Frank Speck

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Frank Speck
Born November 8, 1881
Died February 6, 1950
Nationality United States
Fields anthropology
Institutions University of Pennsylvania
Alma mater University of Pennsylvania.
Known for Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples
Influences Franz Boas

Frank Gouldsmith Speck (November 8, 1881 – February 6, 1950) was an American anthropologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples among the Eastern Woodland Native Americans of the United States and First Nations peoples of eastern boreal Canada.

Early life and education[edit]

Frank Gouldsmith Speck, son of Frank G. and Hattie Speck, was raised in urban settings (in Brooklyn, New York and Hackensack, New Jersey), with occasional summer family sojourns to rural Connecticut. He had two siblings: a sister, Gladys H. (8 years younger), and brother Reinhard S. (9 years younger). The Speck family was well-to-do, with live-in servants that included a German woman, Anna Muller, and a mixed Native American/African American woman, Gussie Giles from South Carolina. Around 1910, Frank married Florence Insley, from Rockland, New York, and they raised three children: Frank S., Alberta R., and Virgina C. Speck. The family lived in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, also keeping a summer home near Gloucester, Massachusetts.[1]

As a young man, Frank developed an affinity for forests and swamps and wild landscapes, and for the Native people who lived in these locales. These interests inspired him to pursue anthropological studies. He was accepted into Columbia University in 1899. After working closely with professor and linguist John Dyneley Prince, who encouraged his interests in Native American Indian language and culture, he was introduced to anthropologist Franz Boas.

Around 1900, during a summer camping trip to Fort Shantok, Connecticut, while on break from Columbia. Speck was surprised to encounter a group of Mohegan Indian young men about his own age. Burrill Fielding, Jerome Roscoe Skeesucks, and Edwin Fowler introduced him to about 80 other members of their tribe living in Uncasville, near Fort Shantok, in Mohegan, Connecticut. Speck took a particular interest in Fidelia Fielding, an elderly widow who (unlike most of her neighbors) still fluently spoke the Mohegan Pequot language. Modern sources suggest that Speck was raised by Fidelia, but there is no evidence in Mohegan tribal records to support this notion. There is, however, no question that Speck's "interests in literature, natural history and Native American linguistics" were inspired by his early encounters with Mohegan people.[2]

At Columbia University, Speck found his direction for life study as an anthropological ethnographer. He received his BA from Columbia in 1904, and proceeded to initiate fieldwork among the Yuchi Indians, receiving his M.A. in 1905[3] From 1905 to 1908, he continued his work on Yuchi data, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1908), with his dissertation supervised by Boas. This ethnography focused on the Yuchi people of Oklahoma, among whom he worked in 1904, 1905, and 1908.[4][5]


In 1907, George Byron Gordon awarded Frank G. Speck a one-year Harrison Fellowship as a curator/research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while also recruiting him to teach ethnology at the University. The Harrison Fellowship was next held in 1908 by Speck's linguistic colleague Edward Sapir. At Penn, Speck rapidly advanced, gaining a series of ready re-appointments as a faculty member while completing his doctoral work. By 1910, he was appointed as a full faculty member in the new department of Anthropology. By 1913, after a contentious split with Penn Museum Director Gordon, Speck was appointed as chair of the Department.[6] He headed the Department for four decades, stepping down only after his health failed in 1949.

Speck was unique among many anthropologists of his generation in choosing to study American Indians close to home, rather than people of more distant lands. The pressures of relocation, boarding schools, cultural assimilation, and economic marginalization had, however, caused many Native American people to lose traditional lands, material, and culture. Speck found that his work constituted, in effect, a "salvage operation" to try to capture ethnological material during a time of great stress for Indigenous people. He began his efforts among Native Americans in New England, and soon expanded to regions as far afield as Labrador and Ontario in Canada.[7]

Among his students at Penn, Speck nurtured a generation of prominent anthropologists, including: A. Irving Hallowell, Anthony F. C. Wallace, and Loren Eiseley, among many others. Speck also sponsored a few Native American students at Penn: his research assistant Gladys Tantaquidgeon and, for a brief time, Molly Spotted Elk.[8] In 1924, Speck arranged to enroll Tantaquidgeon in Penn's College Courses for Teachers. Over time, their positions evolved from teacher/student to intellectual colleagues, and he encouraged her to take charge of independent research projects among Delaware, Wampanoag, and Mohegan peoples.[9]

Speck especially loved fieldwork and typically camped and traveled with the people he studied. During an era of extreme social stratification and white elitism, Speck did not hesitate to invite his Native informants to join him in his field research, to offer lectures in his classroom, and to stay in his home.[10] Colleagues and students like Ernest Dodge, Carl Weslager, Loren Eisely, and Edmund Carpenter later recalled that Speck was extraordinarily accepting of, and seemed most comfortable among, Indians and other people of color.[11] William Fenton recalled that Speck would often absent himself from academic functions when Native American informants came to visit him in Philadelphia.[12]

During his fieldwork with the Iroquois, Speck became close to members of the Seneca Nation, who marked their relationship by giving him the name Gahehdagowa ('Great Porcupine') when he was adopted into the Turtle clan of the Seneca people. Such adoptions were a means of assigning a kinship position to outsiders who were welcome guests; they did not, however, constitute tribal membership. Speck was particularly interested in how family and kinship systems underlay tribal organizations and relations to homelands and natural resources. In Canada, he developed maps of individual family bands' hunting territories to document Algonquian land rights. These later became crucial to Native American land claims.[13]

From the 1920s through the 1940s, Speck also studied the Cherokee in the Southeast United States and Oklahoma. Through the years, he worked extensively with tribal elder Will West Long of Big Cove, western North Carolina. Speck credited Long as co-author of his 1951 book Cherokee Dance and Drama, along with his colleague Leonard Bloom.[14]

