John Peabody Harrington (April 29, 1884 – October 21, 1961) was an American linguist and ethnologist and a specialist in the native peoples of California. Harrington is noted for the massive volume of his documentary output, most of which has remained unpublished: the shelf space in the National Anthropological Archives dedicated to his work spans nearly seven hundred feet.
Born in Waltham, Massachusetts, Harrington moved to California as a child. From 1902 to 1905, Harrington studied anthropology and classical languages at Stanford University. While attending specialized classes at the University of California, Berkeley, he met anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber. Harrington became intensely interested in Native American languages and ethnography.
Rather than completing his doctorate at the Universities of Leipzig and Berlin, Harrington became a high school language teacher. For three years, he devoted his spare time to an intense examination of the few surviving Chumash people. His exhaustive work came to the attention of the Smithsonian Museum's Bureau of American Ethnology. Harrington became a permanent field ethnologist for the bureau in 1915. He was to hold this position for 40 years, collecting and compiling several massive caches of raw data on native peoples, including the Chumash, Mutsun, Rumsen, Chochenyo, Kiowa, Chimariko, Yokuts, Gabrielino, Salinan, Yuma and Mojave, among many others. Harrington also extended his work into traditional culture, particularly mythology and geography. His field collections include information on placenames and thousands of photographs. The massive collections were disorganized in the extreme, and contained not only linguistic manuscripts and recordings, but objects and realia of every stripe; a later archivist described how opening each box of his legacy was "an adventure in itself."
Harrington is virtually the only recorder of some languages, such as Obispeño (Northern) Chumash, Kitanemuk, and Serrano. He gathered more than 1 million pages of phonetic notations on languages spoken by tribes from Alaska to South America. When the technology became available, he supplemented his written record with audio recordings - many recently digitized - first using wax cylinders, then aluminum discs. He is credited with gathering some of the first recordings of native languages, rituals and songs and perfecting the phonetics of several different languages. Harrington's attention to detail, both linguistic and cultural, is well-illustrated in "Tobacco among the Karuk Indians of California," one of his relatively few formally published works.
A more complete listing of the languages he documented includes the following: