University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Kaskasian Beaver Bowl


By: and Ben Kelser

October 22, 2018

This bowl, in the form of a wooden beaver with a bowl-shaped carving sculpted into its back, is identified as having been crafted by the Kaskaskian people in the Illinois Territory.[1] The bowl was one of two non-identical beaver bowls collected in 1795 by George Turner, who was then serving as a judge in the territory. This bowl was gifted to the American Philosophical Society in 1797; the other bowl was gifted to Charles Wilson Peale for the Philadelphia Museum, which was then housed in the American Philosophical Society Museum.[2] In 1879, the first beaver bowl was deposited in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now affiliated with Drexel University), and identified as follows:

“Wooden vessel carved in imitation of a Beaver and used as a tureen by the Kaskaskian, Illinois, Judge Turner 1795, Am. Philos. Soc. 1879.”[3]

The Kaskaskian beaver bowl from above. Notice the fine carving around the perimeter of the bowl and the hole in the beaver’s ear. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

When the Peale Museum of Philadelphia closed, the beaver bowl in its collection was sold; it was acquired by the Boston Museum before being accessioned by the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[4]

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) acquired its beaver bowl in 1987, and catalogued it as object number 87-43-155. Given its 1795 collection date, this beaver bowl is tied for the oldest-dated ethnographic object in the American Section of the Penn Museum. It is in company with three pipe stems and a pipe bowl, all also collected by Turner.

The Kaskaskian-identified pipe bowl, 97-83-1432A. Photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The pipe bowl, carved from catlinite with pewter inlays and trim, is catalogued as object number 97-83-1432A. It is identified with faded ink on its body, with the handwriting seeming to correspond with that on the Kaskaskian beaver bowl. The pipe bowl’s marking appears to read: “Kaskaskian Design of a Calumet / Presented to Judge Turner.” The entire object shows traces of what look like dark grey smoke or tobacco stains, with these stains darker and more concentrated near the actual bowl as compared to the stem. There are particularly noticeable dents around the rim and cracks at the base of the bowl, and lightly colored splotches throughout, perhaps indicating frequent usage.

The three pipestems seem to have had varying degrees of use. The shortest pipestem, catalogued as object number 97-83-1432B, appears to show the most degree of use, evidenced by dark grey and black markings, although it is not completely covered with this dark coloration. The catalogue number of this stem, 97-83-1432B, corresponds with the pipe bowl numbered 97-83-1432A, and both measure 16 centimeters in width, which seems to indicate that they were used together.

Pipestem 97-83-1432B, with black-grey potential usage markings spread throughout. Photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The other two pipestems, catalogued as object numbers 97-83-1436 and 97-83-1433, have width measurements different from the pipe bowl, indicating that they were likely not used with the pipe bowl. In fact, visual analysis of these pipestems indicates that they seem to have no dark grey tobacco or smoke markings, perhaps signaling that they have not been used at all.

The Character of the Bowl

In terms of objective measurements, the Penn Museum Kaskaskian beaver bowl stands 11 centimeters in height, 51 centimeters in length, and 15.5 centimeters in width. The bowl is carved from a single block of wood, with inset eyes made of brass tacks. The bowl features a thin carving around its perimeter, a carved and slightly geometrically irregular grid on its tail, and a rather detailed face complete with ears with earholes, a carved nose, and a mouth with a round opening perpendicular to its body, framed by teeth above and below. The underside of the bowl has two catalog numbers—“11523” and “L-83-6”—with the following words written in rather faded ink: “Kaskaskian Design / Presenting a Beaver / March 10, ‘95.”A detailed artistic description of this beaver bowl was published by Charles Willoughby of the Harvard Peabody Museum in a 1908 article in American Anthropologist.[5] Willoughby was rather critical of this bowl, describing its modeling as “stiff and formal” and its carved lines as “angular and inartistic,” mostly done by a steel knife.[6] His opinion could potentially be biased by his affiliation, as his description of the Peabody Museum’s beaver bowl is flowery; he describes the modeling of that bowl as “excellent—there are no sharp angles, the outlines being well rounded and the curves graceful.”[7]

Face details. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Based on the apparent evidence of minimal wear patterns, it has been suggested that the bowl was crafted as a tourist item for Judge Turner, perhaps on the spot.[8] I tend to disagree with this assessment, based in part on the fact that the interior of the actual bowl does show signs of small scratches; it may have been lightly, rather than heavily used. Perhaps it was made specifically for use at the event where Turner acquired it. Also, there are a number of very small red irregularly shaped dots, inconsistently located on the interior of the bowl, but not on the exterior of the beaver. Perhaps these markings are indicative of oils or some other sort of food residue, which would indicate some usage of the bowl. Given the seemingly moderate usage of the pipestem-pipe bowl pairing and the similar estimated usage of the beaver bowl, it is possible that these items could have been used together.

