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Structure of the Indian Languages

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Philology--Structure of the Indian languages--Letter from Mr. Duponceau--Question of the philosophy of the Chippewa syntax--Letter from a Russian officer on his travels in the West--Queries on the physical history of the North--Leslie Duncan, a maniac--Arwin on the force of dissipation--Missionary life on the sources of the Mississippi--Letter from Mr. Boutwell--Theological Review--The Territory of Michigan, tired of a long delay, determines to organize a State Government.

1834. Oct. 11th. Mr. Peter S. Duponceau, of Philadelphia, addresses me on the structure of the Indian languages, in terms which are very complimentary, coming, as they do, as a voluntary tribute from a person whom I never saw, and who has taken the lead in investigations on this abtruse topic in America. "I have read," he remarks, "with very great pleasure, your interesting narrative of the expedition to the sources of the Mississippi, and particularly your lectures on the Chippewa language, and the vocabulary which follows it. It is one of the most philosophical works on the Indian languages I have ever read; it gives a true view of their structure, without exaggeration or censure, and must satisfy the mind of every rational man. It is a matter of sincere regret that you have proceeded in your lectures no farther than the noun, and your vocabulary no farther than the letter B. It is much to be hoped that the work will be completed. I should hope that our government could have no objection to printing it at its expense, as a national work1, indispensably necessary for the instruction of our agents and interpreters, and even the military officers employed among the Indians."

"The Chippewa, like the Algonquin of old2, is the common language of business among the Indians, and is as necessary among them as the French is in the courts of Europe. The object of this letter, sir, is to be informed whether the remainder of the work is to be published. If government will not do it, some of our learned societies might. At any rate, sir, if my services can be of use to you for this object, I shall be happy to do everything in my power to aid it."

This testimony, from the first and most learned philologist in America, gratified and agreeably surprised me. I had studied the Chippewa language alone in the forest, without the aid of learned men, or books to aid me. I addressed myself to it with ardor, it is true, and with the very best oral helps, precisely as I would to investigate any moral or physical truth. I found that nouns and verbs had a ground form, or root; that this root carried its general and primary meaning into all words or phrases of which it was a compound; and that every syllable or sound of a letter, put before or behind it, conveyed a new and distinct meaning. By keeping the purposes of a strict philological analysis before me, and by preserving a record of my work, the language soon revealed its principles. When I had attained a clear idea of these principles myself, and had verified them by reference to, and discussion with, the best native speakers, I could as clearly state them to another. This is what Mr. Duponceau means by the term "most philosophical." The philosophy of the syntax I did not in any respect overstate, but merely recognized or discovered.

In one respect it seemed to me a far more simple language than this eminent writer had represented the Indian languages generally. And this was in this very philosophy of its syntax. By synthesis I understand the opposite of analysis--the one resolving into its elements what the other compounds. If so, the synthesis of the Chippewa language is clearly, to my mind, homogeneous and of a piece--a perfect unity, in fact It seems to be, all along, the result of one kind of reasoning, or thinking, or philosophizing. If, therefore, by the term "polysynthetic," which Mr. Duponceau, in 1819, introduced for the class of Indian languages, it be meant that its grammar consists of many syntheses, or plans of thought, it did not appear to me that the Chippewa was polysynthetic. But this I could not state to a man of his learning and standing with the literary public, without incurring the imputation of rashness or assumption.

15th. P. de Tchehachoff, the Russian gentleman before named, writes to me in the idiom of a foreigner, from Peoria, on his progress through the western country. "I am anxious," he remarks, "to take advantage of the first opportunity of writing to you from this remote western world, where since seven days I did not meet with any other beings but wolves and money-getting Yankees. I must acknowledge that one must have a large lot of curiosity to visit these one-fourth civilized regions (that are by far worse than any real wilderness), for, although they are getting settled at an incredible speed, they don't offer to the mere lover of the beauties of nature, or improvement of human civilization, any great charm. Here nature is rich, but, farmerly or businessly speaking, killingly prosaic--no romance--no Lake Superior water--no scenery--nothing, finally, that could captivate a poetical glance.

"I am now writing these poor lines under a regular storm of smoke-clouds, and chewing tobacco expectorations. I never experienced so much the benefit of being brought up as a warlike soldier, to stand all that. However, my courage is sinking down, and, therefore, I shoot ahead to-morrow at day-break, as fast as possible, either by water or by land. The coaches here are rather comfortable, but extremely slow.

