Register to the Papers of
Otis Tufton Mason

By Leigh H. Coen

Revised by
Kathleen T. Baxter

National Anthropological Archives
Smithsonian Institution




Scope and Content Note

Chronology of the Life of Otis Tufton Mason

Series Descriptions and Container Lists

Material Relating to the United States National Museum Basketry Collection

Material relating to Modes of Travel and Transportation, c. 1884-1900

Material Relating to the Knife Collection of the United States National Museum

Information Relating to Mortuary Customs



This portion of the papers of Otis Tufton Mason (1838-1908) was transferred to the National Anthropological Archives from the Department of Anthropology in 1965. The collection is 2.5 linear feet in length.


Scope and Content Note

This sporadically dated collection spans Otis T. Mason's officially recognized work at the Smithsonian Institution from 1884 to 1908. Mason had begun his professional career at his alma mater, Columbian University (now George Washington University), where he spent the middle third of his life (1861-1884) as a teacher and principal of the preparatory department. In 1872, Joseph Henry redirected Mason's interest from Eastern Mediterranean studies to American ethnology and introduced Mason to what was to become a 36-year career at the United States National Museum. For the first twelve years, 1872-1884, Mason worked as one of S.F. Baird's unpaid part-time "resident collaborators" in ethnology. In 1884, Mason left Columbian University, where he had worked his way up to "Professor of Anthropology," to become the Smithsonian's first full-time curator of Ethnology. In 1902, he became acting head curator and, in 1905, permanent head curator, of the Department of Anthropology, serving as curator of the department until his death in 1908.

It is difficult to determine exactly the dates of most of the material in the Otis T. Mason collection. Only a small percentage of the papers is dated correspondence, the bulk consisting of notes, articles, catalogues, clippings, and illustrations related to the United States National Museum basketry and knife collections and to the topics of "Modes of Travel and Transportation" and "Mortuary "Customs." From their content, much of this material seems to date to the late 1870s and 1880s, when Mason was working on these collections. As far as actual dated material goes, Mason's own articles (not counting his collection of articles by other authors) and dated notes and letters cover 1884, 1888-1889, 1892, 1894-1904. It is presumed, then, that the collection generally spans the years from 1884-1904.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Mason was largely occupied with organizing and cataloguing the United States National Museum ethnology collections and with installing them in the new building which was opened in 1881. Extensive material in the papers pertains to these USNM specimens. The largest section of the Mason material relates to the basketry collection and includes slipnote catalogues which were sometimes annotated and/or accompanied by photographs. The letters and notes found with the catalogues contain information similar in nature to accession papers on at least six accessions of basketry, including a "Catalog of the Hudson of Indian Products, 1899," and material on the Fred Harvey Collection. Also present are handwritten and typescript notes; extracts from various early sources; letters from dealers, collectors, and anthropologists; clippings; articles and illustrations, and photographs relating not only to the basket collection, and to mortuary customs. The original arrangement of this material into topical series and the arrangement of Mason's notebooks by topic and type of object reflect the topological approach to specimens that characterized Mason's work in this period.

Material related to the Otis T. Mason collection is also to be found in the National Anthropological Archives Records of the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the Department of Anthropology, including the Division of Ethnology Manuscript and Pamphlet file. The following materials in the National Anthropological Archives series of Numbered Manuscripts are also pertinent:

A.S.W./Anthrop., Hist. of, 4821 (pt.): Box 4. "Anthropology in the District of Columbia..." (39 pages, dated 1906) and two letters pertaining to it

Anthrop., Hist. Of, 49033: "Diary of Otis T. Mason.." from 1 July 1884 to 23 May 1891 (approximately 100 pages)

Arch., U.S., 2431: notes, sketches, and letters used in Smithsonian Annual Reports for 1876-1879 and 1881-1883

Athapaskan, 173 and Tinne (Kutchin), 169: translation and notes from works of Petitot (total of 68 pages)

Choctaw, 666: revision of Byington's grammar of Choctaw (ca. 1872)

Census, 4289: report on Indian education for the 10th census

Africa, Morocco, 7083: Choctaw, 4056; Fewkes 4408 (5-a); Mohaven 7036; and Pamunkey, 2218: various letters to Mason containing ethnographic or linguistic information (dated from 1891 to 1893).

In the United States National Museum Manuscript and Pamphlet File, Boxes 4, 14, 20, 35-40, and 70, is material on the topics represented in the Mason papers as well as other material produced by Mason. Additional material originally found with the Otis Mason collection was, from its nature and arrangement, determined to belong to the Manuscript and Pamphlet file and has been moved to that collection. This material consists of numerous articles, notes, and manuscripts, including 14 manuscripts by Thomas Wilson of the Division of Prehistoric Anthropology, correspondence between W.H. Holmes and Zelia Nuttalll, and correspondence between A. F. White and Thomas Wilson. All are listed under "Thomas Wilson" in the guide to the Manuscript and Pamphlet file (Box 84).

