Photo: A few of the more than 1,000 Filipinos transplanted to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
March-April 2008
By Tim Brady

Albert Jenks was already a rising young star in the relatively new field of anthropology when the Bureau of American Ethnography (BAE) in Washington, D.C., sent him to the remote mountainous interior of the island of Luzon in the Philippines to study the Bontoc Igorot people in 1902.

The Bontoc were a tribe who practiced a sophisticated form of terraced agriculture in the Cordillera region of the island. They were also headhunters, a fact that would raise more than a few eyebrows in months to come. This was before Jenks became the founder of the study of anthropology at the University of Minnesota and long before his work became a source of controversy at the U and elsewhere in Minnesota.

Jenks, accompanied by his wife, Maud, became one of the first American anthropologists to venture outside the United States to study an indigenous people. The BAE sent the Jenkses to Luzon for more than a year of study, during which time these small-town Midwesterners—he from Michigan, she from tiny Elroy, Wisconsin—lived in a Bontoc village. Albert went out frequently to study other tribes in the region, and Maud’s letters home to her parents, published 50 years later as Death Stalks the Philippine Wilds, describe the journeys in what must have been eye-popping detail to her folks back home. “Bert [recently] went [with a party] into very wild country south of here,” Maud writes. “They saw a headless human body being carried along the trail for burial, and they attended the funeral ceremonies. . . . Bert is making a study of head-hunting among the Igorot and I think you will be interested in some of his notes.”

There follow several pages of academic notes from Albert Jenks on headhunting, during which he seems suddenly to remember that he is writing to in-laws who are no doubt picturing their poor daughter alone in a headhunting village. His attempt at assuaging their concerns is not as strong as it could be: “With the Bontoc men the taking of heads is not the passion it seems to be with some others, though they invariably take the heads of all killed on a head-hunting expedition; and they have skulls of Spaniards and also of [other] Igorot [people] secured on expeditions of punishment or annihilation. . . .”
Photo: Anthropologist Albert Jenks in 1932, photograph courtesy of the Minneapolis StarJournal/Minnesota Historical Society

Jenks was single-minded in his pursuits, a trait appreciated by his employers if not his wife’s parents. Nearing the end of his stay in the Philippines, he was summoned to the office of the islands’ governor, William Howard Taft, where the future president offered him a prestigious post. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, honoring the centennial of the United States’ acquisition of the Louisiana Territory, was scheduled to open in St. Louis the next year, in 1904. One of the great centerpieces of this World’s Fair was to be an anthropology exhibit, and at the heart of that exhibit, planners wanted to feature various people from the newest addition to the national family, the Philippine Islands. Would Jenks be willing to assume responsibility for overseeing the installation and maintenance of the exhibit in St. Louis?

For being such a novel subject, anthropology had surprisingly wide public appeal in the United States. The nation was undergoing enormous changes in its population. Ellis Island teemed with new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The country had just engaged in its first imperialistic war and grabbed the Philippine Islands in the process. What had been a fairly isolated nation through most of the 19th century, proud of its Mayflower roots, was now becoming a multi-ethnic country with global ambitions. Under the circumstances there was a great deal of interest in the kind of nation the United States should and would be in years to come, which led to questions surrounding the character and nature of the various people who make up the country. In light of these concerns about what was viewed as a need for “Americanization,” ethnographical and anthropological interests skyrocketed. And nowhere was this more in evidence than at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Photo: A few of the more than 1,000 Filipinos transplanted to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jenks had a plum assignment. A huge portion of the fair was given over to “Anthropology Villages” where indigenous people from around the globe were brought in to recreate hamlets constructed in the fashion of their native lands. Included in these exhibits were the Tehuelches people from Patagonia, Mbuti Pygmies from West Africa, Ainu from Japan, and the Kwkiutl and Nootka people from the Canadian north.

