Highlighting Early Female Donors to The American Museum of Natural History

by Alexis Fleming and Marisa Kurtz on

Gottesman Research Library News

Image of AMNH Accession Card Archive boxes. Boxes from the American Museum of Natural History Accession Card Archive
H. Knapp/© AMNH

As noted in our first blog entry, the Office of the Registrar at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was awarded an Institute of Museum and Library Services Museums for America (IMLS) grant to partner with the Museum’s Research Library in digitizing over 150 years of paper accession records from the Museum’s inception through today. Project Digital Archivists Alexis Fleming and Marisa Kurtz have spent the past two years scanning, uploading, and transcribing index card and letter-sized documents, utilizing the Museum's Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), a cutting-edge technology that allows for seamlessly editing the information and format as needed. A major benefit of a centralized repository is that it can integrate with our organization’s many existing interdepartmental networks creating a user-friendly, synchronized database for these newly digitized records.

We began by diving into the earliest Museum accessions, consisting of type-written index cards documenting what was received at the Museum between 1869-1910. Many of the written records provide only the husband or other male relation's name - approximately 80% of our female donors are recorded in the form of “Mrs. [Husband’s Name or Initials].” This makes for a daunting research effort as we must then embark on an extensive search to confirm identity. We begin with the existing materials and records we already have access to such as the Annual Reports, Museum Research Library Authorities,[1] and the Library of Congress, among others. The Annual Reports tend to give more details about the donor, such as full name, city and state, or country, and additional object details perhaps not mentioned on the original accession cards. If information is found (sometimes the earliest Annual Reports are as vague as the cards!), we can then search on the Museum Library’s Digital Repository by donor name, year, expedition, or exhibition name to learn more about our benefactors.

This method often yields wonderfully thorough results for individuals who previously worked for or were well associated with AMNH. But, as often as it’s successful, it’s not, and we then open the search to more common, public search engines (Google, Wikidata, JSTOR). A successful verification is confirmed once we locate an identity across more than one reputable source such as the Museum’s Annual Reports, the Gottesman Research Library and Museum Archives, Library of Congress, Wikidata (with at least a few attached citations), or other museums, universities, or archival institutions’ records. It is then vetted one last time by a senior Registrar and Research Library staff.

Finding female patrons often relies on finding the associated male, most likely her husband. Once confirmed, we can search the male family history to possibly find the name of his wife. Sadly, there are times we are unable to get this far, as the husband’s name may be too common (like with an accession we have for “James Smith”) or too obscure in history to verify. This is why the names we have been able to uncover are such an achievement, as history has been kind enough to record and maintain the lives and legacies of the female patrons of AMNH. We want to highlight early female benefactors who helped build the Museum’s expansive collections. Here are some exciting examples:

Portrait of Mary McCrea Stuart/ Mrs. Robert Leighton Stuart, ca. 1840-1885 (oil on canvas) by Huntington, Daniel (1816-1906); Collection of the New-Yo
Portrait of Mary McCrea Stuart/ Mrs. Robert Leighton Stuart, ca. 1840-1885 (oil on canvas) by Huntington, Daniel (1816-1906); Collection of the New-York Historical Society, USA. https://emuseum.nyhistory.org/objects/18981/mary-mccrea-stuart-mrs-robert-leighton-stuart-18101891

Mary McCrea Stuart (1810[2] or 1815[3]-1891) formally transcribed as “Mrs. Robert L. Stuart,” was well acquainted with the Museum as her husband, Robert Leighton Stuart, (1806-1882)[4] was “a charter member and second president of the American Museum of Natural History, from 1873-1881." After her husband’s death in 1882 until 1888, Mary made nearly a dozen separate donations of collections, ranging from local birds and various mammals to minerals from around the world, and artifacts from Brazil, Chile, England, Switzerland, France, and various U.S. states. One of her most impressive anthropological donations included a collection of over 2,000 large and valuable Paleolithic and Neolithic stone implements. Mary Stuart was known to be a charitable woman of many philanthropic interests who, near the end of her life, wanted to give back to the institution that had been so integral in her and her husband’s lives.

