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About the Collection | Access the Collection | About J. P. Harrington

About the Collection

The J. P. Harrington Collection of linguistic and cultural materials is one of the most remarkable holdings of the National Anthropological Archives (NAA).  The collection includes documentation on over 130 languages, many of which are now highly endangered or no longer actively spoken.  For many of these languages it is the best historic record; for some, it is the only surviving record. Linguists and communities interested in language revitalization consider the collection a treasure.

The J. P. Harrington Collection also includes close to one million pages of notes filling over 1,000 archival boxes, plus over 200 sound recordings, some 3,500 photographs, and thousands of botanical and other natural specimens. The NAA materials are complemented by nearly 600 artifacts that also are part of the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology collection.

J. P. Harrington carried out his research in much of North America during the first half of the 20th century. The majority of the collection represents ethnological and linguistic fieldwork in California and with Native people in the Southwest, Great Plains, and Alaska. J. P. Harrington’s research also extended into southern Mexico, across much of Canada, and along the eastern coast of the United States.

81-14091   California coastline ca. 1930, photograph by JPH   Papers of John Peabody Harrington, Series: Photographs, neg. 81-14091 National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

“You look through frame after frame after frame [of microfilm] and you get headaches, and you feel like your eyes are burning in their sockets, and your back hurts, and you spend 25¢ a sheet to photocopy one page of something that's real important to you, and you spend maybe a year or so to learn how to read Harrington's handwriting, and you look through everything and find all the pieces, and eventually you hope that you can put it all together right. But there is just so much there..... It's not just words on a piece of paper, but it's saving something from the past that connects with people now.” — Linda Yamane at the at the 1992 California Indian Conference, from Hinton, Leanne. 1994. Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 207. Click here for full quote.

The significance of the collection extends beyond its linguistic value.  Recognizing language as key to understanding a culture, J. P. Harrington assembled information on a wide array of cultural practices. For example, his interest in environmental knowledge can be seen throughout the collection. And his collection has been foundational for a range of studies in ethnobotany, environmental management, and environmental history.

The J. P. Harrington Collection is accessible to visitors to the NAAs, located at the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, MD. The NAA is currently working with tribes, linguists, private funders, and the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative to make the collection more fully accessible as an online resource. This website is a work in progress and will serve as a primary gateway to digital resources as they become available.


91-32508 Estevan Miranda and Glenn Marr near upper Pleito Creek, San Emigdio Mts.  photograph by JPH, 1934 Papers of John Peabody Harrington, Series: Photographs, neg. 91-32508 National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Access the John Peabody Harrington Collection


About J. P. Harrington

75-12221 JPH, ca. 1910 photographer unknown Papers of John Peabody Harrington, Series: Photographs, neg. 75-12221 National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961) was an ethnologist and talented linguist employed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) for forty years, from 1915 to 1955. He came to the Smithsonian after training at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.  He became interested in Native American languages upon meeting historically renowned anthropologist A. L. Kroeber. J. P. Harrington was reportedly fluent in nine international languages and eighteen Native American languages.

Recognizing the level of endangerment facing indigenous languages, J. P. Harrington viewed himself as on an urgent mission to document as many as possible before they went silent. His “perfect ear” allowed him to easily pick up and record languages. Obsessed with accuracy, J. P. Harrington not only kept comprehensive notes, but frequently conducted “rehearings” with speakers to ensure the precision of his transcriptions.  His linguistic abilities, combined with his thorough ethnological research and his relentless mission has resulted in some of the most extensive linguistic, anthropological, and ethnobiological data on the Native peoples of North America.  harrington_x1  JPH and Marta Herrera, ca. 1930, photographer unknown Papers of John Peabody Harrington, Series: Photographs, neg. ?? National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Throughout his Smithsonian career, J. P. Harrington was known for frequently disappearing into the field for extended periods of time. When forced to stay in Washington, D.C., he brought Native speakers to work with him at the museum.  Completely immersed in his research, he often did not keep his employer or his family updated on either his location or his research results.

Devoted to documentation, he was slow to publish. Secretive about his findings, he avoided other linguists and anthropologists in the field, coded much of his work, and did not disclose the names of the speakers with whom he worked. As another level of protection, J. P. Harrington often stored his papers with friends and family rather than depositing them with the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE).  It was not until after his death that many of his materials reached the Smithsonian, sent by friends and family members. 

"One cannot help but be fascinated by Harrington as a person.  He was quite possibly the most eccentric man that most of his acquaintances ever knew. But more importantly, he had a sure vision of something that transcended his individual life and quirks, and he devoted his life to that vision." — Leanne Hinton, University of California, Berkeley from Hinton, Leanne. 1994. Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 209.

An eccentric personality, J. P. Harrington amassed an unprecedented record of linguistic and cultural knowledge that is a treasure of the NAAs.

For more biographical information see Golla 1994 "John P. Harrington and His Legacy." Anthropological Linguistics 33.4.

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Sincere appreciation and thanks to those who helped make the Harrington collection more widely accessible to the interested public. Support for preparation and digitization of the collection for online access has been provided by the following:

Arcadia Fund; Colorado College Library; Cow Creek Band of Umpqua; Pechanga Band of Luiseno; Recovering Voices, SI; Rosetta Project, Long Now Foundation; Save America’s Treasures, DoI; Matthew Vestuto, on behalf of Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians; Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS); and the Collections Program of the National Museum of Natural History.


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