Tracing an Anishinaabe Buffalo Robe in the Skinner Museum Collection

A striking indigenous Anishinaabe robe made of buffalo hide (Accession # MH SK K.116) in the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum at Mount Holyoke College has an intriguing caption:

Buffalo Hide Robe, Anashinaabe. Gift of Mrs. Henry H. Bennett. Skinner Museum, Mount Holyooke College

“Buffalo Robe. Presented by Mrs. Henry H. Bennett. Mrs. Bennett received the robe from an uncle, who in turn received it from an Indian in about 1877. The inscriptions seem to have been personal inscriptions, and the robe seems to have come from one of the Ojibway Tribes of Plains Indians, near the Canadian border.”

Possible RItual Symbolism

Detail of robeL three figures. Center, lower third

The robe has a number of pictographs painted on it. About a third of the way up the center are three yellow painted figures, perhaps human or human-animal hybrids. To the left, in left profile, is a birdlike figure with red stripes, perhaps feathers arising from its head and neck, which appears to be running to the left; to its right is a human figure (perhaps male) facing us directly, with arms upraised and legs akimbo (perhaps dancing) and also with red stripes, perhaps feathers, emanating from the head; and to its right is another figure, also with arms raised, perhaps running towards the left.

In a 1916 short essay, “Some Ojibway Robes,” (The Museum Journal, VII. 2) Bruce W. Merwin proposes that eight similar robes in the George Heye collection, now in the National Museum of the American Indian, were created for use by shamanic or prophetic figures among the “Ojibwe or Chippewa” peoples. Slits in the hide, sewed up, and painted on the hair side, may signal botanical specimens of healing significance to the ritual specialists. Various pictographs may evoke guide animals or tutelary divinities, perhaps encountered in transformative dreams. It is possible, given the enormous EuroAmerican interest in collecting decorated Native American buffalo hides, that this object was created for the market.

Likely Provenance

“Mrs. Henry H. Bennett,” who donated the object to the Skinner collection, must have been Emma (Marshall) Bennett, (1871-1939), who resided as a widow in Holyoke, Massachusetts during the period that the Skinner Museum was open and acquiring new objects from 1932 onwards. Her late husband Henry H. Bennett (1865-1932) had been a carpenter in South Hadley. Emma was a daughter of the English-born William Marshall (1832-1899) and the irish-born Margaret Nangle Marshall (1844-1880).

Who then was the “uncle” of Emma Marshall Bennett, who presented her with the buffalo hide robe that he had acquired in 1877? Her father William Marshall (born Sheffield, England, 1832) was survived by at two sisters in the United States, when he died in September 1889, so it is possible their one of their husbands was the “uncle”in question Also, it aEmma’s mother Margaret Nangle had four brothers, all but three of whom were dead by 1872, as well as three sisters, all of whom married.

Candidates for the “uncle” who acquired the robe would thus include:

1. Emma’s mother’s brother, Thomas Nangle (1834-1904). He was born in Ireland and arrived in New York on 24 March 1856. He subsequently appears to have worked as a laborer and gardener in the environs of Hartford, Connecticut.

2. Michael B Morrison (1853-1924) the husband of Catherine Nangle, Margaret Nangle’s sister. Michael Morrison in the 1870 census is recorded has been working in an ore bed in Dutchess County, NY.

3. John H Morrison (1854-1920), who married Delia Nangle, also a sister of Margaret Nangle. The 1870 census also records him working in an ore bed in Dutchess County. (The two Morrisons were brothers, sons of Edwin and Jane Morrison.)

4. .John Havilah Nichols, 1830-1876, who married Margaret’s sister Maria Louise Nangle He died in Owego, NY (a year before the reported acquisition of the robe from the Native American individual).

5. William Marshall’s sister Hannah Marshall of Northfield, CT may have first married a Joseph Senior

6. Hannah Marshall Senior evidently then later married Allen Terrell Blakesley, of Northfield CT.

7. Another sister of William Marshall, Sarah A Marshall of Bridgeport, Connecticut married a Mr. Ward

Incidentally, a son of Emma Marshall and Henry H Bennett was Herbert William Bennett, 1892-1968, who lived much of his life in South Hadley, working as a florist.

Additional clues, David Penney (NMAI) notes, may lie in the identities of persons who sold similar buffalo hide robes to the Hehe Foundation in the early 20th century., before the objects came into the collection of the NMAI. Six donors or sellers are named in the catalogue cards, as follows:

Catalog Number: 016867.000. “Purchased in 1904 from taxidermist in Brooklyn, NY”;

Catalog Number: 016868.000. “purchased in 1908 from T.W. Preston in Boston, MA (Fig. 112);

Catalog Number: 018717.000. “purchased in 1908 from T.W. Preston in Boston, MA (Fig. 114)

Catalog Number: 016870.000: “purchased in 1908 from L.A. Brown in New York City, who states her husband obtained same in 1870 “(Figs. 113 & 118);

Catalog Number: 029505.000. “From L. Milton Wilson, whose family has had it since about 1810″ (Fig. 116)

Catalog Number: 161734.000, Sold by Dan Mather; A.D. Mather Collection

Catalog Number: 181088.000. Presented by Gertrude Guilford.

Catalog Number: 210115.000. Seller; Charles M Heffner.

Catalog Number: 215165.000. Presented by Robert E. Dietz

Were these various robes, now in the collections of the NMAI and the Skinner Museum (Mount Holyoke College) perhaps produced and marketed by the same person or workshop for sale in the 19th century? It is intriguing that the husband of L.A. Brown obtain two of the robes (Catalog Number: 016870.000) in 1870, seven years before the year of acquisition listed in the Skinner Museum label.

Buffalo robe, bottom left .

top of Robe

Bottom of robe,right

Resources/Related Objects

B.W.M> (Bruce W Merwin). “Some Ojibway Buffalo Robes.” The Museum Journal VII, no. 2 (June, 1916): 93-96. Accessed February 05, 2023.

National Museum of the American Indian.

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