Details of the object from above. Notice the small scratches and red splotches in the interior of the bowl. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

The Penn Museum is home to another beaver bowl, catalogued as object number 45-13-3. This bowl, purchased by the Penn Museum in 1945 from Mrs. Owen Stephens, is attributed to the Miami tribe.[9] In comparison to the Kaskaskian bowl, this bowl features heavier scratches on its interior as well as a greater number of scrapes and dents on its exterior. The soot-like markings on the bottom of the Miami bowl also seem to indicate that it has been charred. The Kaskaskian bowl has no such signs. The Miami beaver bowl is also missing one of its abalone eyes, while the Kaskaskian bowl has both of its brass eyes intact. These factors would seem to indicate that the Miami bowl was used more frequently than the Kaskaskian one.

Details of the Miami-identified beaver bowl. Notice the seemingly heavier wear patterns and charred interior, as compared to the Kaskaskian bowl. Photograph courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The Character of Judge Turner

During the American Revolutionary War, Judge George Turner was a Captain of a South Carolina-based unit who “distinguished himself in several severe engagements,” and was recognized as “the personal friend of Washington.”[10] Yet, a 1797 communication reviewed by the United States House of Representatives reveals that he wasn’t so popular with everyone. The inhabitants of the Illinois territory filed a petition against “illegal and oppressive acts in the execution of his (Turner’s) office,” and he was placed under investigation by the Attorney General.[11] There is no record of Turner’s impeachment, but he did resign in the winter of 1798, likely in response to these charges.

While serving as a judge in the Northwest Territory, Turner was involved in the drafting of several major legal documents, including Maxwell’s Code, the initial federally implemented legal code in the region.[12] Turner was also likely present at the signing of the Treaty of Greenville on August 3, 1795, where delegates from many Native American nations—including Chippewa, Kaskaskian, Miami, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Wyandot—agreed to relinquish lands in what would become the state of Ohio, and establish a fixed border between their nations and the United States.[13] The American representatives provided a large quantity (approximately $20,000 worth) of trade goods, and promised future annual payments of $9,500 each to the Native men who signed the agreement.[14] Were the beaver bowls, pipe bowl, and pipestems perhaps used and collected together at this treaty signing?

During the 45 years following his resignation, Turner published several works, perhaps the most relevant being his 1836 Traits of Indian Character.[15] In this work, Turner uncharitably describes the Kaskaskian Chief Ducoin as the “pretended Chief,” who (according to Turner) only was in power because “the legitimate Chief, named Tamaroa, was, by incapacity, and habitual drunkenness, totally disqualified for the station” (122). Turner recognizes that Ducoin spoke both English and French and had productive diplomatic meetings with Thomas Jefferson, but insists, nonetheless, that Ducoin was a “notorious liar, full of cunning and deceit” (122), whose “impudence never failed him” (123). Turner further insinuates that Ducoin only visited him at Vincennes, Indiana “to fish for presents” (122). Negative depictions of Native chiefs are not uncommon in the colonial era, but they are shocking to read in the writings of an individual who was expected to both negotiate for peace and to render impartial justice.[16]

The documentation also indicates that Turner apparently presided over a trial wherein Ducoin was sued for debt in a court of law. Turner wrote that, after being put under oath, Ducoin suggested “set-off after set-off, in order to balance the plaintiff’s demand” (123). Interestingly, this could demonstrate that Ducoin was attempting to appease his adversary with gifts, but Turner would have none of it. A situation like this might also demonstrate the ongoing attempt to assert sovereignty within the limitations of a colonial system. In the end, Ducoin was forced to pay the remaining balance to the plaintiff.

These descriptions of Ducoin are significant in that this is the only depiction of the Kaskaskian tribe within this book. Perhaps Ducoin and his son, also referenced in the chapter, were Turner’s main point of contact with the Kaskaskian nation. Perhaps the complaints of the Illinois settlers against Turner’s “illegal and oppressive acts” were related, some way, to Turner’s fraught relations with Native American people. It’s worth noting that Turner’s publication came out more than three decades after he was relieved of his duties as a judge.[17] Turner’s dislike of Ducoin and Tamaroa (and, perhaps by extension, all of the Kaskaskian people) may explain why he was so quick to part with the objects that might have signaled a more harmonious relationship.

