Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

A copy of the Jefferson vocabulary. Thomas Jefferson collected vocabularies from many Native American groups, by sending a wordlist to translate along with numerous scholars and officers. They would collect the words from places they visited, and send the lists back to Jefferson.

At the Archives: In Search of Chitimacha

A copy of a page from the Jefferson vocabulary. Thomas Jefferson collected vocabularies from many Native American groups, by sending a wordlist to translate along with numerous scholars and officers. They would collect the words from places they visited, and send the lists back to Jefferson. Chitimacha is second from the bottom.

The last few days have found me poring over manuscripts in both the National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, MD, and the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, PA, on the hunt for Chitimacha. Ok fine, I already knew what was there, so there wasn’t much in the way of hunting. Regardless, I got to play detective for a few days as I pieced together facts about the history, content, and people of these amazing documents.

On Wednesday morning, I set out for the NAA and was met there by Jack Martin, a specialist on southeastern languages in the U.S. We spent the day going through materials, and I quickly learned that there were far more materials there than I could cover in a day. Still, I tackled about half my list, and am looking forward to another trip sometime soon.

Afterwards we had dinner, and then I was off to an extremely sketchy hotel for the night, before continuing alone on to Philadelphia to visit the APS. While the NAA is a dreary room in a stale cinderblock building, the APS is set right in historic Philadelphia, with Independence Hall literally sitting across the street. Here’s a few snapshots of their reading room:

A view from inside the APS.

A view of the reading room at the APS.

A view of the stacks inside the APS.

The APS also has a fantastic digital search and retrieval system where researchers enter requests for materials online, which are immediately seen by the person working the paging desk and retrieved for you. Everything is comfortable, hassle-free, and extremely well-organized. In the end, I was able to examine, photograph, and catalog every known archival source on the language, and now have mountains of information to add to my bibliography of Chitimacha. Soon I expect the tribe and I will be ordering digital copies of many of the manuscripts, and forging ahead with their dictionary project.

You can check out a slideshow of my photos here.

About Chitimacha

The Chitimacha language was last spoken fluently in 1934 by Benjamin Paul, chief of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, and his niece Delphine DuCloux before both passed away. In the last years of their lives, however, they worked constantly over a period of three years with Morris Swadesh, a well-known and pioneering linguist, to record the facts of their language. And Swadesh was extremely meticulous. Hundreds and hundreds of pages exist at the APS, including complete grammars and vocabularies, as well as 130 pages of Chitimacha stories and legends, and 2 hours of wax cylinder recordings. All of his sources are indexed to each other and precisely organized, accompanied by copious amounts of metadata, in ways that were several generations ahead of his time. His materials are a true treasure, and the tribe’s current language revitalization efforts would probably not be possible without them.

Not all sources on Chitimacha are as easily approachable, however. The language was first put to paper in 1802 by an unknown person in the employ of Martin Duralde, who was collecting vocabularies for Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson famously solicited many of his friends and acquaintances, entreating them to translate a 287-word list into whatever Native American languages they encountered in their travels, and send the lists back to him. Jefferson then compiled those vocabularies into a comparison list (see photo at the top of this page), allowing for a first attempt at classifying the languages into families. Written out longhand in 19th-century style cursive, you can see that both the document above (which was damaged when Jefferson’s trunk containing the manuscript was stolen and thrown into the James River), and Duralde’s original version below, are far from easy to read:

A page from the Chitimacha vocabulary elicited by Duralde in 1802, with accompanying French.

No more work was done on the Chitimacha language by a linguist until 1881, when Albert Samuel Gatschet, working for the Bureau of American Ethnology under the well-known John Wesley Powell, its founder, spent two months documenting the language. Later, his work was continued by John Reed Swanton, also with the Bureau of American Ethnology, who published a sketch grammar of the language and compiled an extensive dictionary. Unfortunately, Swanton’s writing is downright impossible to read, as you can see:

A page from Swanton’s field notes.

So in Swanton’s case, we have to rely on his typed and edited versions of things. While these are a significant improvement, it still leaves a lot to be desired:

A page from a typed legend written down by Swanton. His cramped annotations are all over the page.

Finally, Swadesh decided to start fresh, and began working with Ben Paul and Delphine in 1932. It’s actually likely that Ben and Delphine worked with all three linguists over time – Gatschet, Swanton, and Swadesh – working tirelessly to preserve their language for future generations. If not for their efforts, the Chitimacha language would be forever lost to us.