Biographies Frances Theresa Densmore
(Frances Theresa Densmore)
Born May 21, 1867 in Red Wing, Minnesota
Died June 5, 1957 in Red Wing, Minnesota
US-American anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, helped preserve the music and culture of many American Indian tribes
155th birthday on May 21, 2022
65th death anniversary on June 5, 2022
Biography • Literature & Sources
I heard an Indian drum…. I have heard it in strange places, in the dawn and at midnight, with its mysterious throb.
Frances Densmore devoted her entire life to recording and preserving American Indians’ music and customs. Inspired from childhood by the sound of Indians singing and drumming, by the end of her life she had accumulated thousands of recordings and transcriptions of songs, and over twenty monographs and reports for public and professional journals. And she did it, in large part, on her own. By all accounts a very determined woman with a strong work ethic, she stated late in her life, “I have no special philosophy, but nothing downs me.”
Densmore was a woman of contradictions. At a time when most accepted roles for women were housekeeping and child rearing, she nevertheless achieved success in a traditionally male profession. During her long career – from the late 19th to the mid 20th century – she made her mark as an independent anthropologist when, by contrast, most others who did so were supported by institutions such as universities and museums. As a woman aspiring to be a professional anthropologist, she succeeded at a time when most of the sciences were less than welcoming to women. Although anthropology was more open to women than some other sciences, women who entered the field were likely to do so as helpmates or research assistants for males.
Densmore’s work was informed by the belief, widely held during most of her lifetime, in the “vanishing Indian” – the view that Indian peoples and their cultures would soon disappear as they assimilated to the dominant Euro-American culture; yet many elements of those cultures are in fact still alive and well in Indian communities. Some today question her work, considering it an appropriation of material that they think should have remained with Indians, while others greatly value the vast scope and detail of her achievement.
Frances was born in 1867 to a middle-class family in Red Wing, Minnesota, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Her father was a civil engineer; her mother was active in humanitarian causes. Frances had a younger sister, Margaret. From their house overlooking the Mississippi River, they could see campfires and hear drums from an encampment of Dakota Indians on Prairie Island. Frances later recalled that even when very young, she often fell asleep to the sound of an Indian drum – a sound that would inspire her in her professional work all her life. One of the Dakota people there, Maka Waste’ Win (Good Earth Woman, also known as Susan Windgrow), later provided information to Densmore about cultural aspects of her tribe.
Frances grew up in a musical family. She obtained a thorough musical education; from 1884 to 1887 she attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where she studied piano, organ, and harmony. There, for the first time, she encountered people from other cultures. After she graduated, she returned to Minnesota, where she gave piano lessons and served as a church organist. She later furthered her studies with well-known musicians in Boston and at Harvard University.
Densmore’s strong musical background and her fascination with Indian music came together when she began to read widely about the latter. In particular, she studied works by the American anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher. Nineteen years Densmore’s senior, Fletcher had visited many tribes and written extensively on their culture and music, focusing in particular on the Omaha people in Nebraska and Iowa. To record their music, Fletcher used a phonograph – a new device invented by Thomas A. Edison in 1877, with which sound waves could be recorded as impressions on rotating wax (originally tin foil) cylinders, and then played back.
Fletcher and her co-worker, Ponca ethnologist Francis La Flesche, published A Study of Omaha Music in 1893. That same year, Densmore attended the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, where she was further inspired. She later recalled,
I heard Indians sing, saw them dance and heard them yell, and was scared almost to death. However, I read what Miss Alice Cunningham Fletcher was writing at the time about Omaha music, and became acquainted with John Comfort Fillmore who transcribed her phonograph records. For the next ten years I soaked my receptive mind in what army officers wrote about Indians, and what historians wrote about Indians, with some of the publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, with which I was later to be connected. All this was preparation for my life work.” (She Heard an Indian Drum, Hoffman, p. 21)
Eventually Densmore and Fletcher met, and they began to correspond. For ten years Densmore gave public lectures about Indian music, in Minnesota as well as Chicago and New York, drawing on Fletcher’s work, with her permission. At the time, lecturing was one of the few acceptable ways for women to be active in public.
