William N. Fenton

June 23, 2005

COOPERSTOWN — William N. Fenton, 96, anthropologist and professor, died in Cooperstown on Friday, (June 17, 2005) at Bassett Hospital.

He was a Cooperstown resident for four years and spent his last four months at the Otsego Manor. Previously he had lived in Slingerlands for more than 40 years and was the director and Assistant Commissioner of Education for the New York State Museum and Science Service and later a distinguished professor of anthropology at SUNY Albany.

Dr. Fenton was a graduate of Dartmouth College, class of 1930 and Yale University, PhD, 1937. After beginning his career in the U.S. Indian Service on the Tonawanda and Tuscarora Reservation, he taught at St. Lawrence University. In Washington, he became an ethnologist with the Smithsonian Institution and then was Executive Secretary of the Division of Anthropology and Psychology for the National Research Council.

Iroquois Studies were his primary interest and among his publications were “The False Faces of the Iroquois,” 1987; “ The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy,” 1998; “The Little Water Medicine Society of the Senecas,” 2002. His “Memoirs of an Iroquoianist” will be published this year. He collaborated with Edmund Wilson on “Apologies to the Iroquois.”

Among his many additional accomplishments are his early recordings of the Seneca Indian language and their ceremonies and songs for the Library of Congress, as well as his service as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Indian Museum before it merged with The Smithsonian.

He was the recipient of the Cornplanter Medal for Iroquois Research, the Citizen Laureate award of the SUNY Foundation, 1978; the Dartmouth Class of 1930 award, 1979; the 50th Anniversary award of the Conference on Iroquois Research, the Wilbur Cross medal from the Yale Graduate School, 1999; the Rothbaum Prize from the University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. He also received an LLD degree from Hartwick College in 1968.

An avid fly fisherman, Dr. Fenton was president of Trout Unlimited, Clearwater Chapter in Albany. He spent many summers at his camp in Keene Valley in the Adirondacks where he did his writing and fishing. In 1975 he was Fulbright-Hays fellow in New Zealand, where he taught at the University of Otago and enjoyed the fishing. He also enjoyed other fishing trips to Scotland and New Brunswick.

Dr Fenton was born in New Rochelle, the son of John William and Annabelle Nourse Fenton. His wife of 50 years, Olive Ortwine Fenton, died in 1986. He is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Fenton Snyder of Cooperstown and sons, John William of Malden Bridge and Douglas Bruce of Home and by five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A private burial will be held in Salamanca. Contributions may be sent to the Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave, NY 12092, where he was a founding board member.

Return to: Native American Church