Finding Aids to Official Records of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 58
Collected Letters on Ethnology, circa 1876-1879
On February 1, 1878, the Smithsonian Institution released Circular 316, "In Reference to American Archaeology," prepared by Otis Tufton Mason, then a collaborator in Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution and later Curator of Ethnology and Anthropology, and distributed it under Joseph Henry's name. The Circular was designed to solicit information concerning the large amounts of detail on construction of mounds, earthworks and other traces of aboriginal engineering, as well as newspaper articles and descriptions of characters found in mounds, graves, and superficial soil. This information was to provide the basis for an exhaustive work on American archaeology to be published by the Smithsonian. With this end in mind, the replies were apparently turned over to Mason and Charles Rau, also a collaborator in Ethnology and later Curator of Archaeology in the United States National Museum.
Circular 316 was one of many circulars distributed at this time. It was 15 pages long and consisted of questions concerning the discovery and location of American Aboriginal artifacts. A primary concern was learning the localities of all American collections of artifacts. The Circular stressed a "desire to collect from every available source, whatever is now known, or can be ascertained by special investigation, of the antiquities of North America." In order to receive clear descriptions, 86 questions on American Archaeology and two pages of symbols taken from an international code published in the Smithsonian Report for 1875 were incorporated into the Circular. In addition to the questions, the Circular asked for books, memoirs, extracts from periodicals and newspaper clippings giving pertinent information. Recipients of the Circular were also asked to forward names of others interested in receiving the Circular.
This record unit includes correspondence, drawings, and maps regarding American archaeology. Most of the correspondence was probably sent to the Smithsonian in response to Circular 316, but some make no reference to the Circular. A small portion antedated its release. These were probably included in the collection because of the related subject matter. Most of the letters are addressed to Spencer F. Baird, Joseph Henry, or the Smithsonian. Many of the letters also included references to responses written by Mason. Mason reviewed the letters and wrote an extensive report using abstracted material from them. This report can be found in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1879, pages 428-448.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Baird, Spencer Fullerton, 1823-1887
- Henry, Joseph, 1797-1878
- Mason, Otis Tufton, 1838-1908
- Rau, Charles, 1826-1887
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 58, Smithsonian Institution, Collected Letters on Ethnology