Recording Indians’ Music
In 1905, Densmore made her first field trip to visit an Indian tribe and study their music. Accompanied by her sister Margaret, she traveled to two Chippewa (Ojibwe) villages in Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior, Grand Marais and Grand Portage. In Grand Marais, they hired an Indian guide named Caribou, who took them to meet the Grand Medicine man, Shingibis. The Densmores were able to attend a religious ceremony; Frances was thrilled, although she did not take notes – it would, she later said, have seemed “a sacrilege.” (Archabal, p. 99)
In the summer of 1906, Densmore visited the White Earth Chippewa community in western Minnesota. One of the Indians agreed to sing and record songs for her. She hastily borrowed a phonograph from a local music store and recorded many of his songs. After visiting two other Chippewa communities in the state, she returned to Red Wing and wrote to the head of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) in Washington DC, requesting funds for future work. In reply, he sent her a grant for $150, which she used to buy her own Edison machine to use on subsequent trips. She replaced it the following year with (an evidently superior) Columbia gramophone, which she used on subsequent field trips until 1940.
Densmore followed distinct steps when she wanted to record a tribe’s music. She began by approaching the “top” man, in a formal, businesslike but friendly way, to ask permission to proceed. Since she did not know any of the tribes’ languages, she carefully identified an interpreter known to be competent in the tribe’s language and in English. Then, after setting up the equipment, singers, and interpreter in an appropriate place – usually a building located some distance, but not too far, from the center of the tribe’s activities – she recorded the song or songs. Next she transcribed them, using (usually) Western musical notation. Finally, she analyzed the song’s musical characteristics and wrote descriptions of them and related cultural material before submitting her study, in most cases to the BAE for publication as BAE bulletins.
On the basis of her recordings at the Chippewa communities, Densmore published two books – Chippewa Music I and Chippewa Music II, in 1910 and 1913. Over the next few years she ventured farther west and made recordings at several Sioux locations in the Dakotas, resulting in her lengthy book Teton Sioux Music, published in 1918. These early books are the most substantial of her many works on Indian music; Teton Sioux Music has been described as “monumental.” They include the great number of the songs she recorded, providing lists of them by name and type (such as love songs and songs for games and dances), transcriptions, and translations of words as well as detailed descriptions and analyses of the music in tables and charts, and in some cases graphs, “so the eye can get an impression that the ear does not receive when listening to the song.” (Hofmann, p. 96) In these and later works, she described such aspects of songs as structure, tonality, melodic progression, rhythm, the rhythm of the drum, and other characteristics, often comparing the music of the many tribes she visited with each other and with Western music. She frequently cited individual singers by name and provided detailed information about them. Her books also included many photographs of singers and their surroundings.
In addition, Densmore – a prolific writer – wrote at length in these and later works about the meanings of Indians’ songs in their cultural context. Besides their music, she also wanted to learn as much as she could about other aspects of their culture – their dwellings, clothing, food, uses of plants, birth customs, burial customs, and more. She collected such material during her trips to Chippewa and other villages, and eventually published them in two books: How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts (1928) and Chippewa Customs (1929). She also collected Indian crafts and artifacts and musical instruments, many of which are now housed in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and in the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.
Densmore was sensitive, too, to the spiritual significance of many Indian songs. Of particular interest to her were dream songs. In many Indian cultures, she learned, dreams are understood in relation to the supernatural. In such cultures, dreams are received from the spirit realm when the mind is in a receptive state – for instance, after a period of fasting or sleeplessness. As Densmore put it, “The Indian waited and listened for the mysterious power of nature to come to him in song.” (The Belief of the Indian in a Connection Between Song and the Supernatural, Hofmann, p. 78) A song becomes the special property of the dreamer. Densmore also appreciated that songs “had a purpose. Songs in the old days were considered to come from a supernatural source and [the] singing was connected with the exercise of supernatural power.” (The Study of American Indian Music, Hofmann p. 108) Medicine or healing songs would be used to aid in treating someone who was ill. Densmore realized that such songs were viewed as sacred, and usually not appropriate for recording, although in the early years of her recording she did record some songs of the Chippewa Midéwiwin (Medicine) Society.
Over the course of her long career, Densmore visited and recorded music of thirty-five Indian tribes, often with Margaret as her companion and helper. They traveled by car, train, and occasionally by boat. Especially on trips to distant tribes, traveling became arduous as they had to carry heavy equipment – phonograph, cameras, tripods, notebooks, and supplies – so they sometimes had to hire help. With a few exceptions, all her work was done under the auspices of Bureau of American Ethnology. Researcher Nina Marchetti Archabal has summarized the trips that resulted in significant studies:
Densmore’s efforts yielded major published studies on the music of the Chippewa, Teton Sioux, Northern Ute, Mandan and Hidatsa, Tule Indians of Panama [during their visit to Washington DC], Papago, Pawnee, Menominee, Yuman and Yaqui, Cheyenne and Arapaho, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Nootka and Quileute, Choctaw, the Indians of British Columbia, Seminole and Acoma, Isleta, Cochiti, and Zuni Pueblos. (Archabal, p. 113)
Having to Make Do
During her recording visits, Densmore often found conditions less than conducive to recording music. For instance, when she first began recording among the Chippewa, she found that many of their songs were intended to be accompanied by an instrument, such as a drum or rattle. But these tended to overpower singing voices as they were recorded. Always resourceful, she came up with a solution:
“Therefore it was necessary to find, by experiment, some form of accompaniment that would satisfy the Indian singer and also record the rhythm of the drum or rattle. Pounding on a pan was too noisy, but…songs were often recorded in an Indian schoolroom during vacation, and an empty chalk box was found an excellent substitute for a drum. I put a crumpled paper that touched the sides of the box but did not fill it. The box was closed and struck sharply with the end of a short stick, producing a sound that was heard clearly on the record…[making] possible the transcribing of the rhythm of the Native accompaniment.” (from “Songs of the Chippewa,” notes accompanying the album released in 1950)
Recording Sioux Music
In 1911 Densmore began to extend her travels westward, to record singers at several Sioux sites in North and South Dakota. Accompanied by Margaret, she first visited Fort Yates, North Dakota, the location of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s headquarters. Her experience recording music there was very positive; she returned for the next three summers to continue her work. She made such a good impression on Chief Red Fox that he wanted to adopt her into the tribe, in part because she resembled his own deceased daughter. Densmore described the ceremony marking her adoption:
In 1911 when I was at Fort Yates, North Dakota, studying the Sun Dance ceremony, a very prominent Chief, Red Fox, announced to an assembly of chiefs and leaders that he intended to adopt me as his daughter! This was not so unusual, because everybody was aware that Red Fox had the right to adopt someone in place of his daughter that had died some years before. The assembly approved his intention, although you can imagine what a surprise it was for me! The deceased daughter’s name had been Ptesan ‘non’ pawin (which means Two White Buffalo Woman), and this was the name I received from Red Fox. He explained to me that I need never hesitate to use it, wherever I might be. He had a right to give it to his daughter because he had twice been selected to kill a white buffalo when his tribe was hunting. This was an honor when so chosen because an albino animal was only occasionally seen in a herd. A thousand Indians gathered at Grand River, South Dakota, on the Fourth of July, 1912, when I was present, and my adoption was ratified by Red Fox’s band. Songs were sung in my honor. Old praise songs and some new songs contained my name.” (A memorandum from Frances Densmore,” 1941, Hofmann, p. 33)
Recording Under Austere Conditions
Unlike her mentor Alice Fletcher, Densmore did not enjoy “roughing it” during field trips to remote Indian communities. She usually stayed in the homes of White government officials. But at least one experience was a bit more challenging:
