Friday, February 28, 2020

Important Women in Pennsylvania Archaeology - Dorothy Preston Skinner

In the Archives of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) is a notable, but little-known document prepared by a woman who is equally as elusive as her manuscript. The manuscript Seneca Notes, collected by Dorothy P. Skinner, on the Allegheny Reservation, New York, 1928 and Cornplanter Reservation, Pennsylvania, 1929 documents cultural and religious beliefs of the Seneca Indians.  Dorothy Skinner was the widow of Alanson B. Skinner who was an anthropologist for the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian in New York. Dorothy was a member of the Wyandot tribe, the Deer clan. Alanson had participated in the Susquehanna Archaeological Expedition of 1916 and was known by members of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (precursor to the PHMC), including Frances Dorrance. It may have been this connection, or the fact that Alanson was tragically killed in a car accident in 1925 that led to Dorothy’s employment with the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC).   Research of Dorothy doesn’t indicate she had received any formal training prior to employment with the PHC.
Dorothy was hired to continue the work of Frances Dorrance in compiling the Indian Survey data. The Indian Survey was recognized at the state (Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies) and national level (American Anthropological Association) as monumental advance in site recording. Dorrance received much of the credit for her systematic organization of the project.  Miss Dorrance prepared a report of the project at the request of the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters in 1928. Published in the Bulletin of the League and recognized for its significant data- the publicity drew the attention of leading scholars who determined the need to conduct scientific field work on the most significant of the recorded sites.

                                             Schoolhouse on the Cornplanter reservation, 1929

Miss Dorrance’s survey had gathered much information, primarily from the central and eastern counties. Dorothy Skinner was hired to conduct a preliminary survey of western Pennsylvania counties and to inspect the collections of individuals who had completed the survey form.   Her photographs, recording of archaeological sites and documentation of artifacts laid the groundwork for future field investigations.  While working on the Indian survey, Dorothy spent several weeks in 1928 on the Allegheny Indian Reservation in New York, returning in 1929 to the Cornplanter Reservation, Warren county, Pennsylvania.  Her observations of their living conditions, work ethic and cultural traditions documented the lifeways of the Seneca prior to their removal fromthe Cornplanter tract. Her contribution to the ethnological record of the Seneca and Shawnee tribes is irreplaceable. The photographs which capture the faces or as Dorothy described them “hard working people, struggling along for a mere existence.” Dorothy couldn’t have imagined the construction of the Kinzua dam when she wrote “ Most of the customs of the old days have disappeared on the Cornplanter reservation and there will probably be a time when there will be no more Seneca living there.” (PA Archaeologist V.3, No.5)

                                         Calico Dress collected by Dorothy Skinner in 1929

The ethnographic pieces collected by Dorothy include a calico dress with a ribbon trim, believed to date to the late 19th or early 20th century. Unfortunately, sixty recordings made on Dictaphone which were noted in manuscripts, along with still and motion pictures have not been located.  Dorothy is noted in our records as traveling to Oklahoma to document the culture history of the Shawnee in 1930 but was apparently no longer working for the PHC.

                                Members of the Seneca tribe living on the Cornplanter tract in 1929 

At some time in the early 1930’s Dorothy was accepted into an apprentice position at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. Included in the collections of the museum are beaded cradle ornaments, attributed to the late 19th- early 20th century; North Dakota, South Dakota; gift of Dorothy P. Skinner, 1942.
The legacy of Dorothy Skinner and her work in documenting the culture history of so many indigenous people were and continue to be an important tool in our understanding of cultural heritage and a useful tool in predicting culture change. The stories which were carried forward from generation to generation helped to explain the world around them.    Ceremonies often honored the seasons and changes in food resources. As recorded by Dorothy, “the Maple Festival ceremony is held every Spring shortly after the sap begins to run. It is called in Seneca “En-nōh-ches-gŭoh” and means boiling mush. The festival lasts only one day. The morning is devoted to the ceremonies which include the dance of the O”-ga-we and the woman’s dance, and then the playing of the bowl and counter game. The food that is served at noon is sweetened corn meal mush and sometimes hominy soup to which has been added maple sugar. “  Celebrating the harvest of whatever was being harvested is a common practice that we can all relate to and understand. Being thankful for what the earth has provided is important and a lesson we can learn from in today’s world as well.
 We hope you have enjoyed this post about another significant woman who has contributed so much to the anthropological and archaeological record of Pennsylvania. We hope you will be inspired to read more about the Seneca Indians and the indigenous peoples from your community who have contributed so much to our heritage. Please help us to preserve and appreciate the past. To learn more about the Indian tribes who lived in Pennsylvania, please visit our gallery in The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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