No single nation was to be more grandly represented, nor have a larger portion of the fairgrounds, than the contingent from the Philippine Islands, and Jenks was in charge of making it happen. He had to arrange for the passage of more than a thousand Filipino people to the United States, as well as the shipment of the accoutrements of their lives. They wound up housed in four separate villages, surrounding a lake on 47 acres of the grounds in St. Louis.

Visitors to the fair wandered through the various communities, observing as the inhabitants went about their daily business—or the nearest possible approximation of it, given that they were thousands of miles from their actual homes.

Jenks’s Philippine Island exhibit would be the most popular anthropological venue at the fair. And of the various Filipino people present in St. Louis, no group garnered more attention than the Bontoc Igorot contingent, primarily because, along with their headhunting reputation, they ate dogs and were largely naked.

A bamboo stockade rimmed with human skulls marked the Bontoc area. Bontoc men wandered around the grounds in loincloths that were so revealing that Taft sent a note to Jenks asking that they be made to cover up with “brightly colored trunks.”

Jenks demurred, arguing that the authenticity of the anthropological exhibit would be compromised if they were made to don pants. With the support of the overall head of the anthropology exhibit, a former head of the BAE named William McGee, Jenks’s argument won the day.

Even more controversial was the dog issue. One of the occasional activities of Bontoc people was to eat canine, a practice that continued at the fair. When word spread that wayward mutts were being roasted in the Igorot village, sensibilities were outraged. The fact that the city of St. Louis was provisioning the Bontoc through its dog pounds didn’t help. Once again, however, the argument for anthropological “authenticity” carried the day. McGee and Jenks said that, like it or not, this was the life of a Bontoc Igorot. If the goal of the anthropological villages was to educate World’s Fair visitors on how indigenous people from around the world lived, the show must go on. And it did.
Photo: The Igorot men wore nothing but loincloths, prompting William Howard Taft to ask that they cover up with “brightly colored trunks.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Within the context of centuries past, when the forces of civilization simply brutalized “savages,” the notion that they, too, were part of an evolutionary advance and were worthy of study and inclusion in festivities like the St. Louis fair was seen as a progressive idea. And Jenks genuinely believed that bringing Filipinos to St. Louis would be uplifting for the indigenous groups, who would learn something of the greatness of Western Civilization. As for the gawking rubes in St. Louis, Jenks thought they would learn something of the world beyond the United States, even as they wandered around the grounds eating a novel treat: a sausage in a bun that some claim first got the nickname “hot dog” at the exposition.

The fair lasted from April to December 1904. By the time winter rolled in to Missouri, the Bontoc were more than happy to don clothing, and happier to go back to their true homes. Among the Filipino people in general, and the Bontoc in particular, the experience of the 1904 World’s Fair remains a seminal moment. Those who made the journey took home with them a sense of dislocation and shock that is still recalled with rancor by their descendants.

In time, the author of that dislocation, Albert Jenks, became the first chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota and essentially founded the study there. For 30 years he would dominate the field at the University. He was also a crucial figure in the development of Minnesota archaeology in the 1930s, helping to analyze and highlight the discovery of perhaps the two most famous skeletal remains ever found in Minnesota. Beginning with his work in the Philippines and St. Louis, Jenks was considered one of the leading anthropologists of his day and a nationally recognized figure in his field.

Photo: A Filipino boy, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Unfortunately, Jenks’s work was marred by its continued association with discredited theories that are viewed today with discomfort, distaste, and dismay. He was a proud racialist, a man who believed that character, intelligence, and physical acumen could be graded by means of race and ethnicity. He, and other anthropologists of his day, assigned pecking orders to the various peoples of the Earth and invariably found people of color—those they labeled “primitive”—as lacking in the “higher” traits of a civilized people.

At the top of Jenks’s chart were “Americans,” people who not only maintained the characteristics of their stout ancestors from northern Europe, but who held the promise, through careful procreation, of evolving into ever higher forms of being. “Savages” might climb the evolutionary ladder, too, according to Jenks, but they had a far piece to go to achieve the exalted status of Americans.

