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John Harvard's Journal

New from Lewis and Clark

March-April 2004

Two collections assistants at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology were making an inventory of objects in the Oceania storerooms last December when they came upon a necklace that didn't look to them like something from a South Pacific island. They summoned the collections manager. On January 15 museum director William Fash announced the discovery of a Native American bear-claw necklace acquired by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their epic trek 200 years ago. It is one of only seven known Indian objects that can be positively linked to Lewis and Clark.

Separated from its original Peale Museum label (below) this Native American necklace was lost on a South Sea island.
Photographs courtesy of the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology

Probably given to the explorers by an Indian chief in a diplomatic exchange of gifts full of meaning, the necklace consists of 38 claws, each about three inches long, attached with rawhide thongs to a fur foundation, possibly weasel. Red pigment originally covering the claws has largely worn away. Bear-claw necklaces from any period are rare, and according to one expert, this one is probably the earliest surviving example in the world.

Lewis and Clark and President Thomas Jefferson gave about 70 Native American objects obtained on the journey to the Peale Museum in Philadelphia (see "Buckskin Diplomacy," November-December 2003, page 32). A portion of these objects migrated in 1848 to Moses Kimball's Boston Museum, and his heirs gave them to the Peabody in 1899. The Peabody cataloged the necklace and retained a Peale Museum label describing it thus: "Indian Necklace made of the claws of the Grizzly Bear — Presented by Capt. Lewis and Clark." But at the last minute the heirs decided to keep the necklace. When a descendant finally gave it to the Peabody, in 1941, a staff member cataloged it erroneously, and the "whale-bone" necklace was lost in Oceania. Peale's label remained with the curators of Native American artifacts, a frustrating reminder of treasure gone missing.

The necklace will be added this spring to the museum's current exhibition "From Nation to Nation: Re-examining Lewis and Clark's Indian Collection."

On-line at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology:

The Ethnography of Lewis and Clark