AMNH Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 2864
AMNH Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 2864 

Esther A. Lancraft Hovey (1863-1914), recorded as “Mrs. E. O. Hovey,” was the wife of Dr. Edmund Otis Hovey (1862-1924), a geologist and curator in the Department of Geology and Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum from 1894 until his death. Esther supported her husband’s passion for the natural sciences and often accompanied him on his travels.[5] She delighted in collecting specimens and keeping detailed travel journals. In 1898, Esther A. Lancraft gifted the AMNH two accessions to the Department of Geology and the Department of Conchology (currently the Division of Invertebrate Zoology), likely collected herself while on a Museum expedition in Russia with her husband earlier that year. [6]

left: Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler Carow. Prints and Photographs division. Library of Congress, right: AMNH DAMS Accession Record 1109
left: Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler Carow. Prints and Photographs division. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record?libID=o281878. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University; right: AMNH Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 1109 

Mrs. Charles Carow (pictured above left), later found to be Gertrude Elizabeth Tyler Carow,[7] submitted a sizeable donation of “About 50 specimens of Land and Marine Shells and 54 Mounted Birds and 110 Skins, mostly North American” in 1886.[8] Two years later another Ornithology enthusiast, Emily Augusta Gove Holder, donated “1 Canary Bird, mounted,” as seen in the card on the right. Contributions such as these can likely be found in the Hall of Birds of the World or Sanford Hall of North American Birds, or stored in our research collections for scientific access.

Maria Louisa Pike, d.1898,[9] perhaps better known by her published name, Mrs. Nicholas Pike, was a naturalist who made a promising career in the production of color illustrations. Notably, Maria Louisa composed anatomically correct “pen and ink” etchings of fish, spiders (pictured left), birds, and North American snakes among others for publications including Scientific American.[10] The accomplished illustrator later donated “1 Australian Parakeet and a Goatsucker,” perhaps one of her subjects, in 1886 to AMNH.[11]

AMNH Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 2794
AMNH Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 2794 

Finally, Mary Allen Robeson Sargent (1853-1919) is presented simply as “Mrs. Sargent” but contributed skilled, artistic work to the collection. Her husband, arboriculturist Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) planned the AMNH Jesup Hall of North American Woods in 1880.[12] Sharing her husband’s admiration for forests, Mrs. Sargent created 48 watercolor paintings accessioned into the Collection of North American Forestry in 1897.[13]

The AMNH Accessions Archive Digitization Project has been a rewarding, yet extensive process and we hope to continue highlighting more interesting and insightful accessions made over the last 150 plus years. We appreciate the support of the IMLS and the Shelby White & Leon Levy Archive Initiative to better serve our collection, staff, and Museum visitors.

This is the second post in a series about the Registrar’s Accessions Archive Digitization Project. This entry was written by Project Digital Archivists Alexis Fleming and Marisa Kurtz.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, IMLS Grant #MA-249747-OMS-21.


[1] The American Museum of Natural History Library has developed standardized vocabularies – authorities – to describe, and codify the names of Museum-related people, events, collections and exhibits.

[2] Meredith, Mark. “Mary McCrea (1810-1891).” House Histree, 10 Feb. 2018, https://househistree.com/people/mary-mccrea-1810-1891.

[3] Wikipedia contributors. "Robert L. Stuart." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Mar. 2021. Web. 7 Feb. 2022.

[4] Python, N/A. “Stuart, Robert L.” AMNH Research Library, 6 Nov. 2016, https://data.library.amnh.org/archives-authorities/id/amnhp_1002024. Accessed 25 Jan. 2022.

[5] AMNH Authorities, Hovey, Edmund Otis https://data.library.amnh.org/archives-authorities/id/amnhp_1001027

[6] 1898 Annual Report: http://hdl.handle.net/2246/6213

[7] Wikipedia contributors. "Charles Carow." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Feb. 2022. Web. 1 Mar. 2022.

[8] Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 898

[9] "Q98380709." Wikidata. 11 Jan 2022, 14:23 UTC. 17 Feb 2022, 20:20 <https://www.wikidata.org/w/index.php?title=Q98380709&oldid=1560544172>.

[10] Wikipedia contributors. "Maria Louisa Pike." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Oct. 2020. Web. 22 Feb. 2022.

[11] Digital Asset Management Systems Accession Record 935

[12] AMNH Authority Charles Sprague Sargent: https://data.library.amnh.org/archives-authorities/id/amnhp_1001840

[13] 1897 Annual Report: http://hdl.handle.net/2246/6212