In the Spotlight

News & Features
Song Catcher: Life Story
Margaret Densmore, Faithful Companion

FRANCES DENSMORE'S PROLIFIC CAREER depended on a one-woman support staff: Frances' younger sister Margaret.

Born seven years after Frances, Margaret gave up her school teaching career in 1912 to become her sister's full-time household manager and traveling companion. Like Frances, Margaret never married. The sisters were the only children in their family - an older brother died in infancy.1

Margaret was Frances' public liaison with whites and Indians. She was active in Red Wing church and women's' clubs and was generally described as the cheerful, friendly accompanist to her older sister's serious, businesslike manner.2

Frances often told her supervisors in Washington about Margaret's contributions:

I…have this wonderful sister who can manage Indians "like a book" and on whom I depend in all important decisions. She has never done any of the actual work but is my "observer" and nothing ever gets by her. The balance of our partnership is remarkable. She was drawing the highest salary in her grade in the Minneapolis Public Schools when she gave up everything to forward my work and has been my constant companion in the field.
On the reservations, Frances counted on Margaret for "protection" from Indians that might interrupt the recording work, and as a judge of Indian character. Margaret drove their Chevrolet and tended to living arrangements. In Red Wing, Margaret kept house and, according to Frances, was the only one in town capable of understanding the significance of the Indian work.3

Margaret died of heart failure on 25 January 1947, at the age of 73. She had supported Frances' research for more than 40 years. Frances suffered the loss heavily. At age 80, her lifelong companion was suddenly gone. To save money and escape the burden of housework, Frances sold the family home in Red Wing and moved to a rooming house up the street. Frances lived alone until her death ten years later.

Frances and Margaret are buried side-by-side in an oak-shrouded cemetery on a bluff above Red Wing.

1. Daniel Densmore, Densmore genealogy, Benjamin Densmore papers, Minnesota Historical Society.
2. Obituary, Red Wing Republican, 27 January, 1947; interviews with the following people who knew the Densmores: Charles Hofmann, St. Petersburg, FL, 14 August, 1994; Monroe Killy, Minneapolis, 31 August, 1994; Charles Biederman, Red Wing, MN, 26 July, 1994; Gladys Holst, Red Wing, 1 September, 1994.
3. Frances Densmore to Charles Hofmann, 28 September 1943, Hofmann collection; Densmore to Stirling, 18 July 1931, BAE Correspondence, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Densmore to Spivacke, 15 March 1941 and 21 April 1947, Densmore correspondence, Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Song Catcher