Sargent Burrage Child (1900-1972)
Archivist, sculptor, and diplomat, Sargent Burrage Child was born in Dorset, Vermont on August 25, 1900. The son of noted painter Edwin B. Child, he spent much of his youth surrounded by works of art. He attended Amherst College in Amherst Massachusetts before completing a Master’s degree from Columbia University in 1928. Throughout his studies, Child worked as a history teacher at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts and as a private history tutor to young students in New York City. Child travelled to Europe in 1928, studying for two years at the University of Berlin and spending one summer as a historical consultant for the Harvard Film Foundation in Paris. In 1931 Child was selected as an anthropologist representing Amherst College and Yale University during an expedition to discover the source of the Orinoco River in South America. The group departed New York in April 1931 under the direction of Herbert Spencer Dickey. For his part, Child created casts of native species for ethnological research. The so-called “Dickey Expedition” successfully mapped the Orinoco River and, as a result, redefined the borders of Venezuela and Brazil. Two years later, Child participated in the Darwin Memorial Expedition to the Galápagos Islands (commemorating the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s legendary trip), where he sculpted the Darwin Memorial at Chatham Island (today, San Cristóbal Island).
In late 1935 Child became the first Assistant Director and National Field Supervisor of the Historic Records Survey. Created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Historic Records Survey was devoted to inventorying and classifying local public records and manuscripts. Upon the departure of Luther H. Evans in March 1940, Child was appointed National Director. For the next three years until the program was disbanded in February 1943, Child oversaw the creation of thousands of inventories of county and state records, church records, and American historical manuscripts, as well as the publication of guides for historic newspapers and buildings.
Child’s unique experience managing multiple collections of documents made him a natural choice for service with the MFAA. In March 1945 he was recommended by the National Archives for the post of Advisor on Archives to the MFAA Branch of the U.S. Group Control Council. Arriving in Berlin one month later, Child initiated plans for the organization of MFAA archival operations. During World War II, entire collections of records, manuscripts, and historical documents were looted by the Nazis and scattered throughout the U.S. Zone of Occupation. As a result, millions of documents were at risk of destruction by the elements, unsuitable storage conditions in makeshift repositories, as well as theft by German locals and Allied souvenir hunters. To prevent further damage, Child proposed the establishment of several large collecting points for archival material. In May 1945 he helped establish archival operations at the Ministerial Collecting Center in Fuerstenhagen, near Kassel, where almost 2,000 tons of records pertaining to the German ministries were brought in on large Army trucks. Similar collecting points were opened in Offenbach, Frankfurt, Oberammergau, Bamberg, and Landshut, as well as eight smaller “Documents Centers.”Due to his determined efforts, countless looted archival collections were returned to the countries from which they had been stolen. In recognition of his service, Child was one of only four Monuments Men officially recommended by the Roberts Commission to receive the Legion of Merit.
Returning to the United States in early 1946, Child began a career with the U.S. Diplomatic Service which spanned almost two decades. His appointments included Director of the American Library at the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London (1946-49), Chief of the State Department’s Cultural Services Section in Washington, D.C. (1949-53), and Chief of the U.S. Information Agency’s Cultural Services Division (1953-62). Child then relocated to his hometown of Dorset, Vermont in 1962 and became involved in local politics. He died in Lawrenceville, Virginia on January 5, 1972.
Photo courtesy of the Child Family (private collection).