Speck was elected to numerous professional associations, where he took an active role on committees, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Anthropological Association, American Ethnological Society, Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and Archaeological Society of North Carolina (honorary). He conducted work for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.[15]


Frank G. Speck collected thousands of Native American objects, along with many reels of audio recordings, reams of transcriptions, and photographs, which have been distributed into multiple museums, most notably the Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian), Canadian Museum of Civilization (now History), and Peabody Essex Museum.[16]

Speck's papers were collected and archived by the American Philosophical Society, of which he was a member.[17] There are also collections of his papers at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec and at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts[18]


  • The Study of the Delaware Indian Big House Ceremony (1931) Harrisburg : Pennsylvania Historical Commission[19]
  • Contacts between Iroquois Herbalism and Colonial Medicine (1941) ISBN 0-8466-4032-5
  • The Tutelo Spirit Adoption Ceremony (1942) Harrisburg : Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania Historical Commission.
  • "Songs from the Iroquois Longhouse." (1942) Program notes for an album of American Indian music from the eastern woodlands, Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
  • The Roll Call of the Iroquois Chiefs (1950) ISBN 0-404-15536-7
  • Symposium on Local Diversity in Iroquois Culture (1951) Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
  • The Iroquois Eagle Dance: an Offshoot of the Calumet Dance (1953) ISBN 0-8156-2533-2
  • The False Faces of the Iroquois (1987) ISBN 0-8061-2039-8
  • The Great Law and the Longhouse: a political history of the Iroquois (1998) ISBN 0-585-19883-7
  • The Little Water Medicine Society of the Senecas (2002) ISBN 0-8061-3447-X


  1. ^ Speck family data is drawn from the United States Census Records for: Brooklyn, New York (1880); Hackensack, New Jersey Ward 4, Bergen, New Jersey (1900); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1910); and Swarthmore, Delaware, Pennsylvania (1930 and 1940).
  2. ^ "Frank Gouldsmith Speck Papers: Biographical Note", University of Pennsylvania Archives, accessed 17 Feb 2009
  3. ^ "Frank Gouldsmith Speck Papers: Biographical Note", University of Pennsylvania Archives, accessed 17 Feb 2009
  4. ^ Jason Baird Jackson. 2004. Introduction. In Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians, v-xvi. Bison Books Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  5. ^ Frank G. Speck 1909. Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.
  6. ^ The relevant primary documentation of Speck's hire and teaching appointments is scattered among papers found in the University of Pennsylvania Archives, in the Speck Papers at the American Anthropological Society, and in the Penn Museum Archives. Additional private files of faculty appointments are also kept in the office of the Department of Anthropology.
  7. ^ "Frank G. Speck Papers, 1903-1950", American Philosophical Society Website, accessed 16 Feb 2009
  8. ^ Bunny McBride. Molly Spotted Elk: Penobscot in Paris (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995) p. 57-63
  9. ^ Melissa Jayne Fawcett. Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon. University of Arizona Press (2000).
  10. ^ Kenneth Heuer. Loren C. Eiseley. The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley. Edited and with a reminiscence by Kenneth Heuer. Boston, MA: Little, Brown (1987).
  11. ^ Carl A. Weslager. “The Unforgettable Frank Speck,” pp. 52-76 in The Life and Times of Frank G. Speck, 1881-1950, Roy Blankenship, ed. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology (1991).
  12. ^ William N. Fenton, “Frank G. Speck’s Anthropology,” pp. 9-37 in The Life and Times of Frank G. Speck, 1881-1950, Roy Blankenship, ed. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology (1991).
  13. ^ Frank Speck, "The Family Hunting Band as the Basis of Algonquian Social Organization", Cultural Ecology', ed. by Bruce Cox (1973); Naskapi (1935, reprint 1977)
  14. ^ Cherokee References in Frank G. Speck Papers 1903-1950, Mss. Ms. Collection 126, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
  15. ^ Frank G. Speck Papers 1903-1950, Mss. Ms. Collection 126, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
  16. ^ Margaret M. Bruchac. "The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects" Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog. May 20, 2015.
  17. ^ Frank G. Speck Papers 1903-1950, Mss. Ms. Collection 126, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
  18. ^ "Frank G. Speck's Contributions to the Understanding of Mi'kmaq Land Use, Leadership, and Land Management," 'Ethnohistory' 46:3 (summer 1999): 485.
  19. ^ Speck, Frank Gouldsmith; Witapanóxwe (1931). The study of the Delaware Indian big house ceremony (in English and Delaware). Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission. p. 192. Retrieved 28 November 2012. In native text dictated by Witapanóxwe. 

Additional reading[edit]

  • Blankenship, Roy (1991) The Life and Times of Frank G Speck, 1881-1950 Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. With chapters by John Witthoft, William N. Fenton, Ernest S. Dodge, C.A. Weslager, Edmund S. Carpenter, Anthony F.C. Wallace and Claudia Medoff.
  • Darnell, Regna (2006) "Keeping the Faith: A Legacy of Native American Ethnography, Ethnohistory, and Psychology", in New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations, ed. by Sergei A. Kan and Pauline Turner Strong, pp. 3–16. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Fenton, William N. (2001) "He-Lost-a-Bet (Howanʼneyao) of the Seneca Hawk Clan", in Strangers to Relatives: The Adoption and Naming of Anthropologists in Native North America, ed. by Sergei Kan, pp. 81–98. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Wallace, Anthony F.C. (1986) "The Value of the Speck Papers for Ethnohistory," in 'The American Indian: A conference in the American Philosophical Society', American Philosophical Society Library Publication, No. 2, pp. 20-26.