JPH–The Mystery Man of California Anthropology

JPH the mystery man of California anthropology




John Peabody Harrington was a sneaky man. For years he held a position with the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology. He was seldom in his office, sneaking off into the field to record Native American languages. Usually no one knew where he was. Many times he didn’t even cash his paychecks.


He was on a mission, one that he pursued single-mindedly from 1906, when he began his field work with the Mohave, until 1961, when he died. His publications were few but their quality was top-notch. His legacy was his field notes which he started showing up after his death.


The notes number 800,000 and have been microfilmed by the Smithsonian Institution. The microfilms can be viewed at some universities. Considering the devotion he exerted to record his notes he made little effort to preserve them. At his death bills from Bekin’s started showing up at the Smithsonian for the storage of the notes at various locations. Other boxes showed up from other places. When researchers started looking at what he had recorded they were dumbfounded.


He had taken down numerous native languages and lore in those languages. Many times he had located the last few speakers of the languages to receive their knowledge before they died. That was what impelled him on his mission, the fact that the elders who kept this information were passing away.


While in the field he was almost paranoid about recording this information before other anthropologists could. He coded the names of his informants in his notes and jealously guarded their identities and whereabouts. He did not have a very good relationship with other anthropologists and had a fraught relationship with the Bureau of Ethnology. Despite his openness to Native American cultures he was anti-semitic. He thought Alfred Kroeber, the other major collector of California lore was a Jew and was prejudiced against him. Kroeber was a German-American and was not Jewish.


Harrington’s wife, Cairobeth, wrote a memoir of her few years married to him. The title, Encounter With An Angry God, referred to the fact that when she met him he seemed to her to be almost an angry god. As engaging reading as a novel, the book is our best source of information about Harrington even though it paints a negative picture of him. By the time she divorced him she had fallen in love with one of their Chemehuevi informants, George Laird, who she eventually married.


JPH was born in 1884. His mother was a teacher, his father a lawyer. He graduated with honors with an AB degree from Stanford. He declined a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to do graduate studies in Germany. He never finished his doctorate and returned to the States to teach high school, recording native languages on the side. In 1915 he was hired by the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology and in 1916 married Cairobeth. They had a daughter, Awona, who became a librarian at San Diego State University. In 1923 he and Cairobeth divorced.


During World War II he was employed by the war Department translating documents from foreign languages. He proposed using Native Americans as code talkers. Whether it was his instigation or somebody else’s that began the use of code talkers in the Pacific theater is unclear. He resented having to suspend his fieldwork for the war.


After the war he returned to the field and retired from the Bureau of American ethnology in 1954. He left Washington DC to return to California to record more native languages. He was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative ailment and in 1961 his daughter found him in a hospital. She took him to her home in San Diego where he died. He was 77.


While working on a film with Quechan filmmaker Dan Golding, I was able to locate two elders who had known Harrington when they were young. One was Chumash elder Ernestine De Soto and the other was Jack Marr. Jack died soon after we filmed him. His remembrances will be covered in a future blog.


JPH has made a lasting mark in California anthropology. His notes are being transcribed in some of the communities where he worked. In many instances this is being done by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his informants. They are being turned into a searchable database. Despite his peculiarities, many native people are grateful for what he accomplished.

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