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Montroville Wilson Dickeson collection


Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives [Contact Us]3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19104-6324

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Montroville Wilson Dickeson was born in 1810 in Philadelphia and moved to Woodbury, New Jersey at an early age where he was educated. He evinced a passionate interest in the natural sciences and collecting from a young age and described several unique specimens from the crustaceous marl beds of New Jersey while still a student. In 1828, Dickeson entered into the study of medicine with Dr. Joseph Parrish of Philadelphia. Even while studying medicine, Dickeson wrote monographs on green sand fossils that brought him to the attention of some prominent Philadelphia scientists including Samuel J. Morton and a Dr. Wilson.

Dr. Dickeson accepted a medical residency at the Philadelphia Dispensary, but his passion for archaeology interrupted the residency. He traveled to the Ohio Valley and areas of the Mississippi River to search for Indian burial mounds and Indian relics and antiquaries. From 1837 to 1844, Dickeson investigated the construction of the mounds and pioneered techniques that remained popular into the twentieth century, like the use of trenches, and knowledge of the importance of strata and cross sections for interpreting sites. His skill was recognized by later American archaeologists W.H. Dall, Max Uhle, and Alfred Kidder.

In the midst of the cultural controversy over the origin of the Mound Builders, Dickeson remained focused on the archaeological questions about the arrival of the first people in the New World and the origins of the enormous prehistoric earthworks found along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Following the 11 year expedition, Dickeson returned to Philadelphia to the family home at 211 Lombard Street. Here, on the upper floor, many of the objects that returned with him were stored. He was elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1846. Dickeson resumed his medical practice from the Lombard Street site and distinguished himself during the cholera epidemics in 1848 and 1850 by establishing the Southwark Cholera Hospital with Dr. Francis Condy. Dickeson, ever mindful of exhibition possibilities, purchased a portion of the Peale Collection in 1850.

In addition to his archaeological expeditions and his medical profession, Dickeson demonstrated a streak of showmanship and possibly exaggeration in the years following his return home. He conducted public lectures by subscription under the auspices of the Jefferson Institute of Philadelphia in addition to writing for the literary magazine The Lotus. His lectures were accompanied by exhibits of the "Dickeson's American Antiquities" collection. Dickeson also commissioned a huge panorama of the Mississippi Valley expedition which was executed by John J. Egan, an itinerant Irish artist. Egan used the drawings and renderings of Dickeson as his source material.

Panoramas were a popular type of entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century. A precursor to the moving picture, the canvas was unrolled a bit at a time to reveal the painted scenes and give the impression of traveling along a landscape. Egan's panorama was about nine feet high by 400 feet long and consisted of 27 scenes. The panorama was displayed at the short-lived City Museum, established by Dickeson, and at the Swain Building in central Philadelphia. It was unveiled at Memorial Hall for The Centennial Exhibition in 1876, remaining on display from that time until 1885. The Dickeson panorama, the only surviving piece from this era, is now displayed at the City Art Museum of St. Louis, Missouri.

Dickeson died in 1882, after a short illness. Future generations have speculated on why Dickeson's work was so little known despite his obvious contributions. His relative obscurity may be related to a lack of published work. Dickeson failed to write a long monograph on his major expedition for a scientific journal, choosing to write for local publications in serialized form. Dickeson published only two works, The American Numismatic Manual and a treatise on the Cypresses of Mississippi and Louisiana.

The Montroville Wilson Dickeson Collection is a record of his expedition to the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys to investigate the origins and archaeology of the North American mound builders. Dickeson traveled the region from 1837 to 1844 pioneering in the use of trenches and cross-sections to excavate the sites. The collection consists of two catalogues of artifacts, one with journal entries, hand-drawn maps and plans, cross-section drawings, artifact drawings, and Dickeson's renderings that were used later in the creation of The Mississippi Panorama by John J. Egan. Additional materials include photographs of sections of the panorama and of the artifacts displayed at The Centennial Exhibition, exhibition panels, and an advertising broadside for the Missisippi Panorama and Dickeson lectures. Some photographs are printed on linen. A group of doodles and some written data, including original labels, round out the collection. Materials which arrived with the collection but are not a part of it are plates from Dickeson's Numismatic Manual, plates from the Crania britannica, and a copy of C.S.Rafinesque's Lists of Mounds in North America which reflect some of Dickeson's other interests and publications.

Two bound volumes of Dickeson's Catalogue are in a separate box filed with the Special Collections material. The first volume, "Stone and Terra Cotta Implements and Ornaments of North American Mound Builders, 1838-1848" is written in Dickeson's hand. Dickeson follows a similar format in presenting each site; a drawing, place name, a few lines of poetry or prose, journal entries about the journey, physical appearance and strata of the site, followed by a list of the artifacts discovered. The sites visited in this group include: Beluxies, June 1842; Fort Rosalie; Benard Mounds(Natchez, Mississippi),August 1842; Quitman's Mounds(Adams County, Mississippi),July 1843; Ferguson's Mounds(Jefferson County, Mississippi),1846, Feriday Mounds(Concordia Parish, Louisisana)1843; and the Plantation of Colonel A. L. Bingaman,(Natchez),1842. Dickeson includes background writings with the catalogue; "The Bones of the Mastodon Gigantum", "Gems of the North American Aborigine", "The Massacre at White Apple Village", and the "Geology of the Mound Builders."

The second book of the Catalogues has water damage with fading ink and fragile pages. The numbering of the pages suggests that many pages are missing. The book serves as a listing of artifacts by type of object or type of material with the name of the area in which it was found. The list includes drawings of many objects and some museum numbers.

Due to the fragile nature of catalogue two, photocopies of both books are located in three folders with the rest of the materials in the archival box.

The photographs of the Montroville W. Dickeson collection are contained in four folders. Mostly mounted, the pictures are approximately five by eight inches in size. They are labeled in Dickeson's hand and often include negative numbers. Some may be in need of conservation as they are bent. The pictures includes displays of the artifacts from Dickeson's expeditions and views from the Mississippi Panorama; Lake Concadia (#13451), a Distant view of the Rocky Mountains (#13455), Terraced Mound in a Snowstorm at Sunset (#13454), Low water mark used by Aborigines (#13453), Marietta Ancient Fortifications (#26671), and Caddo Chiefs (#26395). Three additional views include Extermination of the French, Fort Rosalie, and Caddo Parish. Accompanying the Panorama photographs is a Museum press release about the panorama from November 1941.

The maps are organized into two groups by size. The smaller ones are in one folder in an archival box. Several of them contain written comments by J.A. Mason dated in 1949. The maps depict the Ferriday, Harris, English, Frogmoor, and Quitman plantations along with mounds in Circleville, Ohio and Trinity, Louisiana.

The larger maps are placed in a folder in the map case. These five maps include a photograph of Dickeson's hand-drawn map of the Indian Mounds and Monuments in the Mississippi Valley, the original of which is in the large map case. Henry Vose's 1835 "Map of a Portion of Mississippi" is with this group and may have been used by Dickeson in his travels. Another hand-drawn map of Louisiana depicts the area between the Black River and the Cocadia Bayou including the Great Cypress Break.

Dickeson's renderings are enclosed in two folders, the smaller of which is in an archival box. This group of six renderings contains "probably original of painting Terraced Mounds in a Snowstorm for Dickeson Panorama" noted by J.Alden Mason in his 1949 notes. Three other pictures are labeled by Dickeson, "Diluvial Surface", "Circle and mound, Green County, Kentucky", and "Sketch on plantation of Col. W. Browning."

The larger renderings are in a folder in the map case. These include Fort Rosalie, Adams County, Mississippi and Mounds In Jefferson County, Mississippi both with a note from J. Alden Mason, and Indian Hieroglyphics in Kentucky. The remaining renderings include one that is not labeled and one scene with text possibly from an advertisement for the Panorama.

Three colored exhibition panels drawn by Dickeson's brother, Dr. William J. Dickeson, are hand lettered and titled Mandan Pipes, Aboriginal Indian Pottery, and American Indian Stone Relics. Two additional drawings of a large unmarked mound and a stone carving of the upper portion of an Indian figure with "Mialnhee" carved in the stone surrounding the figure are with this material.

The small and large artifact drawings include pipes, stone fragments, and pottery.

The cross-section drawings, three of which are titled, "Sections of a Mound 16 feet high", "Mound in the Alabama River" and "Altar found on the Plantation of Thos. English, Esq., April 15, 1847" are with the oversize materials in the map case.

The "Doodles" and written materials are of a miscellaneous nature. Among them are Dickeson's original hand-written labels from the display of his artifacts "collected and arranged by Prof. M.W.Dickeson, M.D.", notes on a stone axe at Telowa Church, and a copy of Rafinesque's List of Mounds in North America.

Five copies of the advertising broadside for the Panorama "Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley" with "Scientific lectures on American Aerchiology" are placed in a folder in the map case. Other oversized plates taken from the Crania britannica and Dickeson's The American Numismatic Manual are with the oversize materials.

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Jody Rodgers
Finding Aid Date
September 2009
Use Restrictions

Although many items from the archives are in the public domain, copyright may be retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. The user is fully responsible for compliance with relevant copyright law.

Collection Inventory

Catalogues (1 of 2).
Oversize 1
Catalogues (2 of 2).
Oversize 1
Dickeson-Egan Mississippi Panorama correspondence.
Box 1

Photographs Centennial Exhibition 1876.
Box 1
Photographs Mississippi Panorama.
Box 1
Photographs Prairie Jefferson Map.
Box 1
Photographs Artifacts (1 of 2).
Box 1
Photographs Artifacts (2 of 2).
Box 1

Maps (1 of 2).
Box 1
Maps (2 of 2).
Oversize Case

Renderings (1 of 2).
Box 1
Renderings (2 of 2).
Oversize Case
Exhibition Panels, 1844-1850.
Oversize drawer

Artifact drawings (1 of 4).
Box 1
Artifact drawings (2 of 4).
Box 1
Artifact drawings (3 of 4).
Oversize Case
Artifact drawings (4 of 4).
Oversize Case
Cross-section Drawings, 1837-1844.
Oversize drawer
Doodles, 1837-1844.
Oversize drawer
Written materials, 1830-1843.
Advertising Broadside, 1848-1850.
Oversize drawer
Miscellaneous plates, 1860-1865.
Oversize drawer

Print, Suggest