When he arrived in 1906, however, Jenks’s studies were still evolving and he came with the highest credentials. Prior to his work in the Philippines, Jenks had earned a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, where he did an economic and ethnographic study of the Ojibwe people called The Wild Rice Gatherers of the Upper Lakes. He taught for a year at Madison between his work in St. Louis and his arrival in Minneapolis and completed his study of the Philippine people, published by the BAE as Bontoc Igorot.

The Minnesota Alumni Weekly was proud to note that Jenks had been awarded four gold medals for his labors at the World’s Fair. He joined the sociology faculty, as a professor of anthropology, because there was not yet an anthropology department at the U. He told the Minnesota Daily that his work revolved around “ethnological and cultural studies of the foreigners coming to America . . . continued research among primitive peoples, mainly for the purpose of getting at human cultural beginnings . . . [and] researches in physical anthropology.”
Photo Left to right: Medical School dean Elias Lyon, professor emeritus Henry Nachtrieb, and Minnesota physician. All images courtesy of University Archives

Through the first years of his career here, Jenks continued to consider himself liberal-minded in his ethnological and cultural pursuits, advocating, for instance, as he told the Alumni Weekly, “that American civilization should not destroy the peculiar valuable characteristics of her various immigrants, but should foster and accentuate all the different worthy ones in order that the American nation of the future may become as versatile as possible.”

However, this amalgamation needed to be done carefully, according to Jenks, which meant that people couldn’t just come helter-skelter into the country. He traveled to Europe in 1914 to study “the problem of immigration at its source,” he told the Daily. Jenks went to Eastern and Southern European countries, basically trying to discern the anthropological readiness of peoples there for inclusion in American society. Apparently, he was underwhelmed by his encounters. Jenks became a strong advocate for putting a halt to all immigration to the United States until potential newcomers were closer to an American ideal.

Perhaps Jenks’s most distasteful sortie into physical anthropology began in 1915, when he was employed as an expert witness by timber interests to study the racial attributes of the Ojibwe people. Federal legislation introduced by a Minnesota congressman and enacted just before the turn of the century made it possible for Native Americans of mixed blood to sell their timber rights to logging companies. Rights were otherwise held collectively by the Ojibwe people and were thus harder for the timber interests to obtain. Not surprisingly, the companies became interested in proving that there were many Ojibwe people of mixed race. So they turned to a pair of physical anthropologists to make their case.

Jenks and a widely respected colleague from the Smithsonian Institute, Ales Hrdlicka, had long argued that certain physical features were evident in racial and ethnic types. Indians had delicate hands and feet, because they rarely did physical labor. They lacked chest hair. Their heads were smaller, and so on.

Photo: Residents of one of the “Anthropology Villages” at the St. Louis World’s Fair: Antonio, chief of the Bontoc Igorot, courtesy Library of Congress.

Jenks and Hrdlicka traveled to northern Minnesota with calipers in hand, measuring noses and the space between people’s eyes. They prodded, they poked, they took hair samples and examined lips and eyes and ears, all with an eye towards determining heredity and racial classification through the magic of their own observations.

Sure enough, they discovered that there were many more mixed blood Ojibwe than had been thought before, and the timber companies were thus free to start bidding on the forests of northern Minnesota.

Jenks had other unsavory interests as well. He joined Dr. Charles Dight as a member in good standing of the state’s eugenics movement, which Dight, a Minneapolis physician, brought to fruition in the early 1920s. Joined by other esteemed faculty members at the University of Minnesota, including professor emeritus Henry Nachtrieb and Dean of the Medical School, Dr. Elias Lyon, Jenks became part of the group that advocated for a state law that enforced sterilization on Minnesota’s “imbeciles.”

It was another means to “cleanse” the bloodlines of worthy Americans. The state eugenics society was a crucial lobbyist for a statute that was passed in 1925 and remained on the books until the mid-1970s.

