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Henry L. Smith collection of Augustus Le Plongeon correspondence


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.

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Augustus Le Plongeon, photographer, antiquarian, and amateur archaeologist was born on the Isle of Jersey in 1826, and first traveled to South America at age nineteen. On news of the gold rush in California, Le Plongeon sought his fortune in San Francisco, working as a surveyor and apprenticing with a physician. In 1851, Le Plongeon returned to England to study photography, opening a daguerreotype portrait studio on his return to San Francisco in 1855. Le Plongeon also maintained a portrait studio in Lima, Peru and established an "electrohydropathic" medical clinic in Lima.

Le Plongeon studied photography in England with Henry Dixon, known for the development of panchromatic photography and William Fox Talbott, considered the father of modern photography. It was Fox who instructed Le Plongeon in the creation of photographic negatives.

Le Plongeon married Alice Dixon, daughter of Henry Dixon, and traveled with her in the Yucatan from 1873 to 1885. Working as a team, Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon methodically photographed hundreds of pre-Columbian ruins, creating three dimensional images of many sites. Le Plongeon also conducted digs on his trip, excavating a Chac-Mool statue at Chichun Itza in 1875.

Le Plogeon maintained adherance to the belief that the ancient Egyptian civilization had its origins in the Maya civilization of the Northern Yucatan despite the fact that later explorations discredited his beliefs. He continued to write and lecture wherever an audience could be gathered or a publisher found. The legacy of Augustus Le Plongeon consists of his photographs which document ancient ruins and inscriptions that were later damaged or destroyed. In some cases, his photographs are the only record.

Henry L. Smith, was a resident of Schenectady, New York and Pittsfield, Massachusetts and an alumnus of Brown University. Smith corresponded with Augustus Le Plongeon in 1906 and 1907. Le Plongeon's letters indicate that Smith may have attempted to arrange lectures at The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University for Le Plongeon. Smith also corresponded with William E. Gates, first President of The Maya Society. In addition to his interest in the Maya culture, Smith was a member of the New York State Agricultural Society.

The Le Plongeon letters came to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, later the Penn Museum, through a gift of Mrs. Henry L. Smith in 1945.

The Henry L. Smith collection of the correspondence of Augustus Le Plongeon consists of letters written to Smith in 1906 and 1907, a news clipping, a lecture series program from 1890, and an article from Appleton's Booklovers Magazine. The materials were donated to the Archives by Mrs. Henry L. Smith in 1945.

Augustus Le Plongeon, born on the isle of Jersey, England in 1846, is known as a photographer, antiquarian, and amateur archaeologist. He traveled to South America and San Francisco, California before returning to England to study photography with Henry Dixon and William Fox Talbott. Le Plongeon worked as a surveyor and portrait photographer preceding his studies in the North Yucatan with his wife, the former Alice Dixon. The Le Plongeons studied the Maya culture and photographed monuments and inscriptions from 1873 to 1885. In many cases their pictures are the only record of ruins that were later damaged or destroyed. Le Plongeon excavated a Chac-Mool statue at Chicun Itza in 1875.

Augustus Le Plongeon theorized that the Maya civilization preceded and influenced the Egyptian civilization, a theory he maintained despite evidence cited to discredit it by later archaeologists.

The Henry L. Smith collection of Augustus Le Plongeon correspondence consists of thirteen letters from Le Plongeon to Henry L. Smith dated from March 5, 1906 to December 6, 1907. One letter includes two business cards introducing Smith to Verplanck Colvin, a topographical engineer and wilderness surveyor, and John D. Whish of the Office of Forests and Streams, Washington, D.C..

The letters deal with the difficulties Le Plongeon has with publishing his works and gaining acceptance by both the learned and the public at large. Smith received additional enclosures from Le Plongeon. The explorer provided the text of an article from Appleton's Booklovers Magazine, April 1906, which he has corrected and whose author he describes as, "does not know a word of the matter he pretends to present to the public mind." Also a part of this collection is a brochure describing a series of seven lectures given by Augustus Le Plongeon at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, "at the beginning of 1890." Le Plongeon also refers to an address given by Mrs. Le Plongeon at the Lowell Institute.

Two additional pieces of paper detail Mrs. Henry L. Smith's address in Yuma, Arizona and preserve the signature of H.L. Smith.

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Jody Rodgers
Finding Aid Date
November 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

Letters 1906-1907.

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