At a Glance:
Mineral, coin, and artifact collector
Bird names: 1
Western North America
Vaux’s Swift (Chaetura vauxi)
William Sansom Vaux (1811-1882) was in his a day a prominent patron of science, but today, he is an elusive figure. A member of a wealthy and prominent Philadelphia family, he never had to work for a living. A collector of minerals, coins, and antiquities himself, he had a great interest in building the collections of the fledgling Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, which he had helped establish. He seems to have not gone on expeditions to find the minerals and artifacts he collected, relying instead on purchasing them. He wrote no books on his interests, nor even papers (the volumes of numismatic papers sometimes attributed to him are in fact that of a different WS Vaux).
Even with some concerted digging, there were only a few things about Vaux’s life that could be determined with reasonable certainty. The first is his friendship with fellow Philadelphian John Kirk Townsend, who named a swift he found on his Oregon trip in his honor. The second is his acquaintance with an Ohoian named James McBride. McBride was one of those 19th century men who did a little bit of everything– politician, advocate of canal-building, author of a book about how the Earth is hollow– but one of his favorite pursuits was as an amateur archaeologist. The Miami Valley of Ohio (where this profile author happens to hail from as well) was a hub for several different Mound Building societies: the Adena, the Hopewell, the Mississippian. McBride, it seems, was one of the first white settlers to excavate these mounds, which included disturbing the burials of the Indigenous people laid to rest there. He amassed quite at collection of artifacts– and human remains– which Vaux acquired at auction in 1859.
The last piece of information is this: that could be determined is that while Vaux’s mineral collection is fairly easy to track, the contents and whereabouts of the rest of his collection are hazier. His collection of Indigenous artifacts, some of which were likely from McBride, ended up at Bryn Mawr College, although the Ohio artifacts seem to have ended up at that state’s historical society. Far more troubling, though, is the fact that this collection apparently also included human remains. These supposedly ended up at the University of Pennsylvania Museum; but searching their collections database found no such remains, and the documents that would pertain to them are inaccessible.
Vaux seems to have led a quiet life that was, unlike many of the profiles presented here, not the violent career of a colonist-naturalist trekking across the continent with gun in hand. But those anonymous remains– where did he get them from? Where are they now? And, most importantly: who were they? Even if Vaux wasn’t robbing graves himself, like his friend Townsend, he was part of a network of collectors that, in their search for such prizes, legitimized their actions. Museums the world over today still have the remains, as skulls or skeletons or mummies or more macabre variations, of countless people, often Indigenous or enslaved. Vaux may have faded from history, but the bones from his collection are still out there somewhere, most likely far from wherever their families laid them to rest.
Barnhart, Terry A. 2015. American antiquities: revisiting the origins of American archaeology. University of Nebraska Press. [link]
Law, Philip H. 1885. Obituary notice of William S. Vaux. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 22(120). pp. 404-405. [link]
Veit, Richard, and Lobiondo, Matthew. 2018. A problematic Mississippian pipe from the William Vaux Collection. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 43(1). pp 35-61. [link]