anthropologist (1838 - 1923)

Alice Cunningham Fletcher was an ethnologist who because a special agent for the US Indian Bureau and eventually a research fellow at the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her objective in life was to come to understand and appreciate the Native American view of the world and to convey that understanding to others.

She had studied archaeology at the Peabody, starting rather late in her life - in the late 1870's. Her field work was extensive -
1881, 1882 ................Sioux
1881-1882 ................ Omahas, Nebraska
1886 ......................Alaska
1887 ......................Winnebagoes
1889-1890, 1891............Nez-PercÚ, Lapwai, Idaho

She brought the scientific rigor of archaeology to the study of ethnology. In 1873 she helped to found the Association for the Advancement of Women (AAW). In 1887 she pushed the Dawes Act through the Congress - the act apportioned land by individual rather than by tribe. She served as vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1896), president of the Anthropological Society of Washington (1903), president of the American Folklore Society (1905 - seving as the first woman to be president) and founding member of the American Anthropological Association (1902). She was the first ethnologist ever to produce a complete description of a Plains Indian ceremony. She gave countless lectures and presentations throughout her career. She published over 115 papers on Indian culture including The Omaha Tribe . The PBS web site has a very nice article about her that includes a photo. She also served as a consultant to President Cleveland on "the Indian problem".

DETAILS: By the time of her death in 1923, Alice Fletcher had destroyed personal papers of her early life in an attempt to leave these early struggles out of the life that would be known to the world. During this period of Alice Fletcher's life her mother moved to Brooklyn Heights after Alice's father died and her struggles against her stepfather's "fiendish malice" drove her to flee from her home. Alice was taken in by a wealthy Brooklyn Heights family and she was given a tutoring job in their home until her early thirties, when the tutoring job had come to an end.

At this point in her life Alice Fletcher set out on her own to explore the cultural life of New York City, and she joined the first of a long list of organizations that she would belong to during her career, Sorosis, a New York Woman's Club. This opportunity not only helped Alice develop her skills as an organizational officer, but it brought her name recognition. A financial crises in 1878 forced Alice onto the public lecture circuit where she soon began researching American history and giving lectures on the topic to enthusiastic audiences. Her growing popularity brought the attention of Fredric Putman of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, who encouraged Alice to formally study archeology so she would not be spreading absurdities and exaggerations through her lectures, and so Alice Fletcher was brought into the field of anthropology through Putman.

Throughout the coming years, Alice Fletcher would study the Native Americans of the Great Plains in great detail, becoming an expert on the topic; she would organize, join, and preside over numerous professional organizations; she would become a consultant to the United States of America; and she would publish well over one hundred papers and books on the Native Americans of the Great Plains. In the Native Americans, Alice Fletcher found a home, a family, and a cause. She had discovered geography as it was experienced by Native American peoples.


1) Golembo, Beverly E. Lesser Known Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Boulder: Lynne Zienner Publishers, 1992.

2) James, Edward T. Notable American Women. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

3) John, Mark. A Stranger in Her Native Land. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

4) Rossiter, Margeret W. Women Scientists in America Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

5) Uglow, Jennifer S. The International Dictionary of Womans Biography. New York: Continum, 1982.

-by Patrick Boland


Return to Homepage