Regardless of his advocating all these notions that feel so ugly today, Jenks remained not simply a celebrated member of the University of Minnesota faculty, but a respected figure in the world of anthropology. In 1918, when the University decided to create its first Department of Anthropology, Jenks was named the chair. It was a post he would hold for the next 20 years until his retirement. In the early 1920s, he chaired the committee on anthropology and psychology for the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. Around the same time, he turned down an offer to head the prestigious Bureau of American Ethnology.

Jenks also maintained solid connections with the most well-heeled of the state’s elite and was able to draw large-scale funding support for the archaeological interests that dominated the last 10 years of his academic career. Names like Pillsbury, Bell, Backus, Bovey, Gale, Heffelfinger, and Crosby bankrolled Jenks’s expeditions in the late 1920s to the tune of $25,000 annually—a princely sum in the day. One of the trips was to the Mimbres Valley in New Mexico where Jenks, some graduate students from the U of M, and a group from Beloit College in Wisconsin excavated Mimbres pottery; another journey was to Algiers and southern France.

Perhaps Jenks’s most well-known archaeological associations are with two skeletal remains that were unearthed in Minnesota in the early 1930s. “Minnesota Man,” which was ultimately determined to be a teenage girl, and “Brown’s Valley Man” turned out to be two of the oldest human remains ever found in North America and drew worldwide archaeological attention to Minnesota.
Photo: An Igorot girl, courtesy Library of Congress.

Jenks was called upon in both cases to determine their age, which he suggested was around 15,000 years (they turned out to be closer to 8,000 years). Those assertions drew instant headlines because they were posited remains that challenged the standard theory of human habitation of the Americas. That was just 2,000 to 3,000 years, and its chief author was Jenks’s old friend from the Smithsonian, Ales Hrdlicka.

Squabbles regarding the dating of the Minnesota bones (and other finds that suggested an earlier theory of habitation) were played out for several years in publications like Time and Science. They animated the last years of Jenks’s career at the University until his retirement in 1938. The debate was not completely resolved during that time, but the preponderance of evidence suggested that Hrdlicka’s theories were wrong and that humans crossed the Bering Strait much earlier than previously assumed.

The Minnesota remains themselves have continued to fuel ongoing mystery and discord. The bones of “Brown’s Valley Man” were reclaimed by William Jensen, the amateur archaeologist who originally found them, in 1950. They were subsequently lost in the Jensen home for many years, until the family rediscovered them in a fruit cellar and sent them, in the late 1980s, to the state archaeologist’s office.

Photo: Many prominent Minnesotans helped fund Albert Jenks’s archaeological expeditions, including to the Mimbres Valley in New Mexico, at left and below. Courtesy of University Archives

There they joined “Minnesota ‘Man’ ” and became part of the debate over the issue of repatriating the remains of thousands of indigenous people, which were dug up when archaeology had little regard for the sanctity of the grave. Efforts to return the remains collected by state-affiliated agencies—including collections at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Science Museum of Minnesota—to the indigenous people of Minnesota have been ongoing since the mid-1990s. The bones of “Brown’s Valley Man” and “Minnesota ‘Man’ ” were given to the Dakota tribe in 2003.

Meanwhile, the name of Albert Jenks has been largely forgotten at the University of Minnesota. Even while Jenks was still working, his anthropological studies—the theories of physical anthropology and Americanization that had seemed so important to anthropology in the early 20th century—were already coming under reassessment by cultural anthropologists and modernists appalled by the race theories of Nazi Germany.

Those theories were viewed as moderately embarrassing to the world of anthropology before Jenks’s death in 1953; they would become deeply embarrassing as subsequent years passed.

Tim Brady is a St. Paul–based writer and frequent contributor to Minnesota. He shares the hometown of Elroy, Wisconsin, with Maud Jenks.

©2014 by the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.
The University of Minnesota Alumni Association is an equal opportunity educator and employer.