Searching for Boas in the Archives

In summer 1996 I had the good fortune to spend four weeks at the American Philosophical Society (APS) soaking myself in the Franz Boas archives there. The APS contains the bulk of Boas’s enormous correspondence, though hardly everything.[1] Aside from the fact that there is something special about holding the original documents in one’s hands (very carefully), there is much more Boas material in the APS besides these letters. There are, for example, translations from the German of early family correspondence as well as notes for several lecture series he delivered, and a story Boas wrote and illustrated for his children recounting his adventures in Baffinland.

Of particular interest is the typewritten translation of young Franz’s CV written as a requirement for graduation from gymnasium. This is an amazing little piece that shows how prodigious was his education, his curiosity, and his ability as a teenager to deal in depth with so many different subjects, from physics and biology to ancient history and the arts.

During my month at the APS,[2] I was privileged to search through hundreds of letters between Franz Boas and his students, former students, anthropological colleagues throughout the world such as E. B. Tylor, W. H. R. Rivers, R. R. Marett, Paul Rivet, and scientists such as Albert Einstein, Karl Pearson, Alexander Graham Bell, and Rudolf Virchow. There are letters to and from political figures, potential donors to anthropological projects and political and philanthropic causes, and ordinary citizens–as well as to Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and founder of Public Relations. I even found a letter written to Boas by an uncle of a friend of mine, a newspaperman in Columbus, Ohio, asking about the prospects for nationhood for the Philippines. Boas answered with a long letter by return mail!

One letter I am particularly fond of was written to Boas in the middle of the night, in white heat, by Alexander Goldenweiser. “Goldie” was a fellow Jewish immigrant to America, one of Boas’s more brilliant (but often disorganized) students, and he and his mentor had gone from New York City to Philadelphia to address the elders of the APS, during the boom years of eugenics, on the subject of race. Apparently, it had not gone well, for this is some of what Goldenweiser wrote to Boas:

Friday Night – 1 AM (1924)

Dear Professor Boas,

… I cannot sleep. It’s that Areopagus of morons ravaging my soul. Such a gathering! I sensed the spirit of the assemblage even before we began to speak: those bearded faces, set mouths, sallow complexions… It was as if the cemeteries of the American Philosophical Society had emptied their weird contents into that hall. Why, I believe there were not as many as six persons there who as much as followed your closely-knit argument. They just sat there trying not to look asinine but failing miserably… Nor did my effort to get at the kernel of their humanity via sense of humor prove any more successful. They laughed, to be sure, but as laughs that Australian bird…

And those spontaneous irrepressible comments of the Chairman… “the entire problem of Africa depends on it… the Negro is regarded as an equal only where there are few of him… We all believe in it (the racial differences)… I, as a white man…” I suppose you and I must have appeared to him as two colored men disguised as Jews dishing out our black magic before that… gathering of sapientes

I’ll remember that scene as long as I live.


As ever yours,


Alexander Goldenweiser[3]

I am very happy that I am back in the Boas archives with my current, ongoing, and perhaps never-ending project. I am pleased to be part of that band of sisters and brothers currently working on The Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition project led by Regna Darnell, initiated by Matthew Bokovoy of the University of Nebraska Press, and with the cooperation of the staff of the APS. My own part in it is to investigate Boas’s involvement with the German community of New York, both Jewish and non–Jewish, and follow this through time as his political activities become more significant and absorbing for him. I know there are many more surprises awaiting me.


[1] Editors’ Note: Collections of Franz Boas’s papers and other manuscript materials are held by several repositories. The American Philosophical Society has digitized its main Boas Collection which consists of the majority of his professional correspondence. This was the collection microfilmed and published on 44 reels in 1972 by Scholarly Resources, Inc.; it can be found in many research libraries today including the Library of Congress, Tozzer Library at Harvard, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Now digitized and online, the collection covers the period February 24, 1878 to May 3, 1943, and can be accessed via the finding aids:

Audio files have been digitized but are available only in the APS reading Room or by permission.  See An on-site visit to the APS is also necessary to consult three other Boas collections there: the Franz Boas Professional Papers, the Boas Family Papers, and the Franz Boas Anthropometric Data and Early Field Notebooks. There is also a significant amount of Boas material in the ACLS Collection.

Finally, the Bloomington Archives of Traditional Music, at Indiana University, houses over 30 years of research recordings of Native American music and language produced on the North West Coast by Franz Boas and his assistants.

[2] I also want to record the fact that my time was not only made more pleasant but also enriched by the presence of four other researchers working in the archives of other individuals. Sara Trechter did research on the linguistic material of Ella Deloria, Kevin Dann on the letters of C. B. Davenport, and Nathaniel Comfort on Barbara McClintock. Sara and Kevin each found materials relating to Boas in their research.

We were joined later by Jay Miller who used Boas’s field notes relating to the Chehalis people of the Pacific Northwest, which contributed to the recent publication of Chehalis Stories(2018),  co-edited by Jolene Amrine Goertz and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.

[3] Mss.B.B61, Franz Boas Papers, American Philosophical Society. Researchers can access a digital copy of the letter through the APS website: 


Herbert S. Lewis: contributions / / Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison


  1. Excellent article, Herb. Very interesting and valuable.

  2. I agree with Frank Herb. Best wishes for 2019 for you and yours. Ray

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