Joseph Henry A Life in Science

Learn about the scientific research of Joseph Henry (1797–1878), first Smithsonian Secretary and renowned physicist, and how he helped set the Institution on its course.

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Portrait of Joseph Henry




Joseph Henry's election as the Smithsonian's first Secretary in 1846 helped usher in a new era of science in the United States. The institutional framework provided by the Smithsonian was shaped by Henry's commitment to basic research and his support of projects too expensive for smaller scientific societies to undertake. The evolution of anthropology during Henry's era exemplifies the Smithsonian's role in nurturing and professionalizing American science.


One of Joseph Henry's first acts as Secretary was to accept for publication a major study on the "moundbuilders" of the Mississippi Valley. Vast numbers of abandoned mounds and earthworks dotted the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys at this time, yet little was understood about the people who built them, and there was much baseless florid speculation. In a letter to Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Dallas Bache, a close friend, Henry predicted this study would be well-received due to popular interest in the topic, as well as "the intrinsic merit of the work as an example of cautious inductive research; . . . the fact that it could not be otherwise published," and because it would "tend to dissipate the idea that our aim is confined to . . . physical science." Henry believed the study was a wise choice for the inaugural volume of the refereed series of scholarly monographs he titled Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge.

Ephraim George Squier, 1872, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2012-6120 or 84-11135.The resulting work, Ephraim G. Squier and E.H. Davis's Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, was published in December 1848 and became a landmark in the study of American archaeology for its massive scope of detailed description, maps, and engravings. Henry's requirement that the manuscript be "as free as possible from every thing [sic] of a speculative nature," pushed Squier and Davis to produce the first scientific study in a field that had been dominated by amateur collectors and missionaries interested in American Indian languages.1

Joseph Henry feared American Indian remains would be "entirely obliterated"2 in the settlement of the American West, and encouraged the compilation of accurate ethnological and archaeological information. He therefore continued to publish important works on the physical evidence of ancient cultures, and continued to emphasize the value of detailed description versus analysis. "Your memoir should be principally a statement of facts," Henry advised in an 1851 letter to Increase A. Lapham, who was preparing a study on the mounds of Wisconsin. "We are as yet only collcting [sic] the bricks of the temple of American Antiquities." Henry also insisted such studies be limited to new data, which he emphasized during the review and editing of what would become a seminal work in American ethnology. At over six hundred pages, this work, Lewis Henry Morgan's Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, became the Smithsonian's most expensive volume to date when it appeared in 1871. In his annual reports, Henry reprinted Swiss archaeologist Adolphe Morlot's influential work on the three stages of civilization and other works from Europe, where archaeology was a more mature field

While Henry took great care to discourage any taint of bias in the works he published, he was wary of presenting work that conflicted with the Bible. "While on the one hand I think the ethnological investigations should be conducted on grounds independent of revelation, on the other, great caution should be used," Henry wrote to the archaeologist Samuel F. Haven in 1856. Haven was close to completing a survey of American archaeology and ethnology for the eighth volume of Smithsonian Contributions, an important work that Henry feared gave too much attention to the theory that native North Americans were a distinct race and did not descend from Adam and Eve.


In addition to descriptions of the physical evidence of ancient cultures, Joseph Henry supported the study of American Indian languages. His publication of works such as Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language, by missionary Stephen Riggs, demonstrated his belief that language was key to understanding the origins and history of North American natives. Henry also hired ethnologist George Gibbs to produce a circular containing 211 words in four languages with blank forms for recording additional vocabulary. Henry had earlier helped distribute instructions and vocabulary lists produced by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to missionaries, government agents, and soldiers.3In 1849, Henry urged the Secretary of the Interior to support Schoolcraft's compilation of what would become the monumental six-volume Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. "The learned world looks to our country for a full account of the race that we have disposessed [sic]," wrote Henry," and . . . every year renders the task more difficult." An 1864 Smithsonian lecture series given by William Dwight Whitney  of Yale University was the basis for the first major American textbook on linguistics.


Edward ForemanJoseph Henry became responsible for at least four thousand ethnographic objects in 1858 when the collections of the US Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842  were transferred to the Smithsonian.4 Henry significantly reduced this collection by distributing duplicate items to other museums, but the exploring surveys and Indian wars of the next two decades brought thousands more objects to the Smithsonian. Henry actively sought skeletal remains, weapons, implements, and clothing by distributing instructions for collecting such items, and through exchange with other institutions.5

Military and other government surveys, which led the settlement of the American West, collected ethnographic materials from American Indians for the Smithsonian’s museum. "I beg leave to inquire whether some general order might not be issued . . . to secure and transmit to Washington specimens illustrating Indian life and warfare," Henry wrote to General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1873. He went on to point out that the best series of such objects at the Smithsonian was obtained during a battle that is still a source of pain to the Sioux people today, "at the battle of Ash Hollow an 1855 battle of the First Sioux War that occasion having been embraced to secure from the bodies of the slain a very complete assortment of the articles referred to."6 By 1874, one third of the Institution's new collections consisted of anthropological specimens. Smithsonian clerk Edward Foreman catalogued approximately 45,000 of about 75,000 ethnological items received between 1867 and 1884.7 Although Henry saw the support and dissemination of basic scientific research—versus serving as a public museum—as the Smithsonian's overriding mission, he recognized the Institution's anthropology collections as a valuable tool for public education. Prior to a major fire at the Smithsonian Building in 1865, a series of portraits of American Indians by John Mix Stanley hung on display. George Catlin's Indian portraits, painted during his travels west of the Mississippi in the 1830s, were mounted in 1872.8 "Since . . . we are . . . obliged to support a museum," Henry wrote to Smithsonian regent Louis Agassiz in 1863, Henry believed the museum's "specimens of ethnology" should represent all of North America. He had therefore hired someone recommended by Agassiz to make molds of Mexican materials in a collection the Smithsonian did not own. A widely distributed circular Henry issued in 1878, calling on people across the country to submit information on Indian mounds and other features of archaeological significance, spawned greater public awareness of archaeology.9 The circular was authored by Otis T. Mason, a Smithsonian ethnologist whose article on Germany's Leipsic Museum of Ethnology for the Smithsonian's 1873 annual report would greatly influence the organization of the US National Museum.10 When the National Museum's new building opened in 1881, the anthropology collections occupied more than 150 display cases. The archaeology collections were classified by curator Charles Rau, whom Henry had originally hired to prepare the Smithsonian's ethnology exhibit for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, as the collections were gradually organized.


Major John Wesley Powell, by Sawyer ?, c. 1890s, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-12600.Although Joseph Henry supported Assistant Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird's proposal to exhibit live American Indians at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, he was not able to obtain a Congressional appropriation to do so.11 Because he remained committed to the study of American Indians, and to the Smithsonian's policy "to do nothing with its funds that can be equally well done by other means," Henry handed over all the linguistic materials and questionnaires on Indian life collected by the Smithsonian to John Wesley Powell in October 1876. Three years later, the materials came back to the Institution when Powell, the famed explorer turned ethnologist, was appointed to direct the newly established Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.12

Powell drew heavily upon the work of his predecessors. His 1877 field guide, Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages, was an expanded version of George Gibbs's 1865 circular for the Smithsonian.13 In 1880, he issued a second edition that included Lewis Henry Morgan's kinship charts and was organized with reference to Morgan's work. Morgan's influence also shaped the theoretical framework that guided the Bureau of American Ethnology,14 which Powell led until his death in 1902.

