Photographer and collector George Thornton Emmons was chiefly concerned with the Tlingit in southern Alaska, in particular Chilkat blankets and basketry, but he later wrote numerous works that directly pertain to British Columbia. Between 1882 and 1887, Emmons gathered an enormous collection of Tlingit items, carefully catalogued, for sale to the American Museum in New York for $12,000 in 1888. "I wish the Museum to obtain the collection,"; Emmons wrote, "as I can make it the finest Indian collection from one people that is known."; Franz Boas concurred, describing Emmons' shipment of 1,284 catalogued items as the most complete exhibition of its kind ever assembled from southern Alaska. Among the trustees who paid for this extraordinary acquisition were John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J. Pierpoint Morgan. The Emmons inventory became the envy of the National Museum in Washington D.C. and Emmons was encouraged by his correspondents, Franz Boas and Morris K. Jesup, president of the American Museum of Natural History, to collect and publish his knowledge of the Tlingit. His encyclopedic work was eventually completed by Frederica de Laguna and published as The Tlingit Indians (1955) after Emmons had died in Victoria, B.C. on June 11, 1945.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 6, 1852, Emmons was the son of George Foster Emmons, a career naval officer who had participated in U.S. exploratory voyages to the North Pacific and South Pacific in 1939-1942. Raised in a household that valued ethnography, Emmons moved with his family to Princeton, attended schools in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and gained his entry to the U.S. Naval Academy as a presidential appointment. After his graduation in 1874, he served in the Mediterranean and attained the rank of master in 1881. Emmons was sent to Alaska as a Lieutenant aboard the USS Adams in 1882, attained the rank of Lieutenant in 1883, and switched to the USS Pinta in 1884. In Sitka, Alaska, he met and married Kittie Baker in 1886. After he had acquired his considerable knowlege of his Tlingit and Tahltan artifacts, as well as Chilkat blanket-weaving, bear hunting, feuds and the potlatch, Emmons was assigned to accompany the Alaskan exhibit at the Columbian Exposition of the Chicago World's Fair.

Retired in 1899, Emmons was sent to Alaska in 1901 to locate border stone markers between Canada and the U.S. In 1902 the Field Museum of Natural History purchased another Emmons' collection of more than 1,900 Tlingit artifacts. In response to starvation among the Copper River Indians, he appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 for aid and delivered a report on the situation to the American Congress in 1905. As a contributor to scholarly journals that included the American Museum Journal, Emmons wrote a variety of articles on Aboriginal culture, some pertaining to British Columbia. These include The Basketry of the Tlingit, Copper Neck-rings of Southern Alaska, Petroglyphs of Southeastern Alaska, The Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, Niska, the Ketselas of British Columbia, Some Kitksan Totem Poles, Portraiture among the North Pacific Coast Tribes, Tsimshian Stories in Carved Wood, Slate Mirrors of the Tsimshian, and The Kitikshan and Their Totem Poles.

Towards the end of his collecting days, Emmons and his friend C.F. Newcombe suffered from the decline in availability of collectible items and the waning demand from museums. He grew disenchanted with his employers, such as Boas, and complained in 1915, "Today, they do not seem to be willing to go out and study the life of the Natives but sit in their offices and discuss theories and psychology and there then seems to be in the New York Museum men who love to praise each other... Out of the simplest act of primitive man they want to find some distant motive.";

A scholarly work by Emmons in 1930 entitled The Art of the Northwest Coast Indians: How Ancestral Records Were Preserved in Carvings and Paintings of Mythical or Fabulous Animal Figures was reprinted by the Haunted Bookshop in Victoria, with a cover illustration by Bill Reid, as The Art of the Northwest Coast Indians (1971). This booklet contains some noteworthy photos of Tlingit, Haida and Kwakiutl house fronts. Emmons' papers are at Yale University. Other Emmons titles are The Chilkat Blanket (1907), The Tahltan Indians (1911), The Whale House of the Chilkat (1916), Slate Mirrors of the Tsimshian (1921), Jade in British Columbia and Alaska and Its Use by the Natives (1923), The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket (1993) and Will the Time Ever Come?: A Tlingit Source Book (2001).


Emmons, George Thornton. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History. Volume III, Part IV., The Chilkat Blanket, December, 1907 (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1907).

Emmons, George Thornton. The Tahltan Indians (Philadelphia: The University Museum 1911).

Emmons, George Thornton. The Whale House of the Chilkat (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1916).

Emmons, George Thornton. Slate Mirrors of the Tsimshian (New York: Museum of the American Indian, 1921).

Emmons, George Thornton. Jade in British Columbia and Alaska and Its Use by the Natives (New York: Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Indian Notes and Monographs 35, 1923).

Emmons, George Thornton. The Tlingit Indians (University of Washington Press, 1955, Douglas & McIntyre, University of Washington Press, 1991). Edited by Frederica de Laguna.

Emmons, George Thornton. The Art of the Northwest Coast Indians (Victoria: Haunted Bookshop, 1971). Reprint of a scholarly article.

Emmons, George Thornton. The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket (Friends of Sheldon Jackson, 1993). Reprint of scholarly articles.

Emmons, George Thornton & Andrew Hope & Thomas Thornton. Will the Time Ever Come?: A Tlingit Source Book (University of Washington Press, 2001).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "First Nations" "Art" "Anthropology" "Photography"