Tuesday, June 4th was an important anniversary. It marked a century since the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment which guaranteed the right for women to vote. One remarkable woman that lived during that time was instrumental in Pennsylvania’s archaeological heritage. Frances Dorrance would have been 41 years old at the time and had already accomplished much. She was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on June 30, 1877 to a prominent family. Her affluence allowed her to attend Wyoming Seminary graduating in 1896 and Vassar College where she graduated in 1900. She also received a degree from the New York School of Library Science at Albany (Kent, 1975).
Frances worked in several libraries over the years, but it was in 1922 that she became the director of the Wyoming Historical and Geologic Society. It was in this capacity that she became interested in archaeology. At that time, knowledge of Pennsylvania’s prehistory was very lacking “in view of the scientific necessity of such a comprehensive study and exploration of the territory, since less is known about the Indian occupation of Pennsylvania than about that of almost any other state in the union” (Dorrance, 1927).
In 1924, Ms. Dorrance began a three-part plan to investigate the eastern part of Pennsylvania, including the 47 counties from the Delaware River to the Allegheny Divide. To begin this endeavor an archaeological survey/questionnaire was developed. More than 13,000 survey questionnaires were sent to “postmasters, foresters, grange and society officers, leaders of groups of people, Boy and Girl Scout leaders, individual collectors and known experts in the region” (Dorrance, 1927). Of the 13,000 distributed, roughly 2,000 were returned with a range of information from offers of assistance, ownership information of more than 1,200 artifact collections and the locations of trails and 1,900 sites. A map of site locations was generated from this information. By 1927 the Pennsylvania Historic Commission (precursor to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC)) took over the responsibility of the Wyoming Valley Survey and included the remaining 20 counties. This was the beginning phase of the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey or PASS files.
The second part of the plan was to investigate the newly identified sites. Many professional organizations offered assistance including the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the National Research Council, the American Museum of Natural History, and many more.
The scientific integrity of the investigations was very important. The third part of the plan was that “An administrative body is to be formed of representatives of the contributing organizations and individuals, and the actual investigations are to be made by trained workers under a Director General” (Dorrance, 1927). This organization would become The Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology that is still going strong today. Frances served as chairman of a committee in 1929 to organize a group of people interested in Pennsylvania’s prehistory. Invitations were sent to about 200 people, of these 19 attended the first meeting of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology on May 6, 1929 at the State Library in Harrisburg. Dr. J. Alden Mason was elected the first president and Frances was elected secretary (Mason, 1930). A position she held until 1934 when she was elected president.
Frances was also instrumental in organizing the EasternStates Archaeological Federation (ESAF). Knowing that the early native inhabitants did not recognize the political boundaries of state lines several state societies decided to join in this federation to share information. She was also a member of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission from 1929-1955 (Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, 1967). In 1952 she was named one of the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania and in 1954 she was the first woman in the country to receive the Distinguished Service Citation from the American Legion. After a long and notable life, Frances Dorrance passed on January 6, 1973 (Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, 1973).
We hope you have enjoyed this profile of this important woman in Pennsylvania’s archaeological heritage and the significant contributions she made to preserving the past. Preservation of our archaeological resources is important to our heritage. Please join us in supporting the efforts of Frances Dorrance in recording and preserving our archaeological sites in Pennsylvania. To learn more about recording sites, please visit https://pahistoricpreservation.com/shpo-electronic-submissions-online-data-entry/.
1927 Archaeological Field Work in North America During 1926. American Anthropologist 29 (2):313- 337
1934 Presidents Letter. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 4 (1):2
1973 Frances Dorrance, 1877-1973. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 45 (1-2): 104-105
Mason, J. Alden
1930 How and Why the Society was Organized. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 1 (1): 4
Wilkes Barre Times Leader
1967 Frances Dorrance “90 Years Young”. The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre Record 29 June Page 12
1973 Miss Frances Dorrance, Member of Distinguished Family, Dies. The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre Record 7 January Page 14
For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .