Tappan Adney

Tappan Adney

Tappan Adney

Tappan Adney, an artist, writer, and consultant on Maliseet culture, is primarily known for his dedication to preserving the art of birch bark canoes, a skill he acquired through a lifetime of travel and living in Woodstock. Born on 13 July 1868 in Athens, Ohio, to parents Ruth (Shaw) Tappan Adney and college professor H.H. Adney, Tappan Adney received his initial education from his father before studying art for three years at the Art Students League of New York.

In the summer of 1883, he accompanied his sister on a vacation to New Brunswick and decided to stay in Woodstock instead of returning home to the US for university. There, he met Peter Joe, who lived in a native camp near the town, and under his guidance, Adney made his first canoe at the age of twenty. Through their friendship, Adney gained many skills and became fluent in the Maliseet language. Fascinated by Maliseet culture, he decided to pursue a career as an artist-craftsman, sharing his experiences with American audiences through articles such as “How an Indian Birch Bark Canoe is Made” and “Some New Brunswick Traps,” published in Harper’s and The London Chronicle. 

Adney was not only a literary enthusiast but also an accomplished artist, and his drawings of birch bark canoes and their designs were used in Howard Chappelle’s 1964 compilation, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. He is credited with saving the birch bark canoe from obscurity and is best known for his book The Klondike Stampede and his collection of 110 one-fifth scale model bark canoes, documenting all major tribal types in North America and worldwide. 

Tappan Adney Canoes

In 1899, Adney married Minnie Bell Sharp of Woodstock, and in 1908, he became a Canadian citizen and moved his family to Montreal, where he worked as a painter and illustrator. During the First World War, he served under the Canadian Engineers as a lieutenant of engineers and was assigned to the Royal Military College.

Minnie Bell Sharp
Minnie Bell Sharp

After the war, Adney returned to Montreal and became an honorary consultant on Indian lore for the McCord Museum at McGill University. He continued his research on canoes and the Maliseet language, assembling an extensive and fully detailed catalogue of canoes, which put him in touch with Hudson’s Bay Company contacts, government agents on Indian reserves, and aboriginal groups. However, financial hardship forced the Adneys to return to Woodstock in the 1930s.

Tappan Adney at his desk

In 1937, his wife, Minnie Bell, died. Following her death, Adney remained in Upper Woodstock to continue his research on canoes and the Maliseet language. 

Adney’s journals consist of many cultural experiences vital to the Maliseet way of life, including accounts of canoe trips and hunting trips, sketches and diagrams of various tools and equipment parts, and documented events that happened to him and others. His research on Maliseet dialects and natural history contributed to the study of the origins of human language.

Travel Journal 1887-1890

In later life, Adney played an integral role as a liaison between the Maliseet people and the Canadian government, defending their treaty rights to their traditional lands. He is regarded as an intellectual giant for his passionate defense of the rights of the Tobique First Nation. 

Adney Gallery at The Carleton County Historical Society, Woodstock
Adney Gallery at The Carleton County Historical Society, Woodstock

Tappan Adney died in Woodstock on 10 October 1950, leaving behind a collection of work, including his models, papers, and artistic portfolios, housed at various museums, archives, and academic institutions. These include the Smithsonian, the University of New Brunswick, Dartmouth College Library, the Carleton County Historical Society, the York-Sunbury Historical Society, and the Pennsylvania State Archives. Over one hundred and twenty of Adney’s canoe models are housed at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and his papers on Maliseet language reside at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. In addition, Adney donated part of his collection of Indian artifacts and his papers concerning the Sharp family to the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John

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2 thoughts on “Tappan Adney

  1. I was told about Tappen Adney by Nelson Pert a air traffic controller who made me a model of a birch bark canoe and I Still have it .Charles MacDonald.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article very much and never heard of this man before and the extensive work he had done about the Mallisete people and the crafts he had learned. Thank you very much for this information !!!!!!.

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