George Washington Papers

Enclosure II: Extract of letter from Richard Butler, 30 November 1787

Enclosure II

Extract of letter from Richard Butler

[c.30 November 1787]

Extract of a Letter from General Butler to General Washington (accompanying this Vocabulary).

The little which I have been able to collect of the history of the Shawanoes from oral tradition & their old men, with some observations of my own may not be unacceptable, & may probably assist, or open a door to more able Inquirers. They say they were originally from an Island, and that they came to the country of the Ohio & Susquehana (which is the most easterly point I can trace of their having resided in a body) from the Seacoast of So. Carolina & Georgia, or Florida, and I know that there are yet the remains of a tribe of Shawanoes called the ⟨Tha,wic, kel,loo⟩ among the Cherokees, who still retain the tongue in its perfection, and in my time among the Shawanoes many families came from thence to the Shawano country & found Relations in their Towns. These circumstances have led me to suspect that they were originally from the Island of Cuba & had probably fled from thence to the main from the severity of the Spanish Settlers there. And the great extent westward which this language is partly understood & is still useful in traveling, leads me to suppose that many of our western tribes are from the same, or other Islands in the Mexican Gulph & that quarter of the world, and altho’ their languages are not the Same (as was the case on those Islands when first discovered) yet there is some affinity as has been already mentioned. And it is found that the Indians & Languages from the Lakes Southward to the sea, differ very considerably from those nations which inhabit Northward & Eastward to the Sea, which has also led me to form an idea, that this certain difference of people has been the cause of the latter, as well as the former wars which have once depopulated the Ohio & other parts of the Western Country of its ancient Inhabitants; as that country was long a waste & kind of war or disputed hunting ground between the Northe[r]n & Southern tribes, even to our time, and I have it also (as a corroborant to this opinion) from Oral tradition that a very numerous people called the Spil,les did certainly inhabit the Ohio & its waters from whom it derived the name of Spil,le,wi-Thee,pie or Mis,spil,le,wi-Thee,pie, which signifies the Spille-River, or the great River of the Spil,les: and who are supposed by the present inhabiting Indians to be the authors of all the works yet to be seen in that Country. This name for the Ohio has been generally mistaken by the Traders, who construed it into the great River of the Turkeys from the amazing plenty of that fowl wild on its banks, and the near resemblance of the names in the Shawano language, A Turkey being called (Pel,le,wa)—A River Thee,pie, & the word Missi, big, which words being combined would be Mis,si-Pel,le,wa Thee,pie—Englished—The great Turkey River and abreviated into the Indian manner of expressing it, would make it sound nearly as above Mis,spil,le,wi-Thee,pie, and their want of the information which I have had, is the force from whence this mistake arose.

These wars which I have mentioned, and the traces of antiquity, such as the large Cones or Mounds of Earth filled generally with human bones, and the Fortifications which appear on many parts of the Ohio & the Western Country, have led me to look back & think, whether the people, whose numbers agreeable to the magnitude of those works must have been very great, might not be those expelled from these waters by the ancient Iroquois, (as the same Indian tradition says they went off in a body & crossed the Mississippi westward) and afterwards the very formers of the Mexican Empire. For we find, from the historical accounts of the discovery of that Country, that such mounds were frequent & were sometimes the alters of sacrifice, which being admitted, may account for these being filled with human bones, many of which appear to have undergone the action of fire. We also find that the Fortifications bear some resemblance in both Countries, and that some of the stone Hatchets, spears & arrow points of flint &c. bear a great likeness. It is also said that some rude hyerogliphicks have been discovered on peices of stone; some very curious articles I have lately seen of stone—but their use I cannot devise; one is about three inches diameter circular & about half an inch thick, with a hole of an inch diameter in the Center, and hollowed out on the two flat sides to the center as if it had been countersunk, being thin in the middle and thick at the outside; The other is a cylindrical piece of marble about an inch & one eighth diameter, the hollow part or caliber is about as wide at one end as a musket, and tapers or narrows at the other which terminates in a small hole as if designed to have been hung with a string; the inside evinces its having been bored or ground out with another stone or some hard substance which proves it not to be a petrefaction. There have been also discovered some rude kinds of monumental architecture such as graves or repositories for dead bodies formed by rude stones, some in the natural shape & some broken or jointed by some such instrument as the stone hatchet or hammer. The pottery is also another proof or support to the supposition that, that species of manufacture was in similar perfection and composed of the same ingredients in the Ohio & Mexican Countries.

