William Jones (Megasiáwa / Black Eagle)

Portrait of William Jones taken in Chicago, 1907.

African American, Autoethnography, Cultural Activism

William Jones (Megasiáwa / Black Eagle)


William Jones was the first American Indian to receive a Ph.D in anthropology, although he preferred not to be addressed by the title “Dr.” and is one of the first Native American scholars to publish in the Journal of American Folklore

Born in 1871 on the Sauk and Fox Reservation, in what later became Oklahoma, William Jones lived with his paternal grandmother in a wigwam for the first nine years of his life.  Still, he was quick to point out that he was of mixed descent, having had a white mother and a Welsh great grandfather on his father’s side. After studying in the industrial program for Native Americans at Hampton Institute, he refused to be valedictorian at his Hampton Institute graduation (1892) because he felt being mixed disqualified him from the honor. Jones went on to earn an AB from Harvard (1900) and an MA (1901) and a PhD (1904) in Anthropology from Columbia University. 

Raised by his Meskwaki-speaking grandmother, Jones could communicate in multiple Algonquian languages, and he conducted research and published in Meskwaki (Fox), Kickapoo, Ojibwe, and English. While still an undergraduate, Jones began publishing articles about and stories from his Meskwaki culture in The Harvard Monthly, a student publication, which he edited from 1899-1900. His later research interests and publications span a breadth of topics related to Algonquian studies including: mortuary customs, Meskwaki grammar, and the presence of spirits in objects that the English language categorizes as “inanimate.” While most collections of Indigenous stories are published as English translations, and many researchers have not kept notes of the original languages in which they were told, Jones published hundreds of stories in Ojibwe, Meskwaki, and Kickapoo, along with their English translations. Today, his Ojibwa Texts (1917, 1919), Fox Texts (1907), and Kickapoo Tales (1915) are treasured by people in community-based and academic programs working to revitalize Algonquian languages and cultures because of the sacred stories they include. These works are some of the earliest and remain the most extensive collections of stories published in these languages.

Unable to attain a permanent position working with Algonquian languages due to biases toward his American Indian ancestry, Jones accepted an offer from Chicago’s Field Museum to gather artifacts and ethnographic materials from the Ilongot (now called the Bugkalot) in the Philippines. As he was leaving his post with that tribe, tensions grew with that tribe, and they killed him in 1909.  He was 38. While the reasons for his murder are still unclear, they appear to have been due to miscommunication and the complexities of conducting fieldwork in the Philippines as an outsider.

Among Jones publications of significance to folklorists are:

“Notes on the Fox Indians,” Journal of American Folklore, 24, no. 92 (April -June 1911): 209-237

Wendy Makoons Geniusz