“I remember with queer affection an office at Fort Yates, that had been part of the kitchen of the old fort. Subsequently it had been used as a coal shed, and it had neither door nor windows when I took over. The agent let a prisoner from the guardhouse help me fix it up and he suggested boring holes in the floor to let the water run through, when the floor was cleaned. He made steps, rehung the door, and nailed window sash over the openings, and I pasted paper over the broken plaster and used packing boxes as tables. For many weeks I used that office and the Indians felt at home there, which is important. I stayed until the weather was bitter cold and the snow was piled high around the door. A little stove kept the place warm and I nailed a blanket over the door after entering, in order to keep out the bitter wind that blew down the Missouri River. One trial was that the mice did not move with the soldiers and their descendants had populated the building. They frisked around the floor and hid behind the paper on the wall. Once I found one under my typewriter when I came back at noon.” (Study of American Indian Music: Work in the Field, 1941, Hofmann, p. 105)
Recording Ute Music
Following her work with the Sioux tribes, in 1914 Densmore traveled farther west to the mountainous area of the Northern Ute tribes. There she encountered Indians who, in contrast to the Sioux, were not very welcoming. The Utes had recently gone through a particularly painful time, enduring extensive land loss and pressures to assimilate to the dominant culture. Chief Red Cap initially refused to let Densmore record any singers at all, but he changed his mind when she played her “trump card” – she told him that she was the Sioux Chief Red Fox’s adopted daughter. Then, after Chief Red Cap had recorded some songs, he also recorded his own speech criticizing the government agent’s treatment of the Utes. It is uncertain whether any officials at the BAE actually listened to his complaint.
Densmore made a return trip to record more music of the Utes in 1916, but this time she developed breathing problems due to the high altitude. Questioned about her work, she replied, “I had to remember to breathe. If I did not keep my mind on it, I often stopped breathing for a long time.” (Jensen and Patterson, p. 107) Her doctor in Red Wing diagnosed heart problems and advised her not to visit any more sites in mountainous terrain.
Recording in the Northwest: the Makah
For the following nearly two decades, Densmore visited many other tribes. In 1923 she traveled to the Pacific northwest – to the Makah at Neah Bay on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. She and Margaret traveled by train to Seattle, then by boat to the Makah community, which was then accessible only by sea; and after recording there, to British Columbia. Three years later she returned to make more recordings of songs among the Makah as well as communities in British Columbia and on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
As Densmore had found in other tribes, the Makah had songs for just about every aspect of their lives. Biographer Joan M. Jensen describes this trait in their culture:
As soon as a woman indicated she was expecting a child, her family gave her a feast, and old women came to sing songs to the child while still in the womb. After the child’s birth, the old women returned again to sing the child into its new home. Fathers gave their children feasts to mark their birthdays at which old women sang children’s songs. Fathers sang to their children and “danced” them. And at about five years of age, children had naming feasts at which they again heard songs…. Young men formed groups to sing around the village in the evenings. At marriage feasts, the young women were sung into their new homes. They took family songs with them into their new homes and passed them on to their children.
“As adults both men and women received songs in dreams …. They dreamed healing songs. Women sang songs to call other women to collect berries or shellfish…. Men sang war songs, songs for contests of strength, and whaling songs. Those who stayed home had songs for protection and songs to calm the waters. The wealthier sponsored potlatches, feasts where hosts welcomed guests with song and gave them gifts. Guests sang their family songs as well…. When a person passed on, the family head sang the songs of the deceased. At the end of a mourning potlatch, kin sang their songs…. As one song went: ‘Let your song last as long as your wealth.’” (Jensen and Patterson, pp. 133-134)
Recording in the Southeast: the Seminoles
In 1931 and 1932 Densmore made several trips to Florida, where she recorded songs of the Seminole people. Because of their history of and strong resistance to persecution and threatened removal by the US government, many had moved deep into the Everglades and were difficult to reach. However, some Seminoles had set up “exhibition villages” – recreations of their actual villages, some along the famed Tamiami Trail – where they performed dances and songs for tourists and sold garments they made out of their colorful cloth, known as Seminole patchwork. These locations were more out in the open and easier to visit.
