NEWCOMBE, C.F. (Charles Frederic)




Author Tags: 1700-1800, First Nations, Medicine

Besides George Hunt and James Teit, the other prominent British Columbia collector of Aboriginal artifacts for anthropologist Franz Boas was Charles Frederick Newcombe, the Provincial Museum’s first abiding collector as well as B.C.'s first psychiatrist.

Born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Scotland in 1851 and educated in Aberdeen, Newcombe worked in British asylums prior to moving with his pregnant wife and three children to the Columbia River gorge in 1884, then onto Victoria in 1889. Independently wealthy, he continued to indulge his amateur passion for natural history, developing a sidelong interest in Aboriginal antiquities. His field research naturally led him to an early affiliation with the Provincial Museum, created in 1886 by the likes of Judge Matthew Begbie and Dr. W.F. Tolmie (both amateur collectors) in response to the unwanted influx of foreign collectors to British Columbia.

Newcombe’s life in Victoria was unfettered until his wife died after childbirth in 1891. Bereaved and basically retired in his late 30s, Newcombe was able to support his five children with his considerable investments in British railways. Trading grief for travel, Newcombe headed to Europe and also visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Equally important, Newcombe stopped at Montreal and met George Mercer Dawson who, by this time, was wary of the American anthropologist Franz Boas. Whereas Dawson had initially sponsored Boas' work in British Columbia, he grew to resent the exportation of artifacts from Canada to the U.S. and he privately accused Boas--within a letter he wrote to Newcombe--of abusing the trust of the British Association for which Boas was ostensibly working.

Dawson gave Newcombe the ethnological lay of the land, appealing to Newcombe's patriotic allegiances as a Brit, and suggesting Boas was chiefly driven by personal ambition more than science. Dawson's high-mindedness struck a chord with Newcombe, but it didn't resonate for the rest of his days. Returning to Victoria, Newcombe met Boas in 1894 and continued his sailing expeditions in the Gulf Islands, also visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands with the Provincial Museum's Francis Kermode (after whom the white Kermode bear is named) in 1895, and indulging his botanizing instincts at Barkley Sound in 1896. The turning point for Newcombe was a return trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1897 with his ten-year-old son. Four commissions that summer transformed Newcombe from a field naturalist to an ethnologist and avid collector; Boas wanted a totem pole for $150, Dawson pledged $300 for artifacts, B.C. Premier J.H. Turner requested a Haida pole for Kew Botanical Gardens in England, and Dr. Hugo Schauinsland asked for another totem pole on behalf of the museum in Bremen. Newcombe fulfilled three of these four commissions, failing only to satisfy Boas' request from New York.

"Newcombe was now a part of the museum scramble," wrote Douglas Cole, in Captured Heritage. Although Newcombe would supply some items to Boas and Stewart Culin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in his many years ahead as a freelance collector, he initially divided his loyalties primarily between Dawson in Ottawa and George Dorsey at the Field Museum in Chicago. After an 1899 excursion Newcombe sent two unusual Kwakiutl items to Dawson; a 13-foot house entrance totem of a man with his legs spread apart, holding his penis, and also a grease dish depicting a man with testicles "from which springs his erect organ." Following a 1900 foray to the Queen Charlotte Islands, he supplied Culin with a substantial collection from Masset, including two totems. On that trip Newcombe again met Boas, this time at Alert Bay, and he made friends with novice anthropologist John Swanton at Skidegate. Newcombe admired Boas as a prestigious scientist and told him he had "never been disinclined to render you such as is in my power" but Boas regarded Newcombe along the lines of the other ex-pat British collector, Charles Hill-Tout, as a rank amateur. It didn't help that Newcombe, like Hill-Tout, was not above seeking prestige in lieu of adequate payment. Boas apparently interpreted such strivings as a form of weakness, or else British snobbishness. Either way, from 1902 to 1906, Newcombe worked mainly for the Field Museum, visiting Chicago for two months in 1903. He became increasingly reliant on the services of Kwakiutl Charlie Nowell as a procurer. In turn, Newcombe arranged for Nowell to appear at the 1904 St. Louis Universal Exposition along with Bob Harris from Fort Rupert, and the Clayoquot contingent of Dr. Atlieu, his daughter Annie, Jasper Turner, Jack Curley and his mother Ellen Curley. With Newcombe in attendance, they appeared in the fair's anthropology section alongside Ainu from Japan, pygmies from Africa, Teheulche from Patagonia and other American Aboriginals for an "assemblage of physical types" that organizers boasted was the most complete ever achieved. Newcombe also brought a 53 ft. by 42 ft. Nootka house, purchased from the Nootka storekeeper for $100.

Newcombe collected for those who best appreciated him. With the death of Dawson in 1901, he lacked support for his efforts from eastern Canada. "As a patriotic Britisher, I must own that I often sigh when I think how lightly these things are regarded by mine own countrymen," he once wrote. In his later years he increasingly provided materials to the provincial museum and became one of the first collectors of paintings by Emily Carr. He died in Victoria in 1924. C.F. Newcombe did not publish much in the field of ethnology but he did re-arrange the Pacific Northwest Aboriginal holdings of the Provincial Museum in 1909, according to tribal origins, and that same year he produced a 69-page illustrated catalogue, Guide to Anthropological Collection in the Provincial Museum.

As an avid sailor he also edited a version of Archibald Menzies' journal of his voyage with Captain George Vancouver in 1792 and he attempted to provide the first scholarly proof to vindicate the contention of Captain George Vancouver that his ships were the first to complete the navigation of the inner channels which separate Vancouver Island from the British Columbia mainland--although Vancouver never circumnavigated Vancouver Island as Newcombe's title has suggested. In 2005, a copy of Newcombe's The First Circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, Memoir No. 1 (1914), signed by Provincial Archivist E.O.S. Scholefield, was offered for sale for more than $3,000. It represents the first bulletin of the British Columbia Provincial Archives Department.

PUBLICATIONS:

Newcombe, C.F. Guide to Anthropological Collection in the Provincial Museum (Victoria: Provincial Museum, 1909).

Newcombe, C.F. The First Circumnavigation of Vancouver Island (Victoria: British Columbia Archives, William H. Cullin, 1914).

Newcombe, C.F. (editor). [Archibald] Menzies' Journal of Vancouver's Voyage, April to October, 1792. (Victoria: Government of British Columbia, 1923).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "1700-1800" "George Vancouver" "First Nations"