"As I intend to make but a very short stay in St. Louis and Ohio, I'll not be able to have the pleasure of writing to you again before reaching New York or Havana; but, if you continue always to be, for me, as kind as formerly, I hope you'll grant me the particular favor of writing to me once in a while. This will be an impudent theft, on my part, of time so usefully consecrated to scientific pursuits. Still I flatter myself you'll pardon it, consequently founded on that (perhaps gratuitous) supposition. I'll ask you to direct your letter to Charleston, South Carolina (until called for), towards the middle of the next month, and, if possible, answer me on the following queries: 1. What are the inducements to imagine that any volcanic action exists in the Porcupine Mountains, and mentioning, approximately, their distance from the Ontonagon River; and their probable influence on the diffusion of the copper ores and copper boulders on its shores? 2. What are the most accurate or probable limits (by degrees) of the primitive region of North America; and whether it forms any chain, or has any probable communication with all its different branches, or the main ridges of the Cordilleras or Andes? 3. Is there any remarkable evaporation, or any other hygrometric phenomenon, or influence of currents that sustains the level of Lakes Superior and Michigan, so diametrically opposite in their geographical situation? 4. What constitutes, mainly, the predominating geognostic features of Lake Superior, the Upper Mississippi, and the Missouri? I shall be extremely happy to see these problems solved."

17th. This day terminated, at St. Mary's, the melancholy fate of poor Leslie Duncan. Insanity is dreadful in all its phases. This man wrote to me early in the spring for some favor, which I granted. He was a dealer in merchandise, in a small way, at St. Mary's, where he was known as a reputable, modest, and temperate man, who had been honorably discharged, with some small means, from the army. He visited Detroit in May to renew his stock. Symptoms of aberration there showed themselves, which became very decided after his return. Utter madness supervened. It was necessary to confine him in a separate building, and to chain him to a post, where he passed five months as an appalling spectacle of a human being, without memory, affection, or judgment, and perpetually goaded by the most raving passion. It appeared that the piles--a disease under which he had suffered for many years--had been cured by exsection or scarifying, which healed the issue, but threw the blood upon his brain.

23d. A functionary of the general government at Washington writes me, to bespeak my favorable interest for the wayward son of a friend. Arwin, for I will call him by this name, was the son of a kind, intelligent, and indulgent father, dwelling in the District of Columbia, who had spared nothing to fit him for a useful and honorable life. The young man also possessed a handsome person, and agreeable and engaging manners and accomplishments. But his love for the coarser amusements of the world and its dissipations, absorbed faculties that were suited for higher objects. As a last, resort, he was commended to some adventurous gentleman engaged in the fur trade on the higher Missouri; where, it was hoped, the stern realities of life would arrest his mind, and fix it on nobler pursuits. But a winter or two in those latitudes appeared to have wrought little change. He came to Mackinack, on his way back to civilized life, late in the fall of 1834, exhausted in means, poor and shabby in his wardrobe, and evidently not a pilgrim from the "land of steady habits."

I invited him to my house, in the hope of winning him over to the side of morals, gave him a bed and plate, and treated him with courteous and respectful attention. He was placed under restraint by these attentions, but it was found to be restraint only. He was secretly engaged in dissipations, which finally became so low, that I was compelled to leave him to pursue his course, and thus to witness another example of the application of that striking remark of Dr. Johnson, "that negligence and irregularity, if long continued, will render knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible."

Nov. 29th. The rough scenes required by a missionary life on the sources of the Mississippi, are depicted in a letter from the Rev. W.S. Boutwell, who has just planted himself among the Pillagers at Leech Lake. This is the same gentleman who accompanied me to Itasca Lake in 1835. "Your favors," he says, "of April 28th and July 26th, are before me; and would that I could command time to compensate you for at least half! But look at a man whose head and hands are full of cares and duties. The only time I get to write is stolen, if I may so say, from the hours of repose. October the ninth I arrived here. There was not a sack of corn nor rice to be bought or sold. I had but two men, and with these a house must be built and a winter's stock of fish laid up. What must be done? I will briefly tell you what I did. Four days after my arrival I sent my fisherman to Pelican Island, and pulled off my coat and shouldered my axe, and led the other into the bush to make a house. In about ten days, with the help of one man, I had the timber cut and on the spot for a log-cottage twenty-two by twenty-four. Some part of this I not only cut, but assisted in carrying on my own back. But for every inch of over-exertion I got my pay at night, when I was sure to be 'double and twisted' with the rheumatism. I have located about two miles east of the old fort, where you counseled with the Indians at this place. As you cross the point of land upon which the old fort is built, you fall on a beautiful bay, a mile and a half broad, on the east side of which I have located, in the midst of a delightful grove of maples. South-west, three-fourths of a mile, is the present trading house.

