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THE AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST ONLINE
Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900) – Father of Modern Flintknapping in North America
By Richard Michael Gramly
Among boxes of papers and copies of off-printed publications in the library of Richard Johnston, I discovered a photocopy of a typescript about a famous anthropologist, Frank Hamilton Cushing. The typescript was prepared from an undated, multi-part article that appeared in the Medina Tribune – an upstate New York newspaper that is now out of business. The typist (Mrs. Stanley (Katherine) Vanderlaan of Albion, New York) may have copied the newspaper article more than 50 years ago. Likely, installments of the article were published some years after Cushing’s death in 1900, and perhaps as late as 1923.
The author of the newspaper article is George Kennan, a friend and admirer of Frank’s who witnessed his developing interest in Indian lore and archaeology. Frank Hamilton Cushing and George Kennan resided near Medina, western New York State. The Cushing home still stands, but the location and condition of the Kennan residence(s) are unknown to me. George Kennan (1845-1924), relative of the famous diplomat and historian George F. Kennan (1904-2005), was a world traveler who spent many years in Russia and Siberia. He was an accomplished lecturer; audiences for his speaking engagements are supposed to have exceeded 1,000,000.
Kennan’s sketch of the life of Frank Hamilton Cushing is forceful, compelling us to know more about him and Frank. Readers will be happy to learn that both men were prolific writers and left rich legacies of publications, and Cushing has been the subject of many biographers. However, Frank Hamilton Cushing’s experiments in flintknapping, when he was just a young teen-ager, are nowhere discussed in detail. His precocity is all the more amazing when we realize that he was self-taught.
Frank Hamilton Cushing
By George Kennan, world traveler, writer & lecturer
A few of the older citizens of Medina will doubtless remember Dr. Thomas Cushing, a former resident of Northeast, Erie Co., Pa., who came to western New York and bought a farm near Barre Center about sixty years ago. When I first saw him, ten or twelve years later, he was driving a yoke of oxen through Main Street, Medina, and I noticed only that he was barefooted and carelessly if not uncouthly dressed. I cannot now remember when I first made his acquaintance, but it must have been soon after I came to Medina to live the first time in 1871. He was then practicing medicine here, and his son, Frank, was a boy about fourteen years in age.
I soon discovered that Dr. Cushing, although eccentric in behavior and dress, was an interesting man who had a good mind and great originality and independence of thought. He did not impress me as cultured, or highly educated, but he was generally well informed, and it was a pleasure to talk with him, because he was always sure to look at a subject in some new, fresh, or original way. He had a strong anti-theological bias, but aside from that he was open-minded, and liked to discuss a question on its merits, regardless of his own preconceptions or mine. Most talkers – or at least most disputants – want to convince you of something – to make you look at the subject from their point of view. Dr. Cushing never did. He seemed to assume, at the outset, that he was as likely to be wrong as I, and that only by a fair, unprejudiced comparison of opinions could we find out what the truth really was. He always allowed me to make my statement of a case without interruption; but at intervals, as I proceeded, he would hold up one finger and say: “Stick a pin there.” Sometimes, before I finished, my argument was as full of pins as an old-fashioned pin cushion; but he never forgot where every pin was, and when I ended, he would taken them all out, in orderly sequence, and state his objections. I liked that method of discussion, because it gave me a chance to say all I wanted to say, without being jerked up by a contradiction, or diverted from my main argument by the lugging in of a side question. So we had many good talks about science, in which I was interested, and speculative philosophy, which was his particular hobby.
In social matters Dr. Cushing was emphatically non-conformist. He would not do a single thing merely because other people did, and custom and fashion he despised. If a social observance, or an article of dress, did not commend itself to his reason or his common sense, he would have nothing whatever to do with it. I cannot remember ever to have seen him wearing a starched collar, and his shoes were made to correspond exactly, in size and outline, with the imprint of his wet foot on the floor. he would not permit any of his children to call him “father” or “papa” but insisted that they address him as “Cushing.” Neither would he allow any of his family to use the expressions: “Please” or “thank-you” or “excuse me” or “I am much obliged” or “I beg your pardon,” etc. His objection to these phrases apparently was that they carried in implication of inferiority, or subservience. He also objected, I remember, to the words “a good deal” in the sense of quantity, simply because “deal” was used in card playing and had no reference to quantity. Other people might say “a good deal” if they chose; but he would not merely because they did.
In these and in many other respects his eccentricity was based on a feeling of independence and a hatred of ceremony, conventionality, and precedent. He would do all things that seemed to him reasonable, but he would not do an irrational thing even if he was a minority of one against a hundred millions. In a society where all conformed to certain types, fashions or standards, without much regard to reason, this eccentricity seemed to me at least refreshing.
In matters of religion, Dr. Cushing was an agnostic. Whether he ever had any religious training or not I don’t know, but if he had, he drifted far away from it long before I knew him. He certainly gave no religious instruction to his children. Frank, however, was a thoughtful boy, and when he first came into direct contact with death at the age of fourteen or fifteen, he said to his father one day, “Cushing, when a man dies, does he die altogether?” His father replied brusquely, “I don’t know a thing about it; neither does anyone else; but if a man lives again, he doesn’t go to hell.” I seldom discussed a religious question with him, but when I did, it seemed to me that his agnosticism was the result of solitary thinking, rather than the reading of skeptical books. Literature and science he knew only moderately well, but he did have a fair acquaintance with biology, and even in those early days he was a firm believer not only in evolution, but in the animal origin of man. I remember his bringing to me one day an embryo of one of the higher mammals, to show us how, in its prenatal stages, it passed through the traditional forms of animal life, from the lower to the higher, and thus illustrated Darwin’s theory of the origin and development of species.
In one respect Dr. Cushing was singularly blind. He never noticed the dawning of a rare intelligence in his son, Frank, and never seemed to realize, for a moment, that the boy, notwithstanding his backwardness in arithmetic, was destined to have a distinguished scientific career, and to become not only a great archaeologist, but one of the most skillful interpreters of aboriginal life that America ever produced. I knew little at that time of archaeology, but I could see that the boy had genius, and I encouraged him in every way I could, sharing his enthusiasm and participating in his experiments, while I wondered how he had acquired the sympathetic understanding of primitive man which, even in his boyhood, was one of his salient characteristics.
In my next column I shall give some recollections of Frank’s early life and an outline of his scientific career.
Frank Hamilton Cushing was born July 22, 1857, in the little village of Northeast, Pennsylvania, where his father and mother then lived. He was, at his birth a mere mite of humanity, weighing only a pound and a half., and it seemed doubtful, at first, whether so small an infant could possibly survive. For more than a year he was kept constantly on a pillow and made hardly any growth at all, but he finally got a start and gradually developed into a normal but frail and delicate boy.
In the year 1860, when he was three years of age, his parents moved to Barre Center, N.Y. where they bought a farm. There Frank spent the greater part of his boyhood. His early education seems to have been very meager, but he did learn to read and write, and among his first recollections was the finding among the medical books in his father’s library of a big unabridged dictionary, which he seized as a prize and thereafter studied incessantly, carrying it around from place to place on his head. His physical weakness and distaste for boisterous companionship of other children drove him more and more into solitude, and he found his keenest pleasure in the fields and woods. As he wandered, he talked to the trees and rocks and to the moon, and he was fascinated by the solemn mystery of the night. He fairly worshipped the forest trees and, conceiving the idea of having one that he could call his own, he bought one at a very small price from his cousin – not a tree that he could dig up and carry away, but a big one in the woods, under whose shade he could dream, talk, sing, and imitate the sounds the he heard from birds and beasts. This was his trysting place with Nature.
His interest in archaeological research began when he was about ten years old, and it was first aroused by an incident that he afterward described in the following words:
It was just after the discovery of this old Indian fort that I made Frank’s acquaintance. He was ten or twelve years younger than I, but his mind was unusually mature for a boy of his age; his temperament was congenial and sympathetic, and we had many tastes and interests in common. I care for Nature as much as he did, and fifteen years earlier I had spent many nights in the woods, from sheer love of it, just as he had. Then, too, at that particular time, I happened to be reading Tyler’s Early History of Mankind, which had just been published. From this book I learned the fact, which was then new to me, that man had not been created “a little lower than angels” in a Garden of Eden, but had struggled up there from the depths of savagery through his own exertions, gradually learning how to talk, how to provide himself with clothing, how to make a fire, and how to chip and fashion the flint that he used for implements and weapons. This line of study gave me a deep interest in the “relics” that Frank was digging up in the old Indian fort.
He did not then have much book knowledge of archaeology, and the information contained in Tyler’s Primitive Culture and Early History of Mankind was as new to him as it was to me. he absorbed it with eager interest, and especially the part that related to prehistoric methods of making fire. He had never before heard of the fire-drill, but when I showed him a picture of it in Tyler’s book, he made one for himself, and we tried it together one day in my brother’s house on the corner of Center Street and West Avenue, where I was then living. We charred the wood and filled the house with smoke, but we were not able to produce a flame. Frank, however, persisted and by changing his materials, finally succeeded in getting a blaze, not only with the fire-drill, but with two suitable pieces of wood briskly rubbed together. It was a long time before he could get a flame by merely rubbing two sticks together, but Tyler and Darwin had done it, and that encouraged him to persevere until he finally discovered suitable kinds of wood. He wanted also to make a fire as the Malays did, by compressing air with a piston in a tight cylinder, but he could not get or make the necessary tube.
About that time I became interested in the origin of the solar system as outlined in the famous Nebular Hypothesis of Laplace, and of course I talked that over with both Dr. Cushing and Frank. It seemed to us plausible, but we did not know enough of physics to come to any definite conclusion with regard to it. A little later, however, a Belgian physicist named Plateau was said to have proved – or at least illustrated – the theory of Laplace, by rotating a globe of oil in a mixture of alcohol and water of the same specific gravity. The sphere of oil, it was said, assumed an oblate form, and then, as the speed of rotation increased, threw off an equatorial ring, like the ring of Saturn, which afterwards broke up into a number of smaller globes, corresponding to the satellites of Jupiter.
This seemed to Frank too fascinating an experiment to go untried. He had no money at that time, except a little that he had earned by picking beans, but he invested most of it in a pint of sweet oil and a quart or two of alcohol, brought the liquids to my brother’s house one day and asked me to help him to try the experiment. My brother’s wife, who had been nearly smoked out of the house by our fire-drill experiment, and who was now asked to furnish a kettle for our nebular-hypothesis experiment, thought that we were headed straight for a lunatic asylum; but she brought the kettle and watched with wondering curiosity, the progress of our experiment. We had little difficulty in making the globe of oil float in the mixture of alcohol and water; but when we inserted an axis and began to turn it, we found that we could not get the necessary speed of rotation without disrupting the whole nebula. We fussed with it a large part of one afternoon, but finally had to give it up.
Frank’s way of finding things out was by personal experiment. He took the materials that prehistoric man had, and then, without using any modern tools or instruments, endeavored to reproduce the arrow heads, fabrics, and earthenware utensils that he found in the old Indian fort. Years afterward, when he was Vice President of the Section of Anthropology in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he described his method of investigation, as follows:
In this way, while I was associated with Frank in Medina, he learned how to work flint, make baskets, and bake pottery, just as the unknown inhabitants of the old Indian fort did hundreds of years ago. He did not merely imitate the things that they made – he reproduced them so perfectly, if they had been living, they could not have told their products from his.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, while I was in close association with his activities, was his rediscovery of the art of shaping flint arrow heads with an old tooth-brush handle – an art that had been lost for unnumbered centuries. But I must postpone an account of this until next week.
Frank’s examination of the old Indian fort south of Medina was very painstaking and thorough. Not only did he measure it and make a plan of it drawn to scale, but he ascertained the diameter and probable age of the trees growing in it, and carefully sifted hundreds of cubic feet of the soil and sub-soil in order to get everything that the prehistoric inhabitants made and used. And as fast as he found flint and bone implements, fragments of pottery, or remains of rush mats, he strove to reproduce them by rediscovering the prehistoric method of manufacture. For example, archaeologists had been finding for years, on the sites of ancient Indian settlements in various parts of the United States, small stone weights which they called “plummets” or “sinkers,” but nobody had been able to guess what they were really used for. Frank also found them in the old fort, and in trying to weave rush mats by the Indian method he discovered that they were warp-weights, to hold down the ends of the warp-strings while the rushes were being interwoven with them. Many years later, Major J. W. Powell, chief of the Bureau of Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution, found a tribe of Indians in the Far West who were still using these warp-weights exactly in that way.
Frank had most trouble in the shaping of flint arrow heads. The simpler and ruder forms he could make by simple percussion – that in chipping off fragments with another piece of stone used as a hammer, but many that he found had long slender barbs which he could not reproduce in that way. Long before he could get the necessary delicacy, the slender barbs would break. He finally tried the experiment of shaping the edge by detaching small fragments with a piece of bone, and found to his surprise and delight, that by pressing the sharp edge of the flint into the bone enough to give it a “bite,” and then applying pressure with a prying motion, he could break off thin flakes that extended back a half inch or more from the edge. The bone that he first used was an old tooth-brush handle, and with that he found he could press off flakes half an inch to an inch long in almost any direction and without the danger of breaking the flint in a place where he did not wish to break it. This was the long lost Indian art of making flint implements, and Frank afterwards dug up in the fort pieces of bone that had evidently been used for this purpose. The method, he found, was applicable to flint, glass, obsidian or any brittle material that breaks with a conchoidal fracture.
I was not with Frank when he made this discovery, but I well remember the day when he brought to me in triumph half a dozen beautiful arrow heads with long slender barbs, which he had made with a tooth-brush handle out of the glass pendants of an old, discarded chandelier. I would not have believed, if I had not seen the things, that a substance as fragile and brittle as glass could be worked into forms of such delicacy and beauty.
In an article entitled “The Arrow Maker” published in the Atlantic Monthly for June, 1923, Mr. Charles D. Stewart, the well known author of “The Fugitive Blacksmith,” attributes the rediscovery of the long lost art of making flint arrow heads by pressure to H. L. Scavlem, the “John Burroughs of Wisconsin,” who lived at one time on or near Lake Koshkonog. Mr. Stuart says, “Scavlem is the only man, so far as Wisconsin archaeologists know who has acquired the art of making flint arrow heads after the manner of the pre-Columbian Indian. And I dare say he is the only one man known in other parts of the world, for his work that has recently come into demand in public museums. Examples of it have found their way into museums in France and Norway, and lately he has had a request for specimens from the Canadian Provincial Museum at Toronto.” (Atlantic Monthly, June 1923, page 802). [Readers of CHIPS will be interested in a 1930 monograph authored by Alonzo W. Pond, entitled Primitive Methods of Working Stone Based on Experiments of Havlor L. Skavlem, which was published by the Logan Museum of Beloit College, Wisconsin, and recently reprinted – RMG.]
Mr. Stewart leaves no room for doubt that Skavlem, the “John Burroughs of Wisconsin,” did make arrow heads by pressure, and with a tooth-brush handle, too, but whether he made them before or after Cushing re-discovered the art I cannot determine, as Stewart gives no dates. Certain it is that Cushing was making arrow heads in the way described as early as 1871 or 1872, because it was then that he showed them to me. Very likely it is another case in which two individuals, widely separated, thought of the same thing independently at or near the same time, just as Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace conceived almost simultaneously the idea of Natural Selection. But it is curious that both Scavlem and Cushing should have used an old tooth-brush handle as the instrument of pressure.
