George Gibbs (geologist)
|Institutions||American Ethnological Society|
George Gibbs (1815–1873) was an American geologist and ethnologist who contributed to the study of the languages of indigenous peoples in Washington Territory. Known for his expertise on Native American customs and languages, Gibbs participated in numerous treaty negotiations between the U.S. government and the native tribes.
Gibbs was born in New York. He graduated Harvard University. He received a law degree. He worked at the American Ethnological Society. He relocated to Astoria, Oregon. He originally aimed to participate in the California Gold Rush. Instead, he became a customs officer in Oregon. In 1844 he annotated a map of the explorations of Jedediah Smith for the Corps of Topographical Engineers.
Northern Railroad Survey
Gibbs was hired by George McClellan, at the age of thirty-eight to work on Northern Railroad Survey. He started studying rocks as a geologist in 1853. As an ethnologist, he also studied languages of the natives for the Pacific Railroad Survey, under command of Isaac Stevens.
He gathered and preserved many specimens for the Smithsonian, which he later supplied to them. Later on, the specimens became a part of Stevens' zoological report.
He told McClellan about the Indians of Washington Territory in 1854, and provided him with what he thought to be an honest information on Native American societies, before the treaty was signed. As soon as he finished with railroad survey, he was hired by Governor Stevens to assist him with the treaties.
He earned a reputation as the "most apt student of the Indian languages and customs in the Northwest", because his skills with Governor Stevens helped convince the natives to sign the treaty. Before the treaty was signed, there was a vigorous debate about how many reservations should be built. Gibbs brought an argument to the "table" that because there was much variety in the Indians' customs and languages, and in their needs for fishing rights, amongst others, many small reservations should be built.
He also was given a job of sending out a census on the Washington Territory's tribes. That resulted into a report that showed marked population decline, comparing to Hudson's Bay Company information, that was a bit older. The decrease in the population was may have been due to epidemics which wiped out a large portion of the tribal population.
The Northwest Boundary Survey
In 1857 he joined The Northwest Boundary Survey, where he served till 1862. Smithsonian Institution of Washington DC has a collection of his papers from that time period. The papers include the notes of his research on the growth of forests in the Washington Territory, dated to 1860.
He spent the last decade of his life in Washington, DC, in which he began studies of Indian languages, while working at the Smithsonian Institution.
- George Gibbs, Indians Tribes of Washington Territory, United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, Washington, 1877. (archive.org copy)
- George Gibbs Papers, circa 1850-1853, 1857-1862, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- George Gibbs biography, "The Treaty Trail: U.S.-Indian Treaty Councils in the Northwest," Washington State History Museum.
- Works by George Gibbs at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about George Gibbs (geologist) in libraries (WorldCat catalog)