Minnesota Author Biographies.

Frances Densmore

Frances Densmore

From Strength of the Earth: The Classic Guide to Ojibwe Uses of Native Plants (2005) by Frances Densmore

Making Maple Sugar

The two most important vegetable foods were maple sugar and wild rice. The obtaining of these commodities was attended with much pleasure, though the temporary camps were busy and there was work for young and old. Each family or group of two or three families had its own sugar bush, as it also had its own part of the rice field, and the people went there in the early spring to make the year's supply of sugar. Two structures remained in the sugar camp from year to year. These were the birch-bark lodge in which the utensils were stored, and the frame of the lodge in which the sugar was made....The uses of maple sugar were many and varied. It was used in seasoning fruits, vegetables, cereals, and fish. It was dissolved in water as a cooling summer drink and sometimes made into syrup in which medicine was boiled for children. The granulated sugar and the sugar cakes were commonly used as gifts, and a woman with a goodly supply of maple sugar in its various forms was regarded as a thrifty woman providing for the wants of her family.

Biographical Notes

Birth: May 21, 1867, Red Wing, Minnesota
Death: June 5, 1957, Red Wing, Minnesota

Ethnologist, musician, and author Frances Theresa Densmore studied at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music from 1884-86. She taught piano in St. Paul, Minnesota from 1887-89. In 1889 she moved to Boston for private lessons with composers Carl Baerman and John Knowles Paine at Harvard University. She also studied with musician Leopold Godowsky in Chicago in 1898. Densmore became a student of Native American music and culture in 1893, beginning a relationship with Native Americans, the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology, and the Smithsonian Institution that lasted until 1957. She received an honorary M.A. degree from Oberlin College in 1924, a National Association of American Composers and Conductors award in 1940-41, a Doctor of Letters from Macalester College in 1950, and a Minnesota Historical Society citation for distinguished service in 1954. She was also elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a fellow of the Washington Academy of Sciences.

Densmore's professional interest in the music of Native Americans dates from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In 1905, she made her first visit to a Minnesota tribe in a Chippewa village near the Canadian border and she published her observations in the American Anthropologist (April-June 1907). In 1907, she began to record Native American music and successfully petitioned the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology for financial assistance. Thus began her fifty-year association with the bureau, which paid her a yearly stipend and gave her the title of collaborator.

During her years of service to the Smithsonian Institution, Densmore traveled throughout the country to remote Indian reservations and villages, where she recorded on wax cylinders nearly 2,500 songs of the Sioux, Yuma, Cocopa, Yaqui, Pawnee, Northern Ute, and various other tribes whose cultures were already threatened with disappearance. In all, she recorded the songs of some thirty tribes. The entire collection was eventually transferred from wax cylinders to long-playing discs and is preserved in the Smithsonian-Densmore Collection of Indian Sound Recordings. Densmore also collected hundreds of musical instruments, which are housed in the Smithsonian's museums.

Densmore's numerous monographs on Native American music were issued in a series of publications of the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. The most important of these are Chippewa Music (1910-1913) and Teton Sioux Music (1918). Her other publications include The American Indians and Their Music (1926) and Cheyenne and Arapaho Music (1936).

(Text in parts reprinted with permission from the Oberlin College Archives)

Selected Works
The titles below link to the catalog record in MnPALS, the Minnesota Historical Society’s library catalog. Please click on your browser's back button to return.

The American Indians and Their Music
Chippewa Customs
Chippewa Music
Dakota and Ojibwe People in Minnesota
Poems from Sioux and Chippewa Songs
Teton Sioux Music
Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians

Additional Resources

Minnesota Historical Society Links

• Search MNHS Library and Archives Catalog for author - Searches for works by this author in the Minnesota Historical Society’s library
Minnesota Historical Society Collections Online
Frances Densmore Papers, 1926-1939
History Topics

Web Links

Densmore Papers - Oberlin College archives: Frances Densmore Papers
Song Catcher Frances Densmore - Minnesota Public Radio presentation on Densmore's life work presented as an online interpretation of a magic lantern show
Smithsonian Institution Archives - Profile of Densmore and her contribution to the not-for-profit news organization, Science Service

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