Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834]


Date: Circa 1815-1834 | Size: 9 volume(s), 9 volumes, ca. 654 p.


Consists of extracts from rare published works on American Indian, African, and Asian languages, together with the notes and comments of Du Ponceau; linguistic essays, vocabulary lists (mostly of numerals) for North, Middle, and South American languages; materials on Chinese, Pacific, Asian, and African languages; notes on the languages of the Tartars, Arabs, Greeks, Polynesians, and others. Included are copies of several manuscripts as well as copies of two letters of Wilhelm von Humboldt. One of them is dated Berlin, April 9, 1822; L. 6p. In French. Exchange of publications [with the APS?]. Indian languages. Languages. Refers to A.von Humboldt, Heckewelder, Zeisberger, Eliot and Vater. See vol.5, 19-24. Important for references to the Historical and Literary Committee of the APS; to Du Ponceau's publications on Delaware, Chippewa, and Chinese; and to his correspondence with philologists Adelung, Heckewelder, Humboldt, Gallatin, and Vater.

Background note

Born at St-Martin de Ré, France, on June, 1760, Du Ponceau received his education at a Benedictine college, where he demonstrated a facility for languages. His uncommon knowledge of English led to ridicule by his schoolmates, who nicknamed him L'Anglois for his habit of carrying around an English Classic in his pocket. A bit of jealousy may have been at play as Du Ponceau, though he rarely studied, received all of the premiums at the end of each year. The disdain was mutual: Du Ponceau scorned his fellow students for their tendency to merely memorize and repeat their lessons.

Dissatisfied with the scholastic philosophy taught at the college, Du Ponceau left the school after eighteen months. Du Ponceau's mother wanted him to enter the priesthood. In an effort to persuade him, the priest reportedly evoked feelings of guilt and remorse by reminding Du Ponceau of his failure to cry at his father's death. Under the combined pressure of his mother and the unnamed priest, Du Ponceau agreed to enter the seminary under the condition that they would not require him to enter the priesthood after he completed his studies. He completed his studies, but did not enter the priesthood. Instead, at the age of 17, he set out for America with Baron von Steuben and served as Steuben's secretary in the Revolutionary army, with rank of captain, until illness forced his resignation in 1781. He settled in Philadelphia, where he studied law, was admitted to the bar, and established a law practice.

Elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1791, he served as secretary for and primary force behind the Society's Historical and Literary Committee. One of the most active committees in the Society's history, the Historical and Literary Committee provided much of the impetus for the early growth of the Society's Native American Indian linguistic collections. During Du Ponceau's tenure as secretary, the Committee laid the foundation for the Society's development into one of the premier centers for the study of Native American Indian languages.

A member of the Society during the era in which Thomas Jefferson served as president of the American Philosophical Society as well as president of the United States, Du Ponceau collaborated with Albert Gallatin on a volume of Indian vocabularies commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wished to demonstrate the relationships between Indian tribes based on the similarities or differences of their languages. DuPonceau and Gallatin found that a correlation did exist between similarity of language and the length of time since the tribes had migrated to other regions.

His memoir on the grammatical system of the Indian languages (Mémoire sur le systeme grammatical des langues de quelques nations Indiennes de l'Amérique du Nord) won the Volney prize of the French Institute in 1835 and his writings continue to inspire scholars to this day. In addition to his works on Indian languages, DuPonceau wrote on the Chinese system of writing, then largely a puzzle to most Europeans.

An active and influential scholar, Du Ponceau served, simultaneously at one point, as president of not only the American Philosophical Society, but also of the Athenaeum and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. During his years as president of the Society, from 1827 until his death in 1844, the Society expanded its linguistics collection to a degree not seen again until the 20th century.

Digital objects note

This collection contains digital materials that are available in the APS Digital Library. Links to these materials are provided with context in the inventory of this finding aid. A general listing of digital objects may also be found here.

Collection Information

Physical description

9 volumes, ca. 654 p. Manuscripts in 2 v. cases.


Presented by the Du Ponceau estate, 1844. See Proceedings IV, p. 80, May 3, 1844.

Early American History Note

The Peter Stephen Du Ponceau Collection has a wide array of material. This entry refers to a nine volume set of notes on philology that focuses on Native American languages but includes notes on range of other language groups, such as the language of Polynesians and Greeks (410 D92). The notes also make numerous observations about Native American customs, practices, and beliefs.

What follows is a general summary of the Collection as a whole. As a leading linguist of the era, the Du Ponceau's collection has three portions that relate to language. The first is a large volume of 73 Indian languages for both South and North American Indians (497 In2). The second is a nine volume set of notes on philology that focuses on Native American languages but includes notes on range of other language groups, such as the language of Polynesians and Greeks (410 D92). The notes also make numerous observations about Native American customs, practices, and beliefs. The third portion of linguistic material is a dictionary of terms relating to the sea and seafaring (359.03 D92).

Although Du Ponceau is most well-known today for his work in Native American linguistics, the Du Ponceau Collection includes a significant amount of correspondence from Du Ponceau's legal career in the nineteenth century (B D92p). As a practicing lawyer often working on trade issues, his correspondence also includes large collection of business news and legal affairs happening in Philadelphia. Most of these documents are from cases Du Ponceau worked on, and many of these cases involve international trade and merchant concerns. One of the more interesting case files includes a brief on whether or not the family of a mariner lost at sea can recover lost wages.

Du Ponceau was well-connected and some of his correspondence involves research on American Indians, language, and other intellectual endeavors (410.D92.1). He corresponded with many individuals throughout the U.S. and fellow members of the American Philosophical Society, sometimes as official APS business.

The APS collection also has a commonplace book of Du Ponceau, which includes interesting notes on colonial Pennsylvania history and especially William Penn's legacy (B D92c). Written in 1820, the notes can lend insight into the public and historical memory in early nineteenth century Philadelphia.

Some of his correspondence also involves his attempt to acquire documents from prominent Philadelphians so that the APS could publish a complete history of Pennsylvania. In addition to Du Ponceau's own efforts, Deborah Norris Logan corresponded with Du Ponceau about her own attempt to write a history of Pennsylvania. The Deborah Logan correspondence also touches upon women's roles in the early republic, with Logan writing that she felt uneasy publishing something in her name "before the publick" because of her "sex and station."

Indexing Terms


  • Commonplace Book
  • Language Material
  • Native American Materials


  • Arabic language
  • Greek language
  • Indians of North America -- Languages
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Language and languages
  • Native America
  • Polynesian languages
  • Turkic languages

Detailed Inventory

 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 1
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 1.5
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 2
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 3
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 4
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 5
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 6
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 7
 Peter Stephen Du Ponceau notebooks on philology, [1815-1834], Volume 8