Rare Books on Indian Frontiers

By Werner, Louis | Americas (English Edition), September 1999 | Go to article overview

Rare Books on Indian Frontiers


Werner, Louis, Americas (English Edition)


THE FRANK SIEBERT library of the North American Indian and the American frontier, consisting of fifteen hundred rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and other items, was auctioned in part in New York last May at Sotheby's.

Collecting over a fifty-year period, the eccentric Dr. Siebert sacrificed career, family, and personal comfort for his single-minded book-buying habit--at one time he lived in a car in order to maximize cash available for acquisitions.

The late collector would no doubt have been surprised by the sale results. His first purchase, an Indian-language primer by the noted colonial American linguist and proselytizer John Eliot, cost him twenty-eight cents. The proceeds from the 548 items sold at this auction came to US$5.9 million. The balance of the collection, covering western and southern North America, will be sold in October.

This is the last great library on Native Americans in private hands, says book dealer Bailey Bishop. It is certainly the result of a dogged pursuit of the ephemeral and now mostly lost documentation--land deeds, captivity diaries, war declarations, and missionary statements--of first contact between Europeans and Indians.

Siebert was not a typical book collector, says Bishop. Although like many other connoisseurs he prized books for their pristine condition--some pages in his library had never been cut--he also immersed himseff as a linguist and ethnologist among the people about whom he read. He dedicated the last thirty years of his life to saving the little-spoken language of the Penobscot Indians on the coast of Maine, compiling a dictionary and the legends of this dwindling tribe.

Siebert lived modestly and died obscurely in a small fisherman's cottage filled to the rafters with rare books. People who knew him only as an ethnolinguist in muddy boots were shocked to learn he was one of the world's foremost bibliophiles. …

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