The Charles H. Stephens Collection

By: H. N. W.

Originally Published in 1932

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THE Hall of South American Archaeology has been transformed by the temporary exhibition of a goodly portion of the Charles H. Stephens Collection of American Indian Art. Beauty of color and design, as shown in costume and objects of ceremonial and of use, still serving the Indian in the last century, vividly suggest the colorful pageants viewed by Coronado, by Lewis and Clark, and by George Catlin and Paul Kane, pioneers in the line of artist-travelers to which the late Mr. Charles II. Stephens belonged.

A buffalo robe laid out decorated with porcupine quills in a sun pattern
Plate XII — Bison Robe from the Stephens Collection
Museum Object Number: 45-15-702
Image Number: 13086

He early realized that the northern Great Plains offered the most picturesque subjects for pencil and brush, and it was in Dakota and Montana that he began his collecting by purchase, by gift or, as in the case of the superb sun-robe shown in Plate XII, by exchange of his own art-product. This fine bison robe bears the rayed sun design and the blanket strip in porcupine quill embroidery. It is a chief’s robe, to be worn on ceremonial occasions.

There are other robes in the collection, notably a woman’s robe with unusual design, painted in dull earth reds and greens on a soft chrome yellow ground. Designs of this old type occur also on the Crow and Blackfoot parfleches, folding cases of painted raw-hide, used for storage of family possessions and on cylindrical cases for the safe keeping of feather war-bonnets. The collection is rich in war-bonnets: four long trailing head-dresses, three of eagle and one of dyed hawk feathers, and five short bonnets, such as were worn before the acquisition of the horse. There are two Apache caps of cut leather and wild turkey feathers, a number of hair roaches of woven moose and porcupine bristle, and many scalplock ornaments.

Typical of the way the collection was built up is the history of a pair of Ute leggings heavily fringed and beaded with large black and white beads of the Hudson Bay Company. This pair was acquired by the landscape painter, Peter Moran, passing through the hands of two other artists to Mr. Stephens.

One of the fine old quilled shirts is of interest as having belonged to ‘Wa-dme-ni-ca’, the ‘Orphan,’ hereditary chief of the Sisseton Sioux, about 1850. It has the long-fringed unjoined sleeve and the large blue beads of its period.

A bag made of a beaver decorated with beads
Plate XIII — Beaver-Skin Medicine Bag from the Stephens Collection
Museum Object Number: 45-15-849
Image Number: 13088

Older still are objects gathered by the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, George Catlin and General Wheeler. As such rare pieces came under the hammer, they were eagerly sought by the collector. From the first transcontinental expedition came the carved wooden bowl in beaver-form and a painted mask of the Naas tribe of British Columbia, given by Governor George Clark to Catlin. From the Catlin and Wheeler collections are two buffalo-hide shields, painted and feathered, a medicine man’s head-dress with bison’s horns and scalp, and some eighteen rare old calumets- the carved or quilled stems essential to the pipes of peace or war.

There are notable pieces of wood-carving: a war club in human head form from the Osage; an exquisite whistle ending in an elk head with delicate antlers, used in the Grass Dance of the Oglala Sioux; time-keepers or musical rasps ornamented with dainty birds and the cottontail rabbit, from the Apache.

It is impossible to give an adequate idea of the beauty and richness of this collection-the royally blue beaded woman’s dress, the Cree cape of floral pattern, the large series of moccasins and leggings, of pipe and tobacco pouches, belt pouches, knife sheaths, each a thing of delight, and all the minor gear of Plains life. There is also a showing of Pueblo pottery and of Navaho blankets and silver work.

The people of the Eastern Woodlands are represented by a birch-bark case delicately embroidered in moose bristles; a Chippewa medicine-bag made of a perfect beaver skin, with beaded paws, ‘heart’ and tail [Plate XIII]; a headed shoulder pouch; a woman’s beaded headdress, and several finely quilled pieces. There are two pairs of quilled moccasins from the Algonquin Indians settled in Ohio, dated about 1820. Most beautiful of all is a single moccasin, its vegetable-dyed quills as brilliant and harmonious as the day it came from the hand of a Lenape woman, probably much more than a century ago.
Mr. Stephen’s collection has been long known to Museum curators and collector’s, both for the beauty and the rarity of its specimens, as probably the most important private assemblage of American ethnographica.


Cite This Article

W., H. N.. "The Charles H. Stephens Collection." Museum Bulletin III, no. 5 (March, 1932): 131-138. Accessed July 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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