Footnotes:

[1] See description in the catalogue record for “Beaver Bowl.”  American Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

[2] Turner was a resident of Philadelphia late in his life, so his gifts of these objects to two Philadelphia-based institutions seems to have been a sensible choice that would ensure their preservation. See Turner’s obituary in David H. Williams, American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1844, Boston: David H. Williams, 1843: 331.

[3] Charles C. Willoughby, “Wooden Bowls Of The Algonquian Indians.” American Anthropologist, vol. 10, no. 3 (September 1908): 432.

[4] It is identified as “Algonquian, southwestern Illinois / Collected by Judge George Turner, c. 1795,” and acquired as an 1899 gift from the heirs of David Kimball. See description in the catalogue record for “Beaver Bowl.”  Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University.

[5] Charles C. Willoughby, “Wooden Bowls Of The Algonquian Indians.”  American Anthropologist, vol. 10, no. 3 (September 1908): 433.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] William Wierzbowski, “The Beaver Bowl.” Expedition, 54.3 (2012): 22.

[9] See description in the catalogue record for “Bowl.”  American Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

[10] David H. Williams, American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1844, 331.

[11] Walter Lowrie and Walter S. Franklin, eds. 1834. “Inquiry into Official Conduct of George Turner, Judge of Supreme Court of Northwestern Territory.” May 9, 1796 and February 27, 1797. In American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington: Gales and Seaton, 151, 157.

[12] Arthur St. Clair 1796. “Maxwell’s Code (Laws of the Territory of the United States North-west of the Ohio).” in Laws of the Northwest Territory – 1791-1799. On the Ohio History Connection website.

[13] For a recreated image of that event, see Henry Chandler Christy’s c. 1980-1999 painting, “Signing of the Treaty of Greene Ville” which is prominently displayed in the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse.

[14] Andrew R.L. Cayton, “’Noble Actors upon ‘the Theatre of Honour’: Power and Civility in the Treaty of Greenville,” pp. 235-369 in Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830. University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Also see “Greeneville Treaty Line map” on the Ohio History Connection website.

[15] George Turner, Traits of Indian Character: As Generally Applicable to the Aborigines of North America. Philadelphia: Key and Biddle, 1836.

[16] For present-day expectations of federal judges, see “Code of Conduct for United States Judges,” United States Courts, 2018.

[17] Turner’s book was published in 1836, only a few years removed from President Andrew Jackson’s signing of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Anti-Native American sentiment amongst the white American public was high at this time, providing a large potential market for Turner’s highly critical and likely less-than-fair publication on Native American people. See Jason Edward Black, “Native Resistive Rhetoric and the Decolonization of American Indian Removal Discourse,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 95, no. 23 (February 2009): 66-88.

References:

Black, Jason Edward. 2009. “Native Resistive Rhetoric and the Decolonization of American Indian Removal Discourse.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 95, no. 23 (Feb. 2009):66-88.

Lowrie, Walter, and Walter S. Franklin, eds. 1834. “Inquiry into Official Conduct of George Turner, Judge of Supreme Court of Northwestern Territory.” May 9, 1796 and February 27, 1797. In American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington: Gales and Seaton.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. 1953. “Peale’s Museum.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 43 (1): 253-259.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. 1980. Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Wilson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

St. Clair, Arthur. 1796. “Maxwell’s Code (Laws of the Territory of the United States North-west of the Ohio).” in Laws of the Northwest Territory – 1791-1799. On the Ohio History Connection website.

Taylor, William Alexander. 1905. The Biographical Annals of Ohio. Vol. 2 and 3. Springfield: The Springfield Publishing Company.

Turner, George. 1836. Traits of Indian Character: As Generally Applicable to the Aborigines of North America. Philadelphia: Key and Biddle.

Wierzbowski, William. 2012. “The Beaver Bowl.” Expedition, vol. 54 no. 3, p. 22.

Williams, David H. 1843. American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1844, Boston: David H. Williams.

Willoughby, Charles C. 1908. “Wooden Bowls Of The Algonquian Indians.” American Anthropologist, vol. 10, no. 3 (Sept. 1908): 423–434.


This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With  Liliana Gurrey. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”


 


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