Henry Schoolcraft, Author of the Definitive 19th Century Work on Native American Languages, Writes Fellow Specialist and Scholar Peter Du Ponceau Seeking Publication of His Linguistic Studies

An apparently unpublished and detailed letter between the two, referencing both the appetite of Americans for the study of native languages and Schoolcraft's voyage to the source of the Mississippi River

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It presages his later commission by Congress to write an official work on the subject

Henry Schoolcraft was noted for his early studies of Native American cultures, as well as for his 1832 expedition to the source of the Mississippi River. Schoolcraft began his ethnological research in 1822 during his appointment as...

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Henry Schoolcraft, Author of the Definitive 19th Century Work on Native American Languages, Writes Fellow Specialist and Scholar Peter Du Ponceau Seeking Publication of His Linguistic Studies

An apparently unpublished and detailed letter between the two, referencing both the appetite of Americans for the study of native languages and Schoolcraft's voyage to the source of the Mississippi River

It presages his later commission by Congress to write an official work on the subject

Henry Schoolcraft was noted for his early studies of Native American cultures, as well as for his 1832 expedition to the source of the Mississippi River. Schoolcraft began his ethnological research in 1822 during his appointment as US Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. He had responsibility for tribes in what is now northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. From his wife Jane Johnston, Schoolcraft learned the Ojibwe language, as well as much of the lore of the tribe and its culture. In 1832, he traveled again to the upper reaches of the Mississippi to settle continuing troubles between the Ojibwe and Dakota (Sioux) nations. He worked to talk to as many Native American leaders as possible to maintain the peace. He was also provided with a surgeon and given instructions to begin vaccinating Indians against smallpox. After his territory for Indian Affairs was greatly increased in 1833, Schoolcraft and his wife Jane moved to Mackinac Island, the new headquarters of his administration.

Peter Du Ponceau joined the American Philosophical Society in 1791 and later served as its president, from 1827 until his death. He became notable in the field of linguistics for his analysis of indigenous languages of the Americas; as a member of the society’s Historical and Literary Committee, he helped build a collection of texts that described and recorded the native languages of the Americas.

Autograph letter signed, Michilimackinac, November 17 1834, to Peter S. Du Ponceau. “Sir, I proceeded in my lectures on the Indian languages no farther than five lectures, and I intended to have completed the course in seven or eight, for which the materials were ready. But I found so little interest excited, even in a religio-literary society, which was almost expressly got up, to collect and preserve information respecting the Indians, that I was discouraged. I thought, by throwing two of the lectures into the appendix to my narrative, some distinctive opinion might, perhaps, be elicited respecting them, and I held myself ready to communicate the remaining lectures, if it were found desirable, and the mode could be indicated.

“As to the Government, I am inclined to think that they could not be willing to do anything effective, in the way of publication. The Secretary of War [Lewis Cass], having heretofore written popular criticisms on the Indian languages could not perhaps feel much interest in the subject and as he constitutes the literary strength of the cabinet, his opinion would be decisive. At any rate, I do not feel myself to be placed in a position to act with success in making the proposition. Could it be done by you, the subject would come before him in a more favorable light.

“I should be willing to communicate the lectures to the American Philosophical Society, should there be a probability of the Society’s publishing a further portion of its transactions at such a period as would enable me to be present to correct the proofs. Without this privilege I should be unwilling to have my researches on this subject incorporated with the literary history of the times. It is desirable that the vocabulary should accompany the lectures, as it is founded on the same principles, and is intended to carry out, the analytical method.

“Your friendly offices on this subject I try much cheerfully to accept. But at the same time I must advise you that I shall not be disappointed if circumstances do not enable you to indicate to me a safe and ready mode of publication.

“Accepting my thanks for your friendly opinion of my recent volume of travels to the sources of the Mississippi….”

In 1839 Schoolcraft was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Northern Department. He began a series of Native American studies later published as the Algic Researches (2 vols., 1839). In 1846 Congress commissioned him to develop a comprehensive reference work on American Indian tribes.

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