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Sir William Maxwell Aitken

The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, Edwin Tappan Adney

Edwin Tappan Adney

Edwin Tappan Adney (artist, writer, and consultant on Maliseet culture) is most remembered for his part in the preservation of the art of birch bark canoes. This skill he learned over a lifetime of travelling and living in Woodstock, New Brunswick. Born 13 July 1868 in Athens, Ohio, to parents Ruth (Shaw) Adney and college professor H.H. Adney, Tappan Adney was schooled by his father until he left home in 1883 to study art for three years with the Art Students League of New York. Shortly after this, he and his sister went on a summer vacation to New Brunswick, travelling by boat up the Saint John River. Adney decided to stay in New Brunswick instead of returning home to the US for university. While in Woodstock, he became captivated by the life of Peter Joe, who lived in a native camp near the town. “[U]nder the guidance of [the] Malecite builder,” Adney made his first canoe at the age of twenty, and over the course of their friendship, Adney gained many skills and became a fluent speaker of the Maliseet language (Wheaton).

The lifestyle of the Maliseet so interested Adney that “he turned towards a career of an artist-craftsman,” using his education to share his experiences with American audiences (Chapelle 5). At the turn of the twentieth century, several of his articles, including “How an Indian Birch Bark Canoe is Made” and “Some New Brunswick Traps,” were circulated in Harper’s and The London Chronicle. He also published "Milicete Indian Natural History” at this time with the Linnaean Society. Later, he was sent to Nome, Alaska, as a correspondent for Collier’s Magazine, and he soon after received a contract from Harper’s to publish his first book, The Klondike Stampede (1900).

In addition to being a literary enthusiast, Adney was an accomplished artist. His drawings of birch bark canoes and descriptions of their design were used in Howard Chappelle’s 1964 compilation, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.

In 1899, Adney married Minnie Bell Sharp of Woodstock, who gave birth to their only child in 1902, a son named Francis Glenn Adney. From 1901 to 1906, Adney pursued business interests in New York City, but by 1907, he was back in New Brunswick promoting the Sharp orchard business in Woodstock. In 1908, he became a Canadian citizen and moved his family to Montreal, where he worked as a painter and illustrator. During the war years, he lived in Kingston, Ontario, serving under the Canadian Engineers. He joined the Canadian Army as a lieutenant of engineers and was assigned to the Royal Military College.

After his service in the First World War, Adney returned to Montreal and became an honorary consultant on Indian lore for the McCord Museum at McGill University. It was during this period (1920-33) that he began to assemble an extensive and fully detailed catalogue of canoes. This work put him in touch with Hudson's Bay Company contacts, government agents on Indian reserves, and aboriginal groups. However, financial hardship forced the Adneys to return to Woodstock in the 1930s. In 1937, his wife, Minnie Bell, died. Following her death, Adney remained in Upper Woodstock to continue his research on canoes and the Maliseet language. Tappan Adney died in Woodstock on 10 October 1950 at the age of 82.

The record Adney made of his first experiences in New Brunswick has been edited by Ted Behne in The Travel Journals of Tappan Adney: 1887–1890. Adney’s writings illustrate his fascination with the life of those he encountered and his total immersion in Maliseet culture:

I had brought books along to study for the rest of my entrance examination at Columbia: Nanele, Xenophon, and Ancient Geography. I had truly meant to study conscientiously, but here was a whole new world thrown open, a kind of air that I had never breathed before. Why, one could no more study than a deer could or a wild Injun. Not that we were in the woods, but we were so near there, in the oldest settlements, that one had but to go half a mile back to find traces of an original forest that are now as wild looking as any that one will find in the remotest wilderness. No woods had ever impressed [me] as these woods did. Only a short way from the house was an Indian encampment with their birchbark houses on the point made by Lane’s Creek and the river. Here, during the summer, they made birch canoes, and I got to know them all well: old Peter Joseph and John Solis. They took a fancy to me, and I took a fancy to them, and they taught me many things: how to build canoes, and Peter Joe took me with him into the woods when he got the bark to make canoes, and I made small ones of my own, exact models. One of these models is in the Museum of Natural History at New York, a 1/5 scale; the other is now owned by Mr. Allison Connell of Woodstock (got this back; since stolen). (Qtd. in Behne 25, 27)

The close relationship Adney shared with Peter Joe served as his introduction to traditional ways of life that were falling out of use by the First Nations. Adney’s journals consist of many cultural experiences vital to the Maliseet way of life: accounts of canoe trips and hunting trips, sketches and diagrams of the parts for various tools and equipment, and documented events which happened to him and to others. Adney’s record of experiences is important when one considers John McPhee’s observation that “[i]n Adney’s lifetime, the number of birch bark canoes declined from the 1000’s to a scattered vestigial few” (115). Adney made his life’s work an extensive catalogue of the First Nations culture surrounding him. Because of this project, he is regarded as one of the foremost experts on Maliseet culture.

