth century museum cultures. Some of the labels were hand-written in cursive script with sepia ink and a dip pen, others printed in block letters on stiff, heavy paper or on the reverse side of admission tickets; two remain glued to a page marked "Aug 6, 1834." In 1901, Mr. J.D. Sornborger of the Boston Society of Natural History hand-carried the surviving labels to Philadelphia, where they were examined by several of Peale's grandchildren. The descendants identified the handwriting styles of Charles W. Peale and his sons Franklin and Titian, and sorted the labels accordingly. Once the labels were returned to the Peabody, Willoughby pasted many of them into a notebook, hoping to match them to objects in the newly acquired Boston Museum collection.

Figure 2

Original Peale Museum label with later Peabody Museum annotation.

Among the several labels believed to have been penned by Franklin Peale (1795-1870) is the one shown above (Figure 2). At some point the penciled annotation was added:  "Not received by Peabody Museum – Reserved by Kimball heirs." Two other Peale labels also refer to grizzly claw ornaments. But Willoughby – who also relied on a transcription of Peale's ledger to guide his research on the former Boston Museum materials – made no mention of grizzly claw objects in his 1905 article on the Peabody's Lewis and Clark collection6.

When we began investigating the collection in 1997 we hoped that the ambiguity of this record indicated that the necklace might be in the museum, and we searched for it diligently. The only grizzly-related objects identified as a potential match for an extant Peale label were two single grizzly claws that seemed once to have been part of a necklace. The claws and the label are discussed (p. 260) in Chapter 9 of Arts of Diplomacy, which deals with objects that might have been brought back by Lewis and Clark, but lack sufficient documentation to confirm it as fact.

There things stood, until the necklace – carefully stored in a custom-made container – was located by two staff members while inventorying the Oceanic storeroom and who recognized it as a North American bear claw necklace. A quick check of the files revealed that it had been donated to the museum in 1941 by a female Kimball family descendant with a different married name. At that time, and for decades thereafter, the Peabody was staffed primarily by Harvard students and by volunteers.

Figure 3

Fragmentary whale tooth necklace donated to the Peabody Museum
at the same time as the grizzly claw necklace.

Because the grizzly claw necklace was accepted in a group of ten objects from the Pacific Islands, which also included a fragmentary whale tooth necklace (Figure 3), it was catalogued as a "neck ornament of claws in imitation of a whale tooth necklace." Today this seems inconceivable, but it is an interesting error. Obviously the cataloger was familiar with necklaces made from sperm whale teeth, which were important in the nineteenth century China trade because they were so highly prized by Tongan, Fijian, and Samoan chiefs. Whale tooth necklaces were made in several conventional forms, including a "saber-toothed" style in which long tooth fragments modified to resemble the teeth or claws of predators were strung in graduated lengths.7 This basic design pattern is indeed shared by most North American bear claw necklaces. Yet the cataloguer felt something was not quite "right," so she described it as an "imitation," perhaps also aware that visual punning and the production of "fau"X shell and bone carvings was widely practiced in Polynesia. At any rate, after being catalogued, the necklace was housed in a supportive container and placed among the Polynesian artifacts.

We now surmise that the grizzly claw necklace did come to the Peabody as part of the initial 1899 gift, but was subsequently withdrawn when a family representative reviewed Willoughby's choices, leaving only the Peale label in the museum archives.  A generation or two later, the necklace was returned to the museum along with other former Boston Museum artifacts. According to museum correspondence files, by the 1970s few members of the Kimball family remembered that their ancestor had ever given Harvard such a large and important collection.


1. "Lost Gift to Lewis and Clark Is Found," The New York Times, January 21, 2004. Editorial, "An Unexpected Artifact" The New York Times, January 22, 2004.

2. Castle McLaughlin, Arts of Diplomacy: Lewis and Clark's Indian Collection (Cambridge, Massachusetts and Seattle: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Universityof Washington Press, 2003).

3. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with related Documents, 1783-1854, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:476-79.

4. David R. Brigham, Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale's Museum and its Audience (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 108.

5. Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale's Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art (New York: Norton, 1980), 312-16.

6. Charles C. Willoughby, "A Few Ethnological Specimens Collected by Lewis and Clark," American Anthropologist, vol. 7, no. 4 (1905), 633-641.

6. Fergus Clunie, Yalo I Viti; Shades of Viti: A Fiji Museum Catalogue, (Suva, Fiji: Fiji Museum, 1986), 49; Fig. 3.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program