Henry C. Mercer papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives [Contact Us]3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19104-6324
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Overview and metadata sections
The University of Pennsylvania Museum was founded in 1887. By 1889 it hired Charles Conrad Abbot as American Section Curator. Henry C. Mercer was on the Museum’s Board by 1891. Though not yet part of the American Section, during that year explored widely for the Museum throughout eastern Pennsylvania—see J.A. Mason’s 1956 article in Pennsylvania Archaeologist for a compilation of the more local excavations. At the end of the year Mercer conducted a detailed survey of sites on the lower Delaware and included a map in a letter to Abbott. Over the summer he had excavated what seemed to be evidence of cannibalism in shell heaps near his summer house on the York River in Maine and in November 1891–January 1892 excavated an elaborate ossuary at Sandy Hill on the Choptank River, Eastern Shore, Maryland (later visited by J.A. Mason in the process of destruction in 1952). A fine map and report dated by Mercer November 3, 1891 are in his file, and papers on both Maine and Maryland were published in his 1897 “Researches upon the Antiquity of Man in the Delaware Valley and the Eastern United States”. In the summer of 1892 the Museum sponsored Mercer to do a large-scale survey of sites on the Lehigh and lower Susquehanna Rivers—unfortunately only collections and a receipt signed by Mercer are available (results published in 1895 American Naturalist).
In late 1892 Mercer, as an Honorary Member of the U.S. Archaeological Commission to the Madrid Columbian Exposition, excavated a paleolithic tool in gravels at San Isidro, Spain--a Manuscript report with strata drawings survives (published in 1894American Naturalist, etc.). In the summer of 1893 he excavated at the argillite quarry at Gaddis Run in Bucks County and on Neshaminy Creek, and in the Fall at Durham Cave in Bucks but in no case could clearly associate extinct fauna with man. This was true also for his Fall work at Hartmen’s Cave near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and in gorges in Duval and Bee Counties, Texas.
Mercer took over as American Section Curator after Abbot left the Museum in 1893. As the new curator in 1894, Mercer continued his breakneck pace by excavating at a soapstone quarry in Virginia and a variety of caves from the New River, Virginia to Wyandotte Cave, Indiana, including Lookout and Nickajack Caves on the Tennessee River. Archival material includes a watercolor of the strata in Lookout Cave, summaries (by Mason?) of the collection materials, a copied 1918 letter on Lookout by Mercer from the Academy of Natural Sciences, some 1944 correspondence on Wyandotte, and copies of 1893 and 1894 summary publications by Mercer.
Forge Cave on the New River was excavated in February 1894. Besides the extinct fauna recovered in these caves, Mercer worked extensively with rich deposits at Port Kennedy near Valley Forge in association with paleontologist Edward Cope (1894-1896). Excavations after Forge were done at Stewart’s Cave and Buffalo House on the New River, with identifications done by Cope. The most ambitious of all of Mercer’s work was the Corwith Expedition to Yucatan in early 1895, a whirlwind set of cave testings for early man. Unpublished materials include notes on contemporary pottery and on Maya varieties of corn. Re-excavation was conducted at Lookout and other Tennessee sites in 1896, culminating in the discovery of a giant sloth at Big Bone Cave. A very detailed expense account survives from this trip, also some handwritten notes on the sloth bones. This work concluded Mercer’s active fieldwork for the Museum. In 1898 Mercer asked the Museum to pay him a salary, which the institution could not afford.
Mercer spent the remainder of his life in other pursuits, including the Mercer Museum of pre-industrial tools in Doylestown, PA, the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, and building “Fonthill”, his strangely magnificent poured-concrete mansion. Many more Mercer records relating to his Penn Museum excavations can be found in the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown.
- University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives