Update: The day after I posted this, I just found out that the bones have just been returned to the Seminole Tribe by the Univ. of Penn. That is good, and I hope things go well. I will just leave the rest of the article as is.
I think that you may find this one of the most provocative, shocking, and thought provoking blogs about the Seminole War that I may have written thus far. And in a roundabout way, you can say that the Seminoles had their unwilling contribution to what became modern physical anthropology and CSI Criminal Investigation.
Most of you are familiar with the cruel fate of Osceola that made him the most recognizable Seminole Indian in all of history, as he was captured under a flag of truce. And many of you know about his subsequent death in prison a few months later, and how the attending physician Dr. Weedon, spirited off Osceola’s head as a specimen for the doctor’s collection of medical curiosities.
And as the story goes, Weedon eventually sold the head to Dr. Valentine Mott, one of the most famous physicians of that time, in New York, but that it was destroyed in a fire when Mott’s museum burned down in 1866. I will skip all the other folklore which many of you may have heard.
But, are you aware that Osceola’s head, was just one of many that were collected as specimen for science during the Florida War? That many Seminoles had their cranium added to collections?
During the 1830s and 1840s was the height of the study of Phrenology. It was believed that the shape of the human head could tell character and moral traits. That the brain was not one organ, but a combination of separate organs that were responsible for character, ethics, intelligence, and morality. These beliefs were used by the slave holding south to show that slaves were incapable of freedom on their own and needed to remain in servitude.
Of course, we now know that all this was a mistaken, dead-end pseudo-science. What it was really studying was genetic traits and developments among different societies and cultures. Eventually this turned into a real field of science known as physical anthropology that showed how genetic traits are passed on by certain people from different cultures. About the same time, genetic traits were beginning to be understood by a German Monk named Mendel. With Phrenology, studying skeletal structures had this strange beginning, but it led to actual, real science. And even today, with what we have as identifying skeletal remains, bones, and skulls, we see on television all the time as CSI Criminal Investigation.
The main person who was world famous promoting Phrenology was Dr. Samuel George Morton in Philadelphia. He started collecting skulls in 1830 and continued until his death in 1852. He was widely published, which inspired many to help add to his collection. He obtained an amazing collection of craniums representing almost every people and culture from all over the world. It was not him who traveled, but his loyal readers, from other physicians, military officers, explorers, and other people generally with an interest in science who had read Dr. Morton’s writings.
When Dr. Morton died, his collection of cranium numbered 867, and his successor Dr. Meigs increased it to around 1225. Each skull collected was cleaned and polished, varnished, numbered, marked with information if known. Where it came from or who it was, if known. Important features may have been marked or noted. Dr. Morton had a catalog, and Dr. Meigs improved and sorted the catalog even further.
Included were Egyptian mummies. Peruvian skulls that had cranial enlarged/extended. Vikings from Finland. Romans and Greeks. Hindu and Chinese burials. South Pacific Islanders. And of course from many Native American tribes, some from aboriginal Indian mounds. And of course, the catalog list about half a dozen Cherokee, 4 Creeks, 3 Yamassee from a mound in Tampa. But the biggest tribe represented by far, are the skulls from 16 Seminoles. With half the US Army in Florida, physicians, explorers, and other patrons of Dr. Morton, the Florida Seminoles were a field ripe for the picking.
There are two warriors who were found at the battle of Okeechobee. Some other warriors not identified; men, women, and children remains. It seems that history doesn’t often mention this sordid souvenir hunting.
Below: Some of the listing for the Morton/Meigs catalog for the Seminoles. I refuse to include the drawing of one of the skulls. Notice that it also has the name of the person who donated the skull to Dr. Morton or Meigs' collection.
I have also found record of remains that were collected during the war that are not listed in Dr. Morton & Meigs Crania Americana catalog. Dr. Weedon also had the skull of Uchee Billy who died at the fort at St. Augustine. Morton lists a Euchee Indian, but we don’t know if it is the same as Uchee Billie.
There was an Apalachicola chief by the name of Coa-harjo, but who was not the same as the Seminole Chief Coa-Hadjo who was a Chief with Osceola. The Apalachicola Coa-Harjo was killed by his own people in 1838, and a Phrenology journal by Morton in 1839 describes his head in detail, but the crania is not listed in Morton’s catalog. On a side note, there is also a Chief Old Joe that was killed in the Florida panhandle, and his complete skeleton is supposed to have been on display at the Medical College at the University of Dublin in Ireland. Apparently there are many unknown remains collected during the war that went to various other medical collections still unidentified.
So, what happened to Dr. Morton’s collection? It still exists with the University of Pennsylvania. A recent article told about this amazing collection. Over the years, they have offered the various Native American Tribes if they want to seek repatriation under NAGRA. And some have taken care of this.
Here are my own thoughts on the subject. And it is to leave these skulls where they are, and undisturbed. Further tampering or movement would not help. This is a different situation than a casket of remains. These are specially prepared remains. Not whole skeletons, but craniums, that are cleaned, varnished, painted, and deposited with others. They have been placed with a charnel house of other unique representatives from around the world. I actually think they hold a unique and honored position where they are at, and nobody really bothers them. These remains are in a communion with like representatives. Actually, they are not the body or person, but the husk or remains. They are the evidence that life has once been present. With honored representatives from all over the world.
In the old southeastern Native American traditions, there is a function of a “Bone Picker.” That is what Dr. Morton became. And that is also why he died before his time, and could have lived another 30 years if he had known the correct songs and medicines.
Further tampering of the remains will only cause difficulty, pain and sickness in ways you cannot imagine for the living and dead. Improper tampering can cause problems with the family, their clan or tribe that they are from. Worse can be done by people who think that they are doing the right thing, but doing it improperly. It is better to leave them alone. Trying to move the remains will only cause more sickness and death to those innocents who will have no understanding of what is happening to them. We have in the Native American folklore Ghost Sickness, and I have a lot of experience with it, and do not want to have this become a problem for someone who does not understand it.
It is also better to keep theses skulls as a reminder about what was done to these people and the injustice of removal from their home 175 years ago. And a time when a human head was a sought after commodity. People will forget what I say in a few years. They won’t forget a physical reminder.
They called the Indians as savages for taking scalps, and at the same time, the white men and soldiers stole whole heads.
1839, Morton, Samuel George; Crania Americana, or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South American.
1849, Morton, Samuel George; Catalogue of Skulls of Man and the Inferior Animals, in the Collection of Samuel George Morton.
1856, Meigs, J. Aitken; Catalogue of Human Crania, in the Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, Volume II, No. 1, Philadephia, Oct. 1, 1839; Pg. 139-142.
November 2008, Monge, Janet; and Renschler, Emily S.; Expedition, Vol. 50, No. 3; The Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection, Historical Significance and New Research.