Additional papers, consisting of administrative files and correspondence, were originally found with the Otis Mason collection but clearly belongs to the anthropology Department's own administrative files and so were moved to that collection in the National Anthropological Archives. Correspondents included in the eleven letterpress books moved to the Anthropology Department collection are W. H. Holmes, Ales Hrdlicka, Walter Hough, and E. H. Hawley. These papers relate almost entirely to administrative matters directed by Mason and very little to Mason's own ethnological and anthropological research.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives has a small series of copies of letters which Mason wrote to the Smithsonian in 1889 while on a trip in Europe to study museum practices (SIA 7086)


Chronology of the Life of Otis Tufton Mason

1838 Born April 10, Eastport, Maine; childhood in Philadelphia and then in Haddonfield, New Jersey

Mason family moved to Woodlawn, Virginia


Student at Columbian University (now George Washington University) specializing in the culture/history of the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean; graduated with A.B. degree in 1861


Principal and teacher of the Preparatory Department of Columbian University


Married Sarah E. Henderson


Collaborator in Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution; his work in this period included preparing the tribal synonymy which later became Hodge's Handbook, preparing exhibit schemes for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, arranging and cataloguing the United States National Museum ethnological collections, and editing the anthropology sections of American Naturalist (1876-87) and three other serials


With J.M. Toner and G. Mallery, founded the Anthropological Society of Washington and write its constitution; received Ph.D. from Columbian University

1879-1905 Collaborator with the Bureau of American Ethnology
1881 Collaborator with the Bureau of American Ethnology
1881 The United States National Museum building opened
1884-1902 Curator of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution
1890-1908 Served on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names
1892-1895 President of the Anthropological Society of Washington
1898 Received LL.D. from Columbian University
1902-1905 Acting head curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution
1905-1908 Head curator, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution
1908 Died, November 5, Washington.

Sources: Obituary by Walter Hough in American Anthropologist 10 (Oct-Dec 1908); obituary by Ales Hrdlicka in Science 28 (11/27/1908; obituary in Popular Science Monthly 74 (Jan 1909); and the articles in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1900), Who's Who in America 5 (1908), Dictionary of American Biography 12 (1933) by Walter Hough, and the November 5, 1908, Washington Evening Star.


Series Descriptions and Container Lists


Arranged by type of material.

Six notebooks comprising a slipnote catalogue of United States National Museum basketry specimens numbered from 455 to 209,512; one notebook of printed labels for basketry specimens; a large number of reprints and clipped published articles, all pertaining to American Indian basketry and /or the United States National Museum basketry collection, together with notes, annotations, and correspondence from the authors; additional correspondence from dealers, private collectors, and anthropologists; numerous typed and handwritten notes by Mason and others regarding baskets and basket-making techniques; and one folder full of photographs and drawings of baskets, including some from Mary Wright Gill, Captain D. D. Gaillard, Livingston Farrand (Salish Basketry design article), A. C. Vroman, and L. W. Jenkins (Peabody Academy of Science basketry exhibit). Extensive material on the J. W. Hudson collection, including a "Catalog of the Hudson Collection of Indian Products, 1899" with 368 entries, and the Fred Harvey collection, plus material on at least four other other Untied States National Museum basketry accessions. Anthropologists and other individuals among the correspondents include: C. P. Wilcomb of San Francisco's Memorial Museum (plant material, Santa Ynez Mission), Miss Picher, H. E. Williams (Hat Creek), A. M. Lang (Oregon and Washington Tribes), Frank Russell (Pima), Mrs. Harriet and E. T. McArthur (Sasta, Rogue (?), Clapooya, and Modoc), Rust (Rust Collection, USNM acc. #37098, cat. #207, 576-207, 685) Chas. L. Owen of Field Columbian Museum (Apache), Mrs. E. B. Power (Digger), S. L. (Washoe), C. F. Lummis, Washington Matthews (Navajo), C. Hart Merriam (California), G. C. Simms of Field Columbian Museum, Mrs. I. Froham (Alaskan tribes), Mrs. A. Cohn (Washoe), A. L. Kroeber (concerning the Fred Harvey baskets and 37 other baskets), (Klickitat, Umatillas, USNM acc. #41579, cat. #221, 483-221, 499), Frank M. Covert, H. C. Brown, Mrs. Herrick, Mrs. Shakleford, F. V. Coville (botanical notes and list), Rev. M. Eels (Salishm USNM cat. #120, 435 and others), Lt. G. T. Emmons, and Franz Boaz (Alaskan basketry article by Emmons, Haida).

Box 1

Catalog of Basketry







Basketry Labels

Box 2


Mrs. E. H. Bradley Collection

J. W. Hudson Basketry Papers

Notes [4 folders]

Photographs and Illustrations



Arranged by type of material or by topic.

Unbound notebooks, reprints, or clipped articles published in newspaper and journals, pphotographs, drawings, notes, and correspondence, all pertaining to modes of travel and transportation. Some of the notes and drawings are of united States National Museum specimens, prepared for publication. Three of the above-mentioned notebooks, arranged by topic and type of object, form a slipnote catalogue of United States National Museum specimens (including cat. #562-169,047) with annotations and topical and bibiographic notes (folder 2). A fourth notebook contains material on "Pre-Columbian Watercraft," including a manuscript on "Aboriginal American Canoes" (folder 7). Three folders (folders 4, 5, 6 ) contain Mason's unbound notebooks arranged loosely by subject, consisting of extracts from various publications, notes, illustrations, and scattered correspondence. Correspondents include O. P. Cook, John Murdock, Frederick Remington, J. Chester Morris, Ira M. Price, G. H. Wallace, and H. I. Smith. These three folders of notes are similar in content and arrangement to material found in the United States National Museum manuscript and pamphlet file.

Box 2 (continued)

Museum manuscript and pamphlet file.


Catalog of specimens

Box 3

Catalog of Specimens [3 folders]

Newspaper Clippings

Notes [2 folders]

Box 4

Notes [2 folders]

Pre-Columbian Watercraft in America [2 folders]

Photographs and Illustrations [2 folders]



Arranged by type of material.

Two items; a reprint of Mason's article "The man's Knife Among the North American Indians, " and an annotated slipnote catalogue of United States National Museum curved knives.

Box 5

Catalog and Article



Arranged topically.

One folder of Mason's unbound typed notes, including typed extracts from various sources and articles from journals and newspapers. Format of United States National Museum manuscript and pamphlet file.

Box 5 (continued)

Notes [2 folders]


Last updated: June 21, 2001
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Finding Aids to the National Anthropological Archives
Smithsonian Institution