Nothing impressed me more in my early association with Frank than his intuitive ability to think and reason as the prehistoric Indians of western New York thought and reasoned hundreds of years ago. Of this I had many proofs. One day, I remember, when we were taking a long walk through the country in the vicinity of Medina, he stopped suddenly in a ploughed field, looked around for a moment, and then, with the little spade that he always carried, began to dig. In five minutes he was down on then remains of a long buried Indian camp fire. “Frank,” I said, “how did you know where to dig?” There wasn’t a sign of anything on the surface. “Well,” he replied, “I didn’t know exactly, but I had a feeling that if I were an Indian, that’s where I would build my camp fire.” It was so with everything that the pre-Columbian Indians did or made. Frank seemed to know instinctively why they did it, or how they made it, and if there was any uncertainty he soon put an end to it by experiment.
A year or two after I first knew him, Frank began to make explorations in a wider field. He had very little money, but he earned a few dollars from time to time by farm work, and with his small savings he started one day – I think in the summer of 1873 – for Oneida Lake. There he bought or borrowed an old clumsy boat which its owner had discarded, patched it up, and began in it a circumnavigation of the large lake. Stopping here and there to dig or collect specimens. He had absolutely no equipment; he slept most of the time out of doors on the ground, and his limit of expenditure for food was ten cents a day.
Late one evening he was overtaken by a thunderstorm and his boat was driven ashore on the edge of a marshy swamp. Making his way across this in the darkness he finally reached solid land and sought shelter. Drenched to the skin and weak from the lack of food, he knocked at the door of a farmhouse. The frightened family refused to open the door, but when the woman in the house caught a glimpse of Frank through the blinds, she cried “Why, it’s only a little boy!” and he was taken in, fed and put to bed. But he did not always fare so well. In other places he was chased off the premises by dogs, or turned away as a lunatic or tramp. But he never gave up, and in spite of shipwrecks and rebuffs he came home laden with valuable collections.
In 1885, soon after Frank’s return from Zuni, he made a plan for excavations and researches in the prehistoric mounds and stone ruins of central Arizona, where he hoped to find clues to some of the mysteries in the history and religion of the Pueblo Indians which his life in Zuni had not made clear. He had no financial means for this investigation and it was regarded, even by some archaeologists, as a “wild goose chase.” But with the characteristic tenacity of purpose he held to his plan, and in 1886, Mrs. Mary Hemenway, a wealthy lady of Boston, became interested in the project and offered to finance the undertaking. This removed the only existing difficulty and in 1887, Frank, who had just been married, organized the Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition and set out, with his wife, for the Salado Valley in Arizona.
This was the first systematic effort that had ever been made to excavate the wonderful mounds and ruins in our Southwest. For more than three hundred years their existence had been known to civilized man, and during the forty years of American control in that region, they had often been sketched, photographed, modeled, surveyed and superficially examined; but no one had undertaken to dig into them. Frank camped beside a large earthen mound in the Salado valley, about none miles from the present village of Tempe, and with an adequate force of laborers, began to dig.
In the course of the summer he uncovered an ancient pueblo site six miles in length and a mile and a half to three miles in width, consisting of clay [adobe] houses and temples, some of which were very large. One temple that he measured was 150 feet wide by 200 feet long, and is thought to have resembled, when in use, an inverted, elongated earthen bowl, supported within by a frame of basket-work and timbers. This prehistoric city contained so many human skeletons that he named it “Pueblo de los Muertos, “ or “Town of the Dead.” Here he found also flint implements of various kinds, mortuary urns, and large quantities of finely finished and elaborately decorated pottery, much of which was still in perfect condition. The valley in which this and many other ancient pueblos were situated was intersected by irrigating canals, which although partly choked up by the drifting sands of centuries, could still be traced. Some of them were 150 miles long and large enough to be used for purposes of navigation. Through them were probably rafted, from pine-clad mountains sixty miles away, the huge timbers used in the building of the temples. The amount of labor involved in the construction of these great works must have been immense in an age when men had no better implement than a strong axe and no better way of removing earth than that of gathering it in baskets and carrying it away on his shoulders.
