E. Tappan Adney

1868 - 1950

Tappan Adney probably knew more about the Native people of Maine and the Maritime Provinces than any white man of his time. He was a multi-talented genius who became fascinated with Native people and their way of life during a summer vacation when he was only 19 years old. He remained fascinated with and devoted to Native crafts, ethnology and linguistics until the day he died in 1950 at age 82.

This brief biography is a synopsis of Adney's colorful and tumultuous life. It is the chronicle of his many successes as well as his failures. It is an unblinking look at his sometimes-abrasive personality and his often-turbulent relationships with others. It is the saga of his life-long pursuit of recognition and his ultimate lack of formal acceptance in academic circles. And it is the tale of a man who, in the end, was willing to sacrifice his life's work to help a friend.

Early on he must have known he was something special. By age 13 he was enrolled at the University of North Carolina. By age 15 he was reading classic literature in the original Latin and Greek.. By age 18 he had completed three years of art training at the Art Students League in New York City. In 1887, he left for a summer vacation in New Brunswick, Canada, his first great solo adventure, and it utterly changed the course of his life.

In New Brunswick he encountered Native people for the first time and discovered the birchbark canoe. It became his magnificent obsession; culminating in a monumental book that many believe saved the art of bark canoe construction from oblivion. He wrote the first detailed, published account of how to build a birchbark canoe. He built more than 150 scale-model canoes, precise replicas of full-size canoes, representing virtually all of the tribal styles in North America. Today his book and his models have inspired a new generation of Native canoe makers who are reviving this important element of Native material culture.

His exceptional mind and his adventurous spirit gave him opportunities to excel at numerous vocations. His extraordinary talent as an artist brought his eye for form and detail to everything he did. He left behind hundreds of paintings, sketches and illustrations to attest to his remarkable skill.

Adney was also a passionate naturalist and an avid ornithologist, who could literally charm the birds out of the trees. He supplied 110 line drawings for The Handbook of the Birds of Eastern North America, the most popular field guide for birders at the turn of the 20th century. In his early twenties, he compiled and published the first Maliseet Indian language list of the birds of New Brunswick.

For ten years, he made his living writing and illustrating outdoor adventure articles for Harpers Weekly, then America's most popular magazine. He covered the gold rushes in the Klondike and at Nome, Alaska for Harpers and Colliers and later wrote The Klondike Stampede, still considered the definitive account of that exciting event.

He made himself into Canada's foremost authority on heraldry, the ancient art of depicting genealogy with armorial designs. His distinctive style and innovative work can still be found in numerous private and public commissions throughout Canada.

Tappan Adney was a model maker of unequaled skill. He left behind literally thousands of examples of his skill and knowledge in museums in both the U.S. and Canada. He made model canoes, paddles, salmon spears, hand sleighs, dog sleds, wood-hauling sledges, toboggans, animal traps, wigwams, sweat lodges, and virtually everything else that represented Native life or tools. In many cases, his models provide the most accurate examples available today of Native objects that are no longer being made or used. While serving in the Canadian Army during World War I, his unique abilities were put to use making models of battlefield fortifications to train Canadian Army officers.

For nearly ten years early in the 20th century, Adney worked tirelessly in an effort to revive the closed apple orchard business established by his remarkable father-in-law, Francis Peabody Sharp, who was the first person in North America to scientifically hybridize apples. Using his own pioneering methods, Sharp established large fruit orchards of plums, apples and even peaches in a climate most believed too cold to grow quality fruit. Adney established the Carleton County fruit Growers Association and developed a fruit growers manual for this group based on Mr. Sharp's revolutionary cultivation methods. Adney also orchestrated a one-man PR campaign to reclaim the reputation of his father-in-law as the visionary pioneer of commercial fruit growing in New Brunswick.

Adney was also passionate about the Maliseet language and about Native linguistics in general. It was an ardent lifelong interest. He was particularly focused on it during the last 17 years of his life, during which he worked with his Maliseet friend Peter Paul to assemble a dictionary and grammar book on the Maliseet language. He never finished his language book, but he left behind thousands of typewritten pages with his research notes on words and grammar, as well as his theories about the origins of language. His papers still await study by future linguists who may find insights into what is now a language struggling for survival.

Adney also intermittently studied Maliseet natural history throughout his adult life. He was interested in everything, history, tools, religion, food, clothing, mythology, traditions, material culture, language, etc. He was nearing completion of a monumental book on the Maliseet people but died before it could be published.

He was also a formidable champion of Native treaty rights. When his friend Peter Paul was arrested for harvesting black ash saplings from privately owned land, Adney attempted to defend him in court with an ancient treaty he said promised Native people the right to hunt, fish and collect materials (such as black ash poles) for their traditional handcrafts. The judge would not allow Adney to speak because he was not a lawyer. The trial proceeded without Adney and Peter Paul was convicted.

Adney was incensed and set to work to change Canadian government policy on Native rights. He found the original 1725 Treaty in the state archives in Boston, Mass. But there were questions about whether the ancient treaty applied to modern Maliseet people. The treaty referred specifically to the Wulastukwiuk people in the area near the St. John River. The Maliseet people were direct descendants, but no longer used the name mentioned in the treaty. So Adney mobilized all the Maliseet bands in New Brunswick to agree on a formal name change to match the old treaty name and then petitioned the government for formal recognition.

He collaborated with a friend in Parliament to open a formal inquiry into government policy toward Native people in the Maritime provinces. Sadly, his work was in vain. The Indian Act of 1951, which Native people hoped would usher in reforms, in fact resulted only in a continuation of the oppressive policies the Canadian government had maintained since the mid-19th century. Adney was not successful in defending his friend Peter Paul, but in assembling the documents and the arguments for a treaty-entitlement defense, he became the first person to ever attempt to present a well-documented treaty defense in a Maritimes courtroom.

There is also a hidden side to the Peter Paul story that Adney kept to himself. To help his Maliseet friends, Adney had to stop work on his canoe book, for which he was receiving a monthly check from The Mariners' Museum. When the museum discovered that Adney had not written any canoe material for nearly a year, their monthly checks stopped coming. But still Adney continued to defend his friends, even though he knew he was near the end of his life and that his book might never be finished.

This episode illustrates another facet of Adney's eccentric personality. He was amazingly tenacious and stubborn when working toward a goal. This characteristic worked for him but just as often against him, particularly when he believed he had been snubbed, wronged, or cheated. In such cases, he made it his business to right the wrong and to exact justice from the offender. In several instances, after winning his point, Adney found himself dismissed and cut off from further work with museums that he depended upon for income. His son Glenn tersely remarked that his father “never learned the art of getting along with his fellow man.”

He was a complex man, an intellectual giant who never completed college, but who was also simple enough to enjoy engaging a squirrel in “conversation” about food. He was locally famous in his small town for his eccentricities, which included parading around his property and his cabin either nude or partially so. He was an egocentric perfectionist and, at times, an intolerant tyrant who was not above physical violence to make a point. And, he was probably the best white friend the Native people of New Brunswick ever had. His remarkable life and his brilliant accomplishments deserve to be remembered so that future generations will know that a truly great man once lived here.


— Ted Behne