Understanding the Life of Florence Shotridge

By: and Maria Murad

December 7, 2021

Florence Shotridge (1882-1917), or Kaatxwaaxsnéi, was a Tlingit woman from Haines, Alaska, near the Chilkoot River. She, along with her husband, Louis Shotridge, worked for the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania collecting Tlingit objects and conducting ethnographic research on their own culture. Her husband, Louis Shotridge, is a well-known Tlingit ethnographer and collector, but much of his work in his early career was done in collaboration with Florence – yet she is not often mentioned in these early years of his work. My senior thesis project aims to breathe new life into Florence’s story. In addition to a traditional research paper, I created a short documentary film to share Florence’s life and legacy beyond the Penn Museum and Tlingit community.

Florence Shotridge in Tlingit-style hide dress and moccasins, in front of her Chilkat blanket on August 15, 1915. (Photo: Penn Museum Archives)

I first learned about Florence Shotridge in an undergraduate course titled “Women Making History: The Penn Museum and the Centennial 2020” taught by Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Professor at Penn, Dr. Heather Sharkey. Upon a surface-level exploration of Florence’s biography, I felt a deep, intrinsic longing to learn more about her.

Middle section of the Chilkoot village. (Photo: Louis Shotridge, PM Image no. 14774)

In order to find as much information as possible on Florence, I explored the archival material about her and Louis Shotridge, in the Penn Museum and the Canadian Museum of History archives and collections. I also relied heavily on the The Louis Shotridge Digital Archive, spearheaded and created by my advisor, Dr. Lucy Fowler Williams. This online resource has been indispensable throughout the remote portion of my research during the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes information on the Shotridges’ life, as well as the objects, photographs, and audio recordings they collected during their expedition to Alaska. Once I was able to access the Penn Museum collections, I also studied and analyzed Tlingit objects from the first Shotridge Expedition, an expedition led by both Florence and Louis. The most informative object I used at the Penn Museum is Florence’s unfinished Chilkat Blanket, and the most informative from the Canadian Museum of History was her completed Chilkat Blanket.

The author filming Florence’s unfinished blanket (NA 3902) in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room. (Photo: Madison Auten)

Like many Tlingit women, Florence learned Chilkat weaving, which is a complex weaving technique used by the Tlingit. Florence was asked by her husband to make the Chilkat Robe seen below. Following one’s mother, Tlingit individuals belong to one of two halves or moieties in the Tlingit nation – Raven or Eagle – and there are many families on each side. Following proper rules of art production, commissioned Chilkat robes are usually made by someone from the opposite moiety. Woven of Mountain Goat wool and incorporating a warp of cedar bark, Chilkat blankets are worn by high-ranking officials on special occasions such as potlatches. They are decorated with family clan symbols and worn as a form of pride and connection to home. Louis belonged to the Wolf clan of the Eagle moiety. This robe’s design includes shark and grizzly bear emblems, both symbols of the Wolf clan. Louis sold it to the Canadian Museum of History in Quebec where it is still housed today. Florence likely started her second Chilkat Blanket, seen above, around 1912. Sadly, she died from tuberculosis at a young age and did not have the opportunity to complete it.

Florence completed her Chilkat Blanket in 1906. It now resides in the collections of the Canadian Museum of History in Quebec.
(Photo: Canadian Museum of History, CMH VII-A-131)

As part of my research methodology, I interviewed two contemporary Tlingit community members to gain an emic perspective on their culture and traditions. Because of the pandemic I conducted the interviews virtually. I talked with Lily Hope, a Tlingit Chilkat weaver from Juneau, Alaska who is affiliated with the T’akdeintaan clan of the Raven moiety. I also interviewed Donna Beaver who is originally from Juneau, Alaska and currently resides in New Jersey. Donna is affiliated with the Kagwaantaan clan, also from Juneau, Alaska. She is an artist and poet who currently works for the U.S. Geological Survey. Lily and Donna generously shared invaluable details and connections that give me a better understanding of Tlingit culture in the early 1900s and today.

This model of Klukwan village (PM 29-228-2), made by Louis and Florence Shotridge in 1913, sits in the East Entrance of the Penn Museum. (Photo: Maria Murad)

From these various sources of data, I could better understand the events and achievements of Florence’s life. This model of Klukwan village, for example, provides a glimpse into her family history, values, and lived experience. Made by Louis and Florence in 1913, this diorama is remarkably detailed – even within the buildings, the furniture, painted crests, and figurines are all to scale.

In 1916, George Byron Gordon, an Americanist and Director of the Penn Museum, asked Florence and Louis to lead the Shotridge Expedition. The couple returned to Haines in order to purchase collections for the Museum with funds from Museum Board Member and Philadelphia retail magnate John Wannamaker. This was the first anthropological expedition we know of to be conducted by Native Americans. It is important to note, however, that Louis was paid as an employee of the Museum and Florence was not, though they were co-leaders of the expedition.

Florence died of tuberculosis in this house on June 12, 1917. (Photo: Louis Shortridge, PM Image no. S4-14739)

Louis and Florence settled in Haines in a house that Louis had set up for field work. While on the expedition, Florence fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, something she had struggled with for some time. It was there on June 12, 1917, two years into the Shortridge Expedition, that Florence Shotridge died. Louis was shaken by her death and took time before returning to work. Over the following twenty years, he returned to Philadelphia on only a few occasions. Over the course of his employment, he collected 560 objects, 300 black and white photos, and several audio recordings which are still housed in the Penn Museum today. Some of these collections have since been repatriated.

Though Louis completed the Expedition on his own after Florence’s death, many of the objects collected early in his career may not have been procured or studied without Florence. She worked alongside him during the early years of his career, and hopefully my research on her life allows both academics and the public to better understand and appreciate the life of Florence Shotridge.

Maria’s finished documentary

Maria Murad is a recent graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences with a major in Anthropology and minors in Ancient History and Cinema and Media Studies. She was one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2020-2021 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program provides financial and research support to three Penn undergraduates as they complete a capstone project or thesis that articulates with the Penn Museum’s collections, archives, galleries, or broader mission.