Samuel Dorris Dickinson (1912–2007)

Samuel Dorris Dickinson was an archaeologist, historian, journalist, linguist, and college instructor. He was one of the early academically trained archaeologists to work and teach in Arkansas. He was a participant in the development of the field of archaeology in the United States, when few who worked as archaeologists had college degrees. He was an editor at the Arkansas Gazette, Arkansas Democrat, and Shreveport Journal for nearly thirty years. Dickinson was a well-known collector of antiques from the early territorial period of Arkansas. He also acquired folk art, religious art, books, paintings, and fossils. Dickinson published widely on his archaeological and historical research in a number of regional professional journals.

Sam Dickinson was born on February 26, 1912, in Prescott (Nevada County) to Samuel P. Dickinson and Bessie Sue Litton Dickinson; Dickinson’s father worked at the Ozan Mercantile in Prescott. Since there were several Samuels in his family, Dickinson went by his middle name, Dorris, until his father died in 1948. He was a fifth-generation resident of Prescott and an only child.

Dickinson and his parents shared an interest in the prehistory of southwestern Arkansas. In 1929, after Dickinson graduated from high school, his collection of “Indian relics” was featured in the Arkansas Democrat. Dickinson had developed an interest in foreign languages during high school but wanted a career as an archaeologist. He attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) for two years, where he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology. He did graduate work at Mexico’s National University (Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México) during the latter part of 1933, but, in his words, “I only obtained one degree because I was more interested in studying under outstanding archeologists than in getting degrees.”

With no prospects for a job in Mexico, Dickinson returned to Arkansas and began a series of excavations at several important prehistoric Caddo mound sites in 1934 and 1935. These excavations were paid for by Dickinson’s father and Judge Harry J. Lemley of Hope (Hempstead County). Dickinson and Lemley were among a group of avocational archaeologists of the 1930s and 1940s in southern Arkansas.

Dickinson’s main area of study in archaeology was the analysis of pottery. He continued his education by taking several courses at the University of Chicago in the summer of 1936. During this time, he participated in excavations at the Kincaid Mounds in southern Illinois, under the direction of Fay Cooper-Cole, one of the pioneers of Illinois archaeology. In 1936, he became a member of the Society of American Archaeology two years after it was founded.

In 1934, Dickinson accepted a position at Magnolia A&M—now Southern Arkansas University (SAU)—teaching Spanish and courses on ancient Greece and Rome. Under his supervision, a group of his students designed and built an amphitheater and performed Sophocles’s Antigone at graduation time. The Greek Theater at SAU is one of only two such structures in Arkansas. Dickinson was also charged with establishing a museum at Magnolia A&M and was assisted in acquiring objects to exhibit by Samuel C. Dellinger, curator of the UA Museum, with whom he had worked as an undergraduate student.

Dickinson, described as “immensely popular with his students,” also enriched the social life at Magnolia A&M by sponsoring the first campus dance and establishing the Geoanthropology Club. James Willis has written that Dickinson’s contributions, especially the amphitheater, represented a major shift in the school from its beginning as a secondary agriculture school to a junior college with increasing numbers of students from larger towns in Arkansas.

While Dickinson clearly enjoyed teaching, he could not refuse a job offer from Dellinger at the UA Museum. Dellinger asked him to direct the archaeology laboratory to process prehistoric artifacts from excavations sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The excavated sites were in southwestern Arkansas along the Ouachita River and were from both Fourche Maline and Caddoan occupations. Among the tasks completed were restoration of ceramic vessels, cataloging of artifacts, and creation of drawings and maps. Dickinson co-authored several articles with Dellinger on the excavations. The central contribution of this research to the understanding of Arkansas prehistory was the recognition of a group of decorative ceramic traits that formed the basis for the late prehistoric Quapaw phase. This came before the seminal survey and publication on late prehistoric ceramics of the lower Mississippi River Valley by Philip Phillips, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

At some point, however, Dickinson tired of working with artifacts, especially classifying tiny fragments of broken prehistoric pots. He gave up his brief career as an archaeologist to become a journalist, working as an associate editor and feature writer at the Arkansas Gazette from 1944 to 1947, and then as associate editor at the Arkansas Democrat from 1947 to 1960. After writing editorials for the Shreveport Journal during the 1960s, he took “early retirement” to travel and write in 1973.

During his retirement, Dickinson used his knowledge of French and Spanish to translate and publish works by five eighteenth-century French and Spanish explorers on their travels in colonial Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. He also wrote about the Caddo and Quapaw, Arkansas Post, colonial Arkansas, the Hernando de Soto expedition, and Louisiana folklore. Dickinson donated a large collection of his research files, including those of John Rison Fordyce, to Northwestern State University of Louisiana.

Dickinson died on November 30, 2007, at Hillcrest Care and Rehabilitation in Prescott. He had suffered from emphysema. Before his death, he established an endowment in his name at SAU.

For additional information:
Dickinson, Samuel D. “A Relic Looks Back.” Arkansas Archeologist 30 (1991): 1–6.

Hoffman, Michael P. “Ancient Races of Giants, Mound Builders, and Hero Collectors: Newspaper Accounts of Arkansas Archaeology, 1870–1930.” In Arkansas Archeology: Essays in Honor of Dan and Phyllis Morse, edited by Robert C. Mainfort Jr. and Marvin D. Jeter. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

Obituary of Samuel D. Dickinson. Hope Star, December 3, 2007, p. 5.

Samuel Dorris Dickinson Papers. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Willis, James F. Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909–2009. Magnolia: Southern Arkansas University Foundation, 2009.

Kathleen H. Cande
Arkansas Archeological Survey


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