In 1888, Cushing made extensive excavations in the ruins of the Seven Cities of Cibola,” which became famous in the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and which were first seen by the Spanish explorer, Coronado, nearly four hundred years ago. Frank’s preliminary account of the work of the Hemenway expedition in Arizona was read at the seventh session of the International Congress of Americanists in Berlin in 1888 and was published in its “Compte Rendu” for that year.
“In 1888,” Major Powell says, “Mr. Cushing’s health gave way (the privations of his life at Zuni had undermined his constitution), and he was compelled to return to the East for medical advice. After many vicissitudes and much suffering, he finally consulted Dr. Pepper, of Philadelphia, under whose treatment he partially recovered. Then Dr. Pepper came to Washington for a consultation with me about the future course of life which Cushing could pursue. He recommended that he should go to Florida for a few months, at least, and perhaps for a year. Dr. Pepper offered to raise the money to defray the expenses of an exploring expedition in the everglades and keys of the extreme southern portion of that peninsula. The expense of the expedition was borne in part by Dr. Pepper but chiefly by Mrs. Phoebe Hearst. The discoveries made by Cushing on this expedition were of great interest and of profound importance in American archaeology, and at his death he had nearly finished a voluminous report on them.” (from Major Powell’s address at the Memorial Meeting of the Anthropological Society; Washington, 1900) A well-known scientist of Philadelphia (Stewart Culin, curator of the Museum of Science and Art), in speaking afterwards of the Pepper-Hearst enterprise, said: “The expedition to Florida yielded amazing results -- results which should give Mr. Cushing lasting fame had he achieved naught beside.” Frank’s preliminary report on this investigation was published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Volume XXXV (1897).
In a critical review of the literature relating to the American Indian, published in the report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1921, J. Walter Fewkes, chief of the Bureau of Ethnology, says (pages 517 & 518):
The bibliography of Frank’s contributions to science comprises twenty-nine titles, and represents an amount of work which was very great for a man who died at the early age of forty-three.
I have not space enough here the many tributes that were paid to Frank’s character and achievements after his death but I will cite two or three to show the older residents of Medina, who knew him only as a boy, how he was regarded in later years by his associates and co-workers in the world of science.
Joseph D. McGuire, of Washington, one of the many distinguished anthropologists who have thrown light on the dark ages of primitive culture in America, wrote a letter after Frank’s death, in which he said: “Mr. Cushing’s descriptions of the primitive methods of manufacturing pottery and working metals would entitle him to rank among the greatest ethnologists of his period, had he done nothing else, The Washington school of anthropology has lost one of its brightest lights. In the going out of his life we have lost a man who was, in many respects, one of our most original minds; but it must be a comfort to his relations, as it is certainly to his friends, that before he was taken away his name had been inscribed among those brilliant ones who have passed so many years in the diffusion of knowledge among mankind.”
At the Memorial Meeting of the Anthropological Society which was held in Washington, April 24, 1900, shortly after Frank’s death, W. J. McGee, President of the Society, who made the opening address, said: “By reason of his peculiar insight into primitive devices and motives, Cushing was a teacher of his associates, even of those whose years were greater than his own. His mind flashed and scintillated under the impact of new sights, new sounds and new thoughts; hence he was fertile in hypothesis, fruitful in suggestion, an avant-courier in research, an intuitive interpreter of things. All of his associates profited by his originality and learned much of him. I learned more from Cushing than from any other investigator save one and my debt to him us no greater than that of many other students…….We mourn today the untimely death of an honored and beloved associate, a man of genius whose place can never be filled.”