During a subsequent trip to Florida, Densmore recorded a dozen songs by Josie Billie, who became her principal singer. But after he had recorded over sixty songs, he suddenly stopped and refused to sing any more, explaining that the tribe’s medicine men had objected. Billie himself refused to sing his own medicine song (intended to facilitate healing), fearing that doing so might cause the medicine to lose its power. As described above, Densmore often met with reluctance on the part of Indians to record songs that had, for them, possible adverse consequences for healing or were deemed too sacred to share.
Losing BAE Funding, 1933
In 1933, well into the Depression, Densmore lost her financial support from the BAE. This made it difficult to continue her field trips. Margaret, who had been a school teacher, had quit her job in 1912 to became Frances’s full time assistant. They continued to live in their childhood home in Red Wing. Frances found various jobs to keep them going, such as lecturing and writing for pay. For two years she was unable to do any fieldwork. But in 1935 she received a grant to work as a consultant to the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, whose director had formerly been at the BAE and had supported her there. Finally in 1936 she obtained funding from the Works Progress Administration and became supervisor of Indian handcrafts in Minneapolis. Further funding from a private donor enabled her to travel to the Southwest Museum and visit some tribes in the area and record their music.
Creating an Archive
During the 1940s Densmore spent much time organizing the fruits of her life’s labor. Besides the wax cylinders holding her recordings, her archive would include her letters, notes, bulletins, articles, and so on (but nothing pertaining to her personal life, which she explicitly designated to be destroyed). In 1940 her recordings were moved from the Smithsonian to the National Archives. Between 1941 and 1943, as a consultant at the Archives, she worked on organizing the Smithsonian-Densmore Collection of sound recordings of American Indian music. In 1948 the recordings were further transferred to the Library of Congress, where they now form part of the Archive of American Folk Song. The Library copied many of her recordings from cylinders onto sixteen-inch disks.
As part of the effort to archive her recordings, Densmore began to work on making some of them available to the general public. She spent several years selecting songs from numerous tribes for a series of albums that would be issued on long-playing vinyl disks by the Library of Congress. Although her original plan was to create ten albums, she was able to complete only seven. The first one, “Songs of the Chippewa,” was issued in 1950. The others are “Songs of the Sioux,” “Songs of the Yuma, Cocopa, and Yaqui,” “Songs of the Pawnee and Northern Ute,” “Songs of the Papago,” “Songs of the Nootka and Quileute,” and “Songs of the Menominee, Mandan, and Hidatsa.” Some can be heard today on YouTube.
In 1947, Densmore suffered a severe blow – her sister Margaret died of heart failure. She and Frances had been very close. Margaret was very helpful to Frances over the years – especially after she left her teaching job – taking care of their house in Red Wing, cooking, typing, driving. But, as Frances declared, “Nothing downs me.” She sold the family home and moved into a nearby rooming house, and continued on her own to record and analyze Indian music.
Honoring Frances Densmore
Densmore received numerous honors for her work. Oberlin College awarded her an honorary master’s degree in 1924. In 1941 she was given an award from the National Association of Composers and Conductors. St. Paul’s Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1950. And the Minnesota Historical Society presented her with its first “citation for distinguished service in the field of Minnesota History” in 1954. She was also made a member of several professional societies.
Her Final Years, and After
In 1954, when she was 87, Densmore made one more trip to visit the Seminole Indians in Florida, where she visited reservations in the Everglades and conducted seminars at the University of Florida. Back in Red Wing, she celebrated her 90th birthday in May 1957. Two weeks later, she died of pneumonia and heart failure.
In the decades since her death, some critics – with the growth of Native sovereignty and increasing recognition of Native rights, and with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 – have questioned Densmore’s practice of “salvage anthropology,” the imperative for non-Natives to capture elements of Indian culture before they would presumably disappear; and to preserve them in non-Native facilities. Some have alleged that she pressured Indians to share sacred songs and teachings that tribal members thought should be kept secret. For instance, a play by White Earth writer Marcie R. Rendon, “SongCatcher: A Native Perspective of Frances Densmore,” published in 2003, makes such charges.
But others, including Indian educators and scholars, have valued Densmore’s work highly, consulting her recordings and books to learn about forgotten aspects of their cultures that were hidden for generations because of fears of government retribution. And the Federal Cylinder Project, started in 1979, includes the repatriation of Densmore’s recordings to their tribes of origin, where they can be edited and re-recorded by tribal members and used in educating tribes about their history. For instance, Chippewa teacher Larry Aitken has used her work in his teaching at the Leech Lake Tribal College. (“Speaking About Frances Densmore”)
Drawn from her early years to Indian peoples, Densmore wanted to learn more about them and ultimately to support them. Studying and preserving their music was a way she could do so. She hoped to help prevent their cultures from being lost, as she – in keeping with the times – feared they might be. Perhaps her insistence on maintaining a strictly professional, although friendly, distance when interacting with Indians was a way of keeping her genuine sympathy for them from distracting her from her work.
During her many travels and studies, Frances Densmore always remained focused on her goal. In an address in 1941 (in Hofmann, The Study of Indian Music, 1941, p. 114), she stated it clearly:
Throughout this study the objective has been to record the structure of the Indian songs under observation, with my interpretation. Other students, scanning the material, may reach other conclusions. My work has been to preserve the past, record observations in the present, and open the way for the work of others in the future.
Author: Dorian Brooks
Literature & Sources
Larry Aitken, “Speaking About Frances Densmore,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upHEeJpfQwQ
August H. Andresen, Congressional Tribute, “Dr. Frances Densmore,” address given on April 25, 1952 to the Minnesota House of Representatives (Hofmann, pp. 115-119)
Nina Marchetti Archabal, “Frances Densmore: Pioneer in the Study of American Indian Music,” Chapter 6 in Barbara Stuhler and Gretchen Kreuter, eds., Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998)
Frances Densmore, The American Indians and Their Music (New York: The Womans Press, 1936). A 1926 version is online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015007933891&view=1up&seq=7
_____________, How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (New York City: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974, reprint of “Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians,” pp. 275-397 of the Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1926-1927, 1928)
_____________, Chippewa Customs, with an Introduction by Nina Marchetti Archabal (St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1979, reprint of 1929 edition)
Ute D. Gacs et al, eds., “Frances Theresa Densmore,” in Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1989)
Charles Hofmann, comp., ed., Frances Densmore and American Indian Music (Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, Contributors, vol. 23 – New York, 1968). Hofmann was Densmore’s only student. This volume includes a chronology of Densmore’s life and numerous articles by and about her, selected by Hofmann (some of which are referred to in the present article), as well as numerous notes on annotated reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology from 1907-1946. Online at https://archive.org/details/francesdensmorea00hofm/page/n11/mode/2up
Joan M. Jensen and Michelle Wick Patterson, eds., Travels with Frances Densmore: Her Life, Work, and Legacy in Native American Studies (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015)
Joan T. Mark, A Stranger in Her Native Land: Alice Fletcher and the American Indians (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)
Marcie R. Rendon, “SongCatcher: A Native Interpretation of the Story of Frances Densmore,” in Jaye T. Darby and Stephanie Fitzgerald, eds., Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women’s Theater (Los Angeles, CA: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, 2003)
Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982)
Stephen Smith, producer, writer, narrator, “Song Catcher: Frances Densmore of Red Wing,” A radio biography/web documentary of Densmore. St. Paul, MN.: Minnesota Public Radio, 1994, 1997. Online at http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/199702/01_smiths_densmore/docs/authorintro.shtml
Rebecca S. West, “Points West Online: Recording the Spirit of a Culture,” January 25, 2016. Online at
(originally published in 2000)
Wikipedia, “Frances Densmore”
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