"When I arrived I had not sufficient corn to feed my men three days. There was also at that time a great scarcity of fish. But the God of Elijah did not forsake us. We soon were in the midst of plenty. On the 11th of the present instant my fisherman returned, having been absent not quite four weeks, and with but four nets, yet I had nearly 6000 tulibees (this is a small species of whitefish) on my scaffold. My house, in the meantime, was going forward, though rather tardily, with but one man. In two days more I hope to quit my bark lodge for my log and mud-walled cottage, though it has neither chair nor three-legged stool, table nor bedstead. But all this does not frighten me. No, it is good for a man sometimes to stand in need, that he may the better know how to feel for his fellow-man.

"You mention the receipt of a letter from Mr. Greene, relative to the field at Fond du Lac. I am happy to hear so full an expression of your views in relation to that post. As the Board were unable to supply a teacher, Mr. Hall, on visiting them in September, with myself and Mr. Ely--we were all of the same opinion, that it must be occupied--and finally, with the advice of Mr. Aitkin, concluded that it was best for Mr. Ely to pass the winter there. Mr. Cote was also very desirous of a school being opened. Sandy Lake, of course, is without a teacher this winter. I was not a little disappointed, after the repeated assurances and encouragements of the Board to expect aid, and after the provision I had made for a fellow-laborer, to be directed to return and pass another winter as I did the past. Suffice it to say, I have learned more of Indian habits, customs, prejudices, &c., than I knew two years, or even one year before.

"To pass my time in the family of the trader, I could not avoid giving the impression that I was more interested in the trade than in their temporal and spiritual welfare. To live alone I could not, and live above their suspicion from the habits of single men who are engaged in the trade. To live in the family with my hired man, would be quite as bad. I, therefore, concluded that the time had now come when duty was too imperious not to receive a hearing. A sense of duty, duty to God, the cause of Christianity, myself and this people, therefore, led me to change my condition.

"I am giving you no news (I presume), only the reasons which satisfy myself, and that for an enlightened moral being is enough, at least it is all I need or wish to meet friend or foe.

"The Indians now are all at their wintering grounds, and on good terms with the Sioux, as I, this evening, learn from Mr. D., who has just returned from an excursion among them. They have appeared quite as friendly, and by far more civil, this fall than last."

Dec. 8th. Mr. Leonard Woods, and Dr. A.W. Ives, of New York, press me to write for the pages of the Theological Review, a periodical of great spirit and judgment in its department.

31st. The people of this territory have evinced, in various ways, great uneasiness in not being admitted, by a preparatory act of Congress, to the right of forming a state constitution, and admission into the Union, agreeably to the Ordinance of 1787. The population has, for some time, been more than sufficient to authorize one representative. In some respects, the term of territorial probation and privilege has been extraordinary, and bears a striking analogy to that of a plant, thrice plucked up by the roots, and watered, and nourished, and set out again. It has been twenty-nine years a territory, having been first organized, I believe, in 1805, For the first seven years it was under the government of Gen. Hull, by whom it was lost, and fell under foreign conquest. It then had about a year of military government under Gen. Brock, and, after being re-conquered in 1814, lived on, awhile, under the rule of our own commanding generals. Gen. Cass was, I think, appointed by Mr. Monroe, late in 1814, and governed it for the long period of eighteen years. Geo. B. Porter succeeded, and, since his death, there has been a confused interregnum of secretaries.

"Thrice plucked up" was it, by the total destruction of Detroit (which was in fact the territory) by fire in 1806, by the terrible Indian and British war in 1812, and by the Indian war of the Black Hawk of 1832. It has suffered in blood and toil more than any, or all the other north-western territories together. It has been the entering point for all hostilities from Canada; and, to symbolize its position, it has been the anvil on which all the grand weapons of our Indian scath have been hammered. Its old French and American families have been threshed by the flail of war, like grain on a floor. And it is no wonder that the people are tired of waiting for sovereignty, and think of taking the remedy into their own hands. On the 9th of September, the Legislative Council passed an act for taking the census. The result shows a population of 85,856, in the fourteen lower counties, and the first steps for a self-called convention are in progress.

1: This was begun thirteen years afterwards, when a general investigation into the subject of the Indians generally, was directed by Congress, and placed in my hands. Vide Information respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. Part I. Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1851.

2: The languages are, in fact, identical in structure; the word Chippewa being a comparatively modern term, which was not used by the old French writers of the missionary era.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians


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