Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Smith Barton to Thomas Jefferson, 14 September 1809

From Benjamin Smith Barton

Philadelphia, Septembre 14th, 1809.


I have, at this time, in the press a new edition of my work on the Dialects of the American Indians. This edition will be, in many respects, much more correct and satisfactory, as well as more ample, than the former, which you have seen. I am extremely anxious to possess specimens,—no matter how small,—of the languages which Mr Lewis met with beyond the Missisippi. I will think myself much gratified, and honoured, if you will transmit to me, as early as your convenience may suit, such specimens. I do not ask, or wish for, copies of the entire vocabularies: but only a good selection of about ten or twelve words, from each of them. I need not tell you what words those should be—I am less anxious about the language of the Osages, as I have a tolerable specimen of this. Of the Mandan, I have only 4 or 5 words. of the Pawnees, not one, upon which I would wish to depend.1—I shall not fail to make a public acknowledgement of the source from which I receive the words.

You will, I think,2 be pleased to hear, that I have received from Mexico, a very important pamphlet on the Astronomy of the ancient Mexicans. It is not a fanciful work, such as an ingenious man might write in his closet, from the traditions of Indians, or the vague facts and reports3 of others. It is truly historical, and is principally founded upon the discovery of the “Mexican Century,” a vast stone monument, which was discovered in Mexico, in the year 1790. The work is written by one Gama, a man of real4 learning; and will serve to overturn many an ingenious theory, the work of such historians and writers as Robetson, De Pauw &c. The pamphlet is now in the hands of a friend of mine, who is translating it, with great care. I intend to publish it in English;5 but where, or in what shape, I know not.6 Whenever the translation shall be finished, I shall, if you wish it, send you the original Spanish, for your perusal.

I am, Sir, with very great respect, Your obedient & humble servant, &c.,

B. S. Barton.

RC (DLC); dateline below signature; endorsed by TJ as received 20 Sept. 1809 and so recorded in SJL. Dft (PPAmP: Benjamin Smith Barton Papers); at foot of text: “‘To Mr Jefferson, at Monticello, Virginia.’ exact copy.”

Benjamin Smith Barton (1766–1815), physician and naturalist, regularly corresponded with TJ on scientific subjects. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he studied medicine in Philadelphia, Edinburgh, and London before becoming a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught botany, materia medica, natural history, and the practice of physic. Barton became a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1789 and served as a vice president, 1802–15. He was also active in the Philadelphia Medical Society, the Linnean Society of London, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1803 TJ asked him to train Meriwether Lewis for his transcontinental expedition, for which Barton later failed in his commitment to write the natural history reports (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; APS, Minutes, 16 Jan. 1789, 1 Jan. 1802 [MS in PPAmP]).

The work was Barton’s New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (Philadelphia, 1797; 2d ed., 1798; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3998), which he had dedicated to TJ (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 31 vols. description ends , 29:445–7). The pamphlet was Descripción histórica y cronológica de los piedras (Mexico City, 1792), by Antonio de León y gama, a Mexican antiquarian whose interpretation of the “Solar Stone” discovered in Mexico City in 1790 drew on a number of indigenous Mesoamerican sources (Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World [2001], 127, 268–80). robetson: William Robertson, History of America (London, 1777; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends nos. 468–9). de pauw: Cornelius de Pauw, Recherches philosophiques sur les américains (Berlin, 1768–69). The friend of mine was probably William E. Hũlings, who in 1818 gave the American Philosophical Society an unpublished English translation of León y Gama’s pamphlet (MS in PPAmP).

1Remainder of paragraph added in Dft.

2Preceding two words interlined in Dft.

3Reworked in Dft from “closet, upon the reports of Indians, or the vague facts.”

4Word interlined in Dft.

5Preceding three words interlined in Dft in place of “it.”

6In Dft Barton here canceled “Such inquiries and pursuits are very different from those which occupy the great [persons?] in Europe at this time who at the [rate?] they [prove?].”

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society; members of search
  • astronomy; ancient Mexican search
  • Barton, Benjamin Smith; identified search
  • Barton, Benjamin Smith; letters from search
  • Barton, Benjamin Smith; New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America search
  • Descripción histórica y cronológica de los piedras (León y Gama) search
  • History of America (W. Robertson) search
  • Hũlings, William E. search
  • Indians; dialects of search
  • Indians; languages search
  • Indians; Mandan search
  • Indians; Osage search
  • Indians; Pawnee search
  • language; Indian search
  • León y Gama, Antonio de; Descripción histórica y cronológica de los piedras search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; and Indian dialects search
  • Linnean Society of London search
  • London; Linnean Society of search
  • Mandan Indians search
  • Mexico; astronomy of ancient search
  • Mexico; histories of search
  • New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America (Barton) search
  • Osage Indians search
  • Pauw, Cornelius de; Recherches philosophiques sur les américains search
  • Pawnee Indians search
  • Recherches philosophiques sur les américains (Pauw) search
  • Robertson, William (1721–93); History of America search