Warren King Morehead: The Peabody Museum's First Curator, a Champion of Native American Rights
By Anabel Bacon ’09
The following Augustus Thorndike Jr. Internship 2009 Research Paper originally appeared in the Spring 2009 Andover Bulletin without footnotes or a bibliography. Bacon's essay is presented here with anchored footnote links to let readers easily access her citations and references.
Early on a warm summer’s morning in 1909, a man slipped onto a train departing Ogema, Minn. Looking like any other man of his day wearing a clean suit, crisp hat, and clutching a suitcase, he was in fact accompanied by bodyguards and was fleeing in desperate fear of his life.i He was armed with evidence of fraudulent land dealings that, if allowed to escape the borders of Minnesota, would prove disastrous for businessmen intent on swindling Native Americans out of their land.
The man was Warren King Moorehead, the curator of the newly built Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology at Phillips Academy. An accomplished archaeologist, and later remembered as “one of the kindliest,”ii he had already spent seven years of his career excavating Native American sites in the Ohio River Valley before relocating to Andover in 1901.iii There, he became the Peabody Museum’s first curator and subsequently the director of the department, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1938.iv In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Moorehead, already a nationally recognized Indian expert, to the Board of Indian Commissioners. A year later, he embarked not on another scientific expedition, but on a humanitarian quest to provide justice to the Anishinaabeg of the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota who, like so many Indians in the United States, had yet to see the American dream of equality play out in their own dealings with the government.
Troubles at White Earth dated back to the establishment of the reservation in 1867, but in the first decade of the 20th century, matters came to a head. The reservation’s rich timberland had caught the eye of businessmen looking to cut a good deal on those resources, and they were eager to cheat the Indians of their rightful property.
After several confrontations between the Anishinaabeg and timber companies in the spring of 1909, President Roosevelt dispatched Moorehead to White Earth to report on the state of the reservation’s affairs.v Moorehead was horrified at what he found. He reported collecting “one hundred and three affidavits representing more than a million dollars worth of property, and involving county officials, lumbermen and presidents of national banks.”vi Also finding diseases such as tuberculosis and trachoma prevalent throughout the reservation, he arranged for a doctor to come to White Earth and treat the sick.vii
Moorehead took his findings east to Washington, D.C., whereupon Indian Commissioner Robert G. Valentine authorized him to return to White Earth in July 1909 with Inspector Edward B. Linnen to write a formal report of the reservation’s woes.viii However, while the Indians greatly appreciated his efforts, local businesses were not as welcoming. Moorehead wrote that groups with vested interests in the outcome of his investigation “attempted in every possible way to end the investigation. They first tried bribery, and later intimidation” ix. J. Weston Allen, a lawyer who accompanied Moorehead during his second White Earth investigation, later recalled that, “Among the whites there was great opposition to the investigation. We were informed that if we returned to the town of Mahnomen we would be tarred and feathered.”x
Undeterred, Moorehead and Linnen continued to collect affidavits, and the stories of land theft they recorded grew increasingly horrific. Moorehead wrote of schoolchildren who had been swindled out of their land holdings, signing their names on the sales forms under the impression that they were merely demonstrating the proper spelling of their names.xi He recalled cases of Indians whom businessmen had plied with alcohol before purchasing their lands for a fraction of their value, and of others who could not count American money and were given large stacks of one-dollar bills in payment, which actually amounted to much less than the sums they were owed.xii
Armed with these shocking stories, Moorehead testified before Congress in March 1910. He showed that more than 200,000 acres of farm and timberland had been wrongfully taken from the Anishinaabeg, resulting in losses of more than $40 million.xiii As a result of his testimony, more than 1,000 lawsuits were filed. By 1915 alone, more than $200,000 had been repaid to the Indians of White Earth, with additional suits still pending. Moorehead also challenged the conventional distribution of funds to Native Americans, saying that what was needed was “not this everlasting allotting and educating of Indians…but the protection of property and the safeguarding of health.”xiv The diseases that had so horrified him during his first visit to White Earth now became the focus of his work, and, thanks to his continued efforts, Native American health became a prevalent concern of policymakers during the Progressive Era.
Moorehead’s contributions to the Peabody Museum and to the study of archaeology endure to this day. His excavations in Georgia, Maine, and the Arkansas River Valley yielded large collections that are still prized by the museum. In addition, he authored many books still widely used by the archaeological community, including The American Indian in the United States, which details his time spent at White Earth and among other tribes, and brings to light the plight of Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, the true testament to the value of Moorehead’s efforts came from the Anishinaabeg themselves almost a hundred years ago. Upon the completion of his investigation at White Earth, tribal leaders presented him with the Ojibway war flag, a priceless Anishinaabeg treasure that is still on display in the Peabody Museum.xv Along with this honor, Moorehead was adopted into the tribe and given the name of “Ne-gah-ne-bin-ace”.xvi The name was that of a former chief, the same man who had made the treasured flag. It meant “Leading Bird,” and described Moorehead, a man who embodied the values of non sibi, perfectly.
Anabel Bacon '09 of Andover, Mass., is the fifth recipient of the Thorndike Internship in Historical Biography. The program annually supports the work of an upper selected by the chair of the history department for the purpose of researching and writing a short biographical sketch of an alumnus or alumna of Phillips or Abbot academies. Funded by John L. Thorndike ’45 and W. Nicholas Thorndike ’51, the internship is a memorial to their brother Augustus “Gus” Thorndike Jr. ’37, honoring his lifelong passion for history. It also promotes history as a literary art and serves to help the Phillips Academy community develop a renewed appreciation for its rich and diverse heritage. Bacon is a four-year PA student who, as the child of faculty, grew up on the Andover campus.
i Melissa L. Meyer, The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889-1920. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 60
ii Douglas S. Byers, “Warren King Moorehead (obituary),” American Anthropologist 41 (April-June 1939): 286.
iv Byers, Warren King Moorehead, 288.
v Meyer, The White Earth Tragedy, 159.
vi Warren King Moorehead, The American Indian in the United States (Andover: The
Andover Press, 1914), 69.
vii Meyer, The White Earth Tragedy, 160.
viii Meyer, The White Earth Tragedy, 160.
ix Moorehead, The American Indian, 69.
x “Mr. Moorehead’s Report”, Phillips Bulletin, April 1912.
xi Moorehead, The American Indian, 87.
xii Ibid., 80,
xiii Untitled, Phillips Bulletin, Vol. IV, No. 2 (January 1910)
xiv Henry E. Fritz, “The Last Hurrah of Christian Humanitarian Indian Reform: The Board
of Indian Commissioners, 1909-1918,” The Western Historical Quarterly 16 (April
xv Untitled, Phillips Bulletin.
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Meyer, Melissa L. The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota
Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Moorehead, Warren K. The American Indian in the United States, Period 1850-1914.
Andover: The Andover Press, 1914.
Author unknown. “Mr. Moorehead’s Report,” The Phillips Bulletin, April 1912,
Author unknown. Untitled. The Phillips Bulletin, January 1910.
Byers, Douglas S. “Warren King Moorehead (obituary),” American Anthropologist 41 (April-June 1939): 286.
Fritz, Henry E. “The Last Hurrah of Christian Humanitarian Indian Reform: The Board
of Indian Commissioners, 1909-1918,” The Western Historical Quarterly 16 (April