Furthermore, Adney’s research on Maliseet dialects and natural history contributed to the study of the origins of human language. In his field research, he related the sounds of animals to elements of Maliseet language and described similarities between the two. Based on this comparison, he projected broader theories about the relationship between human thought and nature. As Behne observed, “he used food, as well as sounds the animals themselves make—much like some vocalizations of the Maliseet language—to literally charm birds and squirrels out of the trees to eat from his hands and perch on his shoulders” (16). Adney was in contact with many professional scholars who held similar views, but he remained separate from the official academic community. And despite his extensive knowledge of the formal construction of the Maliseet language, “nothing he wrote on linguistics was ever published in a professional linguistic journal for peer-review,” nor was the importance of his work formally recognized during his lifetime (Wheaton).

In later life, Adney played an integral role as liaison between the Maliseet people and the Canadian government. In this work, he has been described by many as an intellectual giant. In his 1946 defense of Dr. Peter Paul, who was arrested for theft of natural resources, Adney was the first person to use pre-established treaty rights in the defense of an aboriginal person in a Canadian court (Behne 16-17). After passionately defending the rights of the Tobique First Nation to their traditional lands, Adney wrote to Mrs. Lilian Maxwell, “I have had the old tribe reconstituted so they cannot say, ‘That old tribe of British times does not exist any longer.’ The Indians can say, ‘Yes, it does’” (Wheaton).

Adney’s collection of work—including his models, papers, and artistic portfolios—are housed at various museums, archives, and academic institutions. These include the Smithsonian, the University of New Brunswick, Dartmouth College Library, the Carleton County Historical Society, the York-Sunbury Historical Society, and the Pennsylvania State Archives. Over one hundred and twenty of Adney’s canoe models are housed at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and his papers on Maliseet language reside at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. In addition, Adney donated part of his collection of Indian artifacts and his papers concerning the Sharp family to the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John.

Jessica Davidson, Spring 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Adney, Edwin Tappan. “The Building of a Birch Canoe.” Outing 36 (1900): 185-9.

---."How an Indian Birch-Bark Canoe is Made." Harper's Young People Supplement 29 July 1890: 673-5.

---. Klondike Stampede. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900.

---.“The Malecite Indian’s Names for Native Berries and Fruits, and their Meanings.” American Naturalist 1 (1944): 103-9.

---. "Milicete Indian Natural History." Abstract of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of New York For the Year Ending March 1, 1893. New York: Linnaean Society 5 (1893): 19-38.

---. “The Passing of the North Canoe”. Outing 41 (1902): 3-11.

---.“Some New Brunswick Traps.” Forest and Stream 5 (January 1893).

---. The Travel Journals of Tappan Adney, 1887–1890. Ed. C. Ted Behne. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2010.

Adney, Edwin Tappan and Daniel C. Beard. What To Do and How To Do It: The American Boy's Handy Book. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.

Adney, Edwin Tappan and Fannie Hardy Eckstorm. “Stories and the Art of Story Telling.” Northeast Folklore 6 (1964): 13-16.

Adney, Edwin Tappan and Frank M. Chapman. Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895.

Adney, Edwin Tappan and Howard Irving Chappelle. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1964.

Adney, Edwin Tappan and Joseph H. Adams. Harper’s Outdoor Book for Boys. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1908.

[For the complete published and unpublished works of Tappan Adney, see the E. Tappan Adney Fonds, UNB Archives and Special Collections, Fredericton, NB; Papers of Edwin Tappan Adney, Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, NH; Hadlock Research Collection on Edwin Tappan Adney: 1941–1948, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA; Edwin Tappan Adney Photo Collection at the McCord Museum, Montreal, QC; Edwin Tappan Adney Papers (MS 020), biographical sketch, and canoe model collection (MS 021), Mariners’ Museum Special Collections, Newport News, VA.]

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Behne, C. Ted. Introduction. The Travel Journals of Tappan Adney, 1887–1890. Ed. C. Ted Behne. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2012. 13-17.

Fielding, Mantle. "Adney, Edwin Tappin." Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1983.

Haverstock, Mary Sayre, et al. “Adney, Edwin Tappan.” Artists in Ohio 1787–1900: A Biographical Dictionary. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Library, 2000.

Ives, Edward D. "Malecite and Passamaquoddy Tales." Northeast Folklore 6 (1964): 5-81.

Jennings, John. Bark Canoes: The Art and Obsession of Tappan Adney. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2004.

McPhee, John. The Survival of the Bark Canoe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Wheaton, James W. “Tappan Adney's Maliseet Studies: More Than Canoes.” 34th Algonquian Conference. Department of Language and Linguistics, Queen's University. 24-27 Oct. 2002. Presentation.

---. The Edwin Tappan Adney Home Page. 10 May 2005. 16 Apr. 2012 <http://www.siterrific.com/Adney/>.