Prehistoric Archaeology Exhibit, Upper Main Hall, Smithsonian Institution BuildingIn 1879, less than a year after Joseph Henry's death, the Anthropological Society of Washington was organized at a meeting held at the Smithsonian and attended by Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird and Assistant Secretary George Brown Goode.15 Largely organized by Otis T. Mason, who had become an American ethnologist for the Smithsonian under Henry's tenure seven years earlier, this organization later began publishing the well-regarded American Anthropologist journal and was the predecessor to the American Anthropological Association.16 The professionalization of anthropology by the end of Joseph Henry's tenure at the Smithsonian is also marked by the 1879 establishment of the Archaeological Institute of America17 and the election of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan to lead the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which also took place in 1879.18 Henry provided the institutional support essential for early of ethnology and archaeology which helped set the stage for the professionalization of the fields in the late 19th century.



Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Promoter of Anthropology," Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Repatriation Office, National Museum of the American Indian, 2012.

Repatriation Office, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, September 6, 2011.



1 Curtis M. Hinsley, Jr., Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology 1846-1910 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981); Robert E. Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 1820-1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology (Norman and London: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1986). Return to text

2 Joseph Henry to John Frazer, 27 October 1855, in The Smithsonian Years: January 1854–December 1857, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Frank R. Millikan, eds., vol. 9 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2002), 291–293. Document 165, note 4 quotes Henry’s 1847 "Programme of Organization" on the goal of carrying out research on ancient North Americans. Return to text

3 Curtis M. Hinsley, The Smithsonian and the American Indian: Making a Moral Anthropology in Victorian America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 48–49. Return to text

4 Adrienne Kaeppler, "Anthropology and the US Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842," in Magnificent Voyagers: The US Exploring Expedition, 18381842, Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, eds., (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 120. Return to text

5 Joseph Henry to Johann Brandt, 23 January 1867, in The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Frank R. Millikan, eds., vol. 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2007), 106–107, doc. 49. "We desire to obtain . . . objects from the Russian Empire . . . illustrative of the life and character of the wild tribes of the far north, for the purpose of comparison with the American races inhabiting the Arctic circle, as also relics of the stone, iron and bronze ages of the aboriginal inhabitants of the empire generally," Henry wrote to a St. Petersburg museum director in 1867. Return to text

6 The 1989 law establishing the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian required the Smithsonian to document its large collection of Indian artifacts and to attempt to return human remains and sacred objects to their tribes of origin. Return to text

7 Hinsley, American Indian, 71–72. Return to text

8 Joseph Henry to William Healey Dall, 22 October 1872, in The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, 423–424, doc. 197. Return to text

9 A broad range of people submitted maps, drawings, and descriptions of little known sites and artifacts. See the Smithsonian Institution Archives' description of these in Record Unit 58; Otis T. Mason, "Summary of Correspondence of the Smithsonian Institution Previous to January 1, 1880, In Answer to Circular No. 316"  Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1879 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1879) 428–448. Return to text

10 William J. Rhees, Visitor's Guide to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum(Washington, DC: Judd & Detweiler, 1880). Return to text

11 Joseph Henry Desk Diary, 14 January 1875, The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, 512–514, doc. 238. Return to text

12 Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 397–98; Neil M. Judd, The Bureau of American Ethnology: A Partial History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), 6–8; Virginia Noelke, "The Origin and Early History of the Bureau of American Ethnology" (PhD diss., The University of Texas at Austin, 1974), 22–23. Return to text

13 Hinsley, American Indian, 48. Return to text

14 Hinsley, American Indian, 161. "American" was added to the Bureau of Ethnology's title in the 1890s. See Noelke, "Bureau of American Ethnology," 51–52, for Morgan's influence on Powell. Return to text

15 Daniel S. Lamb, "The Story of the Anthropological Society of Washington," American Anthropologist 8, no. 3 (1906): 564-579. Return to text

16 Walter Hough, "Otis Tuffon [sic] Mason," American Anthropologist 10, no. 4 (1908): 661–62; Raymond Harris Thompson, "The Antiquities Act of 1906 by Ronald Freeman Lee," Journal of the Southwest 42, no. 2 (2000): 199. Return to text

17 Gordon Willey and Jeremy Sabloff, A History of American Archaeology (San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman, 1974), 48. Return to text

18 Thompson, "Antiquities Act," (see note 14). Return to text