In speaking to Penn State students earlier this month on “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” I mentioned Henry W. Shoemaker, Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. I thought I’d share a bit more about him, because his life was remarkable not only in Pennsylvania history, but for its lessons about the value of human beings sharing stories with one another and how whole cultures can be stronger and more remarkable as a result.

Shoemaker wasn’t just Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. He was also a prolific journalist, and Progressive-Era friend of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He’s most remembered for his many volumes of American Indian folk stories and legends collected throughout Pennsylvania. Shoemaker preserved settler-versions of what were claimed to be some of the last surviving oral stories of the American Indians of Pennsylvania—the Lenni Lenape, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Oneida, and others.

A few of his more well known collections include Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, Black Forest Souvenirs, Allegheny Episodes, Susquehanna Legends, and Penn’s Grandest Cavern. Simon J. Bronner, a Penn State professor, wrote a biography of Shoemaker in 1996 called Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

It’s at least in part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that the world knows the “Nittany Lions” of Penn State, and that we know of the Indian legend of Princess Nita-Nee. A few years ago I helped the Nittany Valley Society compile a special collection of the folk stories and legends specifically pertaining to the area of Central Pennsylvania where Penn State is located. The book is called The Legends of the Nittany Valley, and is a small way we hope to perpetuate not only the stories themselves, but also memory of Shoemaker and other American folklorists incredible efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to perpetuate a spirit and feeling for the American Indians who we so thoroughly wiped away from their historic homes.

When I was initially learning about Shoemaker, I particularly liked this language used to describe him and his work:

In many ways, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) embodies the spirit of the Progressive movement in America. A prominent reformist newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania, he used his wealth and position inherited from industrialism to promote the preservation of America’s wilderness and native cultures. He fell in with such national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who hoped to rekindle a rugged American nationalism. He became America’s first State Folklorist and a pioneer of national conservation. Shoemaker’s consuming passion was for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of his home state. He authored hundreds of pamphlets and books on Pennsylvania’s nature, history, and folklore. Today his memory lives on in the legends he helped promote…

Ken Poorman also provides a convenient snapshot of Shoemaker’s most notable achievements:

  • Newspaper publisher, author, folklorist, raconteur, diplomat
  • Mobilized interest and public funding to preserve historic and natural heritage
  • Leading conservationist, promoter of state parks
  • Romanticizer and popularizer of folktales, legends, and history
  • First official Folklorist in America
  • Director of Pennsylvania Historical Commission
  • Responsible for planting thousands of historical markers
  • Connection with Juniata through serving on M.G. Brumbaugh’s staff in Harrisburg
  • For many years after 1930 conducted pilgrimages to MGB’s grave near Lake Raystown

Despite pioneering folklore as an interest of Pennsylvania government as a means of “inspiriting the land” and cultivating civic pride and common experiences in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic America, folklorists who’ve come along since tend to look down their noses at Shoemaker and his contemporaries, like Katharine Berry Judson in the Pacific Northwest or William W. Canfield in New York.

Shoemaker opens himself to the criticism of contemporary folklorists because he injected too much of his own voice and his own era’s sensibilities into lots of his folklore. This has led to the charge that Shoemaker simply wrote all of the folklore himself. I’m far from convicted that Shoemaker created all of his folklore. Even if true, it would mean that he was incredibly creative and prolific, deserving of honor in and of itself. But more to the point, he frequently cites people he spoke with on trips throughout Pennsylvania and discloses the towns and places he heard stories, and thanks specific people by name. If all of this was purely fictional, in other words, practically everyone would have known it at the time. And the historical record doesn’t seem to bare that out.

In any event, the nature of oral stories and tradition is that the details of the folklore tend to change with almost every telling even while the stories attempt to retain the essence of their narrative. That’s what oral tradition is: the histories and stories of people passed down by the person-to-person telling. I wish Shoemaker interjected less of his generation’s own attitudes, biases, etc. into many of the stories. But it’s still easy and worthwhile to read them and enjoy them for what they are: fantastic stories that might just reach back into the earliest human stories and experiences of Pennsylvania shared by American Indian peoples, who we can still try to honor as our cultural ancestors.

The photo above shows Henry Shoemaker at Restless Oaks in 1913 with “Ramsden Rex,” his “English-bred Russian wolfhound.” I think the Juniata College Archives has the original version of this photo.