If you were a newcomer to Allentown circa 1900 and were walking down Hamilton Street, you probably would not have given a passing pedestrian in a dark broadcloth suit, wire rimmed glasses and droopy moustache a second glance.
But if you had asked a long-time resident, they would have almost certainly told you that you had just passed Alfred Franklin Berlin, one of the best-known authorities on the history of North American Indians in the country.
“It is doubtful,” said the Morning Call in a two-column editorial at his passing in 1925, “if there has been an Allentonian in generations so widely and internationally known as Mr. Berlin.”
From his boyhood, Berlin collected Lenape arrowheads when few others seemed to care. Now he was sought after by academically trained experts like Henry Mercer whom Berlin had guided in “digs” on South Mountain. He was even honored with a decoration by the King of Italy. A lot has happened in the field since Berlin’s day, but he was among the first.
Alfred Franklin Berlin was born in Cherryville, Northampton County on January 28, 1848. His family history in the region went back to the year 1738 when his ancestor, Abraham Berlin, arrived from the Palatinate in southern Germany on a ship called the “Charming Nancy.”
It must have been a popular name for a ship. Historians note that there were three with that name. Abraham was a blacksmith, apparently an occupation that his family had pursued in Europe.
This Abraham Berlin relocated to Easton and was one of its first residents. He played a prominent local role during the Revolution being elected chairman of the Northampton County Committee of Public Safety, a body of patriot supporters.
His son of the same name was also a blacksmith and a “noted gun-maker.” In what is perhaps the first case of an essential war worker, when Berlin’s ancestor attempted to join the Continental Army, they suggested he was of more use to the cause making guns than fighting.
After the Revolution he left Easton, settling in a village named Berlinsville after him. Here he farmed and was a blacksmith. His son Daniel relocated to Cherryville and became both a blacksmith and carriage maker. Daniel was Alfred Berlin’s father.
Young Alfred, according to one source, began his education as young as four years old. At 12 he was sent to live with his uncle in Easton where he went to school. He later took a business course at a school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Berlin then took a job in New York City at a wholesale house on Broadway. Here he met by chance W.R. Lawfer, a prominent Allentown businessman, whose family would found one of Allentown’s first department stores. He worked for Lawfer for seven years.
Deciding he had had enough of being cooped up in a store, Berlin went to Philadelphia where he got a job as a “commercial traveler,” aka traveling salesman for the Schelhly-Tyler company of that city for which he worked for 40 years.
Berlin’s modest home was at 623 Chew Street in Allentown with his wife Mary and children. It is still there today. His wife preceded him in death by 20 years. Berlin served three years as Lehigh County Prothonotary. The title, an ancient one, was then applied to the chief recordkeeper of county courts, civil division. (When President Harry S. Truman first heard the term used during his 1948 whistle stop campaign in Pennsylvania, he blurted out, “What the hell is a prothonotary?”) The position was later absorbed into another office.
But all this was a sidelight to Berlin’s real passion for the study of Native Americans. In the mid -19th century, Native Americans, particularly those on the east coast, were so long gone from the scene they were either mythologized like characters in Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha or simply forgotten. Nothing more than painted signs over an old inn door.
Eventually historians, like Francis Parkman, writing of the French and Indian War period, sparked an interest in the eastern tribes. And pioneering anthropologists like Lewis Henry Morgan were studying their tribal structure.
But what drew Alfred Berlin, even in his boyhood, was their art and artifacts. The Morning Call put it this way:
“It was a hobby that made him famous, a hobby begun when plodding around through plowed fields and river bottoms near this city he found and studied the curious pieces of chipped stone which were and are the only remains of a virile race that lived and loved, worked and hereabouts for many centuries.”
Most people at that time paid little attention to items like arrowheads, but Berlin collected them by the thousand. Others found them merely curious. Berlin was among the first to try and relate them to the Native Americans' tribal way of life.
Fortunately for Berlin he was born at a time when archaeology was just beginning to come into its own in Europe and America.
Earlier the chief interest into digging into the past was to loot it. European kings and princes would have their men dig into the site of an ancient city like Pompeii to extract a statue, remove it from the site and place it in their palace gardens. There was little to no attempt to create any kind of context for it.
Now a more scholarly approach was emerging. Although some of those early assumptions are outdated by current research, they showed the direction.
Among those who Berlin often collaborated with was Henry Chapman Mercer. Better known today for his eccentric homes in Bucks County and museums of antique tools, he was also for a time in the 1890s the curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s museum. Apparently, Berlin had become aware of what he believed were Jasper quarries created by Native Americans, near the Lehigh County village of Vera Cruz.
Writing about the quarries later in the American Archaeology magazine, Mercer gave full credit to Berlin for a suggestion that led him to discover their location. Today they are recognized as playing a significant role as a source for arrows and weapons for tribes in North America.
But Berlin was not only a collector. He also followed the current trends in archaeology and wrote numerous papers. Perhaps the most important and complete was done in 1914 for the Anniversary History of Lehigh County. His work on Indian pipes is still available online.
Along with giving as detailed of an account as existed at that time of the arrival of the Native Americans in the Lehigh Valley, he also wrote about the different divisions of what he called the Lenape nation, their different ways of hunting, farming and religion.
Berlin’s papers led to memberships in scholarly organizations, including a year as president of the American Archaeology Society. One of which he was proudest was as a charter member of the Lehigh County Historical Society.
Upon Berlin’s death at his daughter’s house in Bethlehem, the American Associations of Museums of New York stated in its newsletter that the Lehigh County Historical Society “has suffered a great loss.”