Cushing Writes His First Paper
In the course of his trip to Oneida Lake, Frank accidentally made the acquaintance of the late L. W. Ledyard, a man who was greatly interested in geology and archaeology and who happened to have a country place in the vicinity. This chance acquaintance led to a cordial friendship, which was encouraging and helpful to Frank in many ways. Mr. Ledyard was a personal friend of Spencer F. Baird, then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and at Mr. Ledyard’s suggestion, Baird invited Frank to write a paper on the old Medina fort. Frank’s school education, as I have said, was very limited; but he had studied to some purpose the big unabridged dictionary that he found among the medical books in his father’s library, and from that had acquired not only a large and varied vocabulary, but some skill in putting words together. Without help from anybody he wrote the paper, and it was found to be so good that it was published that year (1874) in the annual Smithsonian report. Frank was then only seventeen years of age. So much impressed were the Smithsonian scientists by the knowledge and ability shown in the paper that they invited Frank to come to Washington, and, after a short course of instruction under Professor C. F. Hartt, of Cornell University, he joined the Smithsonian staff in 1875. About a year later he was given charge of the archaeological collections in the exhibit of the National Museum at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Development in Washington
In 1878, when I went to Washington to enter the service of the Associated Press, Frank was living near the top of the south tower of the Smithsonian building south of Pennsylvania Avenue. As he had two rooms and two beds, he asked me to come and stay there until I should find a boarding-place. I was glad to do so, mainly because I wanted to see more of him. From an awkward, unsophisticated, badly dressed boy, he had developed with surprising rapidity, into a well-bred, self-possessed, almost polished man of the world, and the transformation interested me because I had not expected such a change in so short a time. Only five years earlier he had been turned away from Oneida farmhouses as a common tramp, or chased off the premises by dogs.
I stayed with Frank in the south tower of the Smithsonian for several months, partly because it was a pleasure to be with him again, and partly because Dr. Bessels, the scientist of the Hall Arctic Expedition, also had a room in the building and he was another interesting character. Frank and I got our dinners at the restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue as “Harvey’s” but our other meals we took in our rooms, as Frank had added to his other accomplishments a surprising skill in cooking. His culinary activities, however, were once almost fatal to him, and the incident is perhaps worth relating as an illustration of his courage and coolness in danger.
Courage and Coolness
The room under ours at that time was the work-room of the well known ornithologist, Robert Ridgway. It contained hundreds of skins of birds which had been treated with benzine to protect them from insects, and the floor was covered with fragments of wooden boxes, wrapping paper, excelsior, and other combustible materials used in packing. The whole room was as inflammable as a powder magazine. One morning Frank happened to want more heat than he could get over a mere cooking lamp, and he thought he would go down and make a fire in Mr. Ridgway’s stove. Bo noticing on the floor an open can of benzine which the ornithologist had been using, he struck a match. Instantly the vapor in the air flashed and set fire to the benzine in the can, which sent up a column of flame four or five feet high. In half a minute the can would have melted apart and the burning benzine would have run all over the tinder-like stuff on the floor. Frank, with perfect self-possession, lifted the blazing can between his hands, carried it steadily across the room without spilling a drop, and set it down in a sold iron coal scuttle, where it burned itself out without setting fire to anything else. Not one man in a thousand would have thought of this in time, or have had coolness and steadiness enough to do it.
Five Years in Zuni
In 1878, just after Frank became of age, he attracted the attention of Major J. V. Powell, chief of the Bureau of Ethnology, and through the latter’s influence entered upon the great adventure of his life – the trip to Zuni. Perhaps I cannot do better than quote the account that Major Powell afterward gave of Frank’s New Mexican experience:
Shortly before his return to civilization, Frank wrote an account of this part of his life, entitled “My Adventures in Zuni,” published in the Century Magazine for December, 1882 and February and May, 1883.
I intended to close my account of Frank’s life and career with this article but I cannot get everything into the space available, and as Cushing was a man of whom Medina may rightly be proud, perhaps I shall be justified in writing one column more.
The final column that George Kennan had intended to write about his friend, Frank, seems not to have appeared, and it is possible that George died before it was finished. Although we are denied the conclusion of his tribute to Frank, certainly a cause for sadness, we are grateful for what he has told us about the life and times of an extraordinary American – FRANK HAMILTON CUSHING, the Father of Modern Flintknapping in North America. Requiescat in pace.
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