We also find that the Indians called by the historian Iroquois (the remains of whom the five Northern nations at present claim to be) are from the East & North part of this Continent, & that they were a very warlike people, and Conquerors of all the Indian Nations from the Lakes to the Mississippi and on all the waters of the Ohio long since the arrival of the first settlers from Europe; and that they may be of Tarter Origins or descent I think not improbable, as they may have come from the Northern parts of Asia across to our Continent, and streached, some along the Seacoast by Hudson’s Bay, & others by the way of the Lakes from the high north Latitudes where the Asiatic & American Continents approach each other and their language differs exceedingly from all the Southern Indians.1

AL (incomplete), DLC:GW. Butler extracted this from his draft of a letter dated 30 Nov. 1787 in the Draper Papers: Frontier Wars (WHi). Butler omits the first, long paragraph of the draft in which he provides considerable insight into his thoughtful and sophisticated approach to preparing his Indian vocabulary. The omitted paragraph reads: “The Sattisfaction⟨s⟩ I have had, & shall always enjoy in obeying evrey command of your Illustrious s⟨elf⟩—The honor of gratifying in this ⟨instance⟩ the curiosity of the August Empress Sovereign of Russia—and the pleasure of puting it [in] your power to comply with the requisition made for that purpose by that most Amiable ⟨Ch⟩aracter the Rt Honble Majr Genl The Marquis De La Fayette (who will ⟨ever be⟩ thot of with gratitude by Americans). I concieve as the highest ⟨in⟩ducements to Such an undertaking—Accept then great Sir the ⟨labour⟩ of Some painful hours caused by A broken leg⟨,⟩ which has been the means of procrastinating this work & keeping it so long from your Excellencies hand—This circumstance Sir Should not have been mentioned did I not think it proper your Excellency should know that something of more than common import had interfered between me & the execution of any thing required by your Exc⟨e⟩llency & the Sattisfaction I a⟨m⟩ confident it will ⟨mutilated⟩ am again ⟨mutilated⟩ was led to attempt its completion in the Shawano tongue as early as Strength of body & mind would ⟨per⟩mit—& only regret I have not as yet been Able to Obtain from any other quarter vocabularys of any other than the delaware tongue—To say that the Shawano vocabulary (which I have done intirely myself) is as well done as it could be would be Saying too much but that it is done with as much precision or exactness as the maner & time would admit of is certain—The words translated from the English to the Shawano—& from the Shawano to the English hath given the full Sence, & in many instances are as nearly litteral as possible adhering to the Idiom but it must be Observed, that to reduce or combine Single words to the form of⟨,⟩ or to Answer in general conversations from this kind of Vocabulary is nearly impossible and I believe it is beyond a doubt that the most lerned in the Oriental languages (which have been reduced to form or meathod) have found this difficulty and were consequently obliged to go deep into the Spirit of any of these languages in order to obtain a Sufficient knowledge of the Strength of expression & a proper Idea of the Sence Attending both Single & compound words to come at or gain that point—This difficulty is I suppose not less in the languages of our modern Indians as I find a great difference between their council or bussiness language⟨,⟩ & that of their Dialogue & common conversation, The former being Strong & impressive—full of Rhetorical flowers & fine Allegory—the latter, plain, to the point & Simple in the mode of Expression Consequently to form A grammer, or book with Satisfactory Specimens of these Different Species of one language must take a considerable time to compleat in form—This I have not ventured to attempt for the two following reasons first It was your Excellencies wish that Specimens Should be Sent forward as Soon as possible—Secondly, I did not know whether it is an Object to go so deep into A matter which does not promise to give much light into the Origin or Antient history of A people who have no records & whose Oral tradition is both poor & Shallow & (as this will) could only Serve to compare with the languages of the ⟨illegible⟩ world—in order to form Some Idea of their Origin from Any Similarity or Affinity which may be found in these languages, or Some expressions of them.”

1In the draft of this letter, Butler concluded with this passage: “many other Observations might be yet made upon this extensive Subject, but I fear the length of this epistle is already too great an intrusion on your Excellencys ⟨patence⟩ therefore will close with mentioning that I have Submited the vocabulary to the Observation of the Revd Doctor Chars Nesbit Presidt of Dickenson College who is acknowledged to be A gentleman of great learning & an ⟨extensive⟩ judge of the Oriental & other languages.”

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