Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to William Linn, 5 February 179[8]

To William Linn

Philadelphia Feb. 5. 179[8]


I had the honor before of acknoleging the receipt of [your] favor of [May] […] and of stating that on my return home I would see whether [the papers?] […] there would [enable] me to contribute any thing to the general subj[ect of the in]quiry contained in the printed paper you enclosed [me. on examination] of my papers I found that I could not with certainty establish from [them] any thing more th[an] had been published in the Notes on Virginia. [in] fact my [absence] from the US. on other employments […] [the] […] the time of that publication had not left it in my power […] addition […] former stock of information. [I sh]all add [however] […] [reason?] which may remove a doubt or two [on certain Indian names?]. it says “there are [besides] […] [them], such as […] are the same called on my list [Ouiàtonons (according to the French] orthography) or Wiatonons of the English, […] called Wawia[tons] […] and shortly Weeaws. the […] I […] are those called Mache[cous] in my list, according to the orthography of the [Fre]nch travellers. the Hurons are the Wyan[dots] & the […] of Chippewas. I have long wished to make as extensive a collection of vocabul[aries] of Indian languages as possible and after form[ing] a vocabulary of the names of natural objects chiefly, I had a […] and sent out some of [them]. my success however has not yet been [consi?]derable. should the enterp[rise] […] which is the subject of your letter I should be very glad to be [permitted to communicate] one of my [plans?] which […] [consist of] […] for the use of [your missionaries]. [uni]formity in the vocabularies is essential to the [object of] […] the history of the Indians by the a[ffinities?] of their languages.

I have the honor to be with great respect & esteem Your most obedt humble se[rvt]

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC: TJ Papers, 99:17031); faint, with several illegible phrases of three or more words; at foot of text: “Revd. Wm. Linn”; endorsed by TJ in ink on verso as a letter of 5 Feb. 1796, but recorded in SJL under 5 Feb. 1798.

TJ probably acknowledged Linn’s favor of 25 May 1797 in a letter of 3 June 1797, which is recorded in SJL but has not been found.

Collection of vocabularies: some years earlier, in an effort to research the origins of Native American tribes through a comparative study of languages, TJ had created a printed form, titled “Vocabulary,” that listed 282 English words and infinitives in four columns, beginning with “fire,” “water,” and “earth,” and ending with “to break,” “to bend,” “yes,” and “no.” The form left space in each column for providing the equivalent terms from another language; a surviving example is the one returned by William Vans Murray with his letter to TJ of 18 Sep. 1792, filled in with words of the Nanticoke language. Writing on 2 Apr. 1798 to Linn, one of the directors of the New York Missionary Society, TJ made his blank form available to the fledgling organization, which began its evangelical work with one minister sent to the Chickasaws in 1799. The directors’ instructions to missionaries that year referred obliquely to TJ’s word list, acknowledging as well his reason for recording vocabularies: “Every thing which relates to the Indians, is an object not only of curiosity, but of real utility. By their language and customs we are most likely to arrive at their origin. A vocabulary of English words, prepared and already sent out by a Gentleman engaged in inquiries of this kind, will be put into your hands, and you are desired to mark the Indian names for these things, that so the number of languages and the different dialects may be ascertained.” Unfortunately most of the information that TJ gathered about American Indian languages was lost in 1809 (The New-York Missionary Magazine, and Repository of Religious Intelligence, 1 [1800], 10–11, 15, 23; Vol. 20:450–2).

During his sojourn in the United States, C. F. C. Volney used one of TJ’s printed forms to record words from the Miami language, returning the list to TJ in March 1798. Volney collected the data in Philadelphia during January and February of that year by interviewing William Wells, who had worked as an interpreter during Anthony Wayne’s negotiations with the western tribes, and Wells’s father-in-law, the Miami leader Michikinikwa (Little Turtle). Volney included his Miami word list, in a different arrangement and with additional information drawn from the studies of Benjamin Smith Barton, in his book about America (MS in PPAmP, with Miami words inserted by Volney, who also wrote a note in English at the head of the text concerning pronunciation and another in French at the foot of the document to explain the circumstances of his gathering the information, concluding: “Copie offerte a mr jefferson en mars 1798, par son Serviteur et ami C: Volney,” endorsed by TJ, who also wrote and handprinted at head of text: “A Vocabulary of the Miami language, by Volney”; C. F. C. Volney, A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States of America, trans. Charles Brockden Brown [Philadelphia, 1804; repr. 1968], 356–8, 429–39; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends , 11:300).

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