American Philosophical Society Historical and Literary Committee, American Indian Vocabulary Collection


Date: 1784-1828 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet


Beginning in the 1790s, the American Philosophical Society began to accumulate vocabularies and texts written in Native American languages, guided by Thomas Jefferson's idea of using comparative linguistics to reconstruct the histories of Indian peoples and discern their origins. The American Indian Vocabularies Collection was initially assembled by the Historical and Literary Committee of the APS for publication in 1816. They include information on seventeen North American languages and one each from the Caribbean and Central America, collected between 1784 and 1828. A number of individuals were invovled in recording the vocabularies, including Benjamin Hawkins, William Thornton, David Campbell, Daniel Smith, Constantine Volney, Constantine Rafinesque, William Vans Murray, John Heckewelder, Martin Duralde, Campanius Holm, and Jefferson himself. Most followed the standardized word set established by Jefferson.

Background note

The indigenous languages of the Americas first became a significant interest at the American Philosophical Society under the Society's third President, Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1783), Jefferson had laid the conceptual foundation for reconstructing a history of Indian peoples based upon a systematic analysis of their languages, and while he collected some vocabularies himself to that end, he was remarkably effective at spurring others. Most famously, in about 1791 he had a form printed that included a standard vocabulary of about 280 English words with adjacent blanks in which Indian equivalents were to be recorded. Distributed to his friends, military officers, and others likely to come into contact with Indians, the forms were returned to Jefferson for analysis, and over the course of decade, he accumulated over 400 vocabularies. Unfortuantely, many of these were destroyed in 1809, with the remainder arriving at the APS in 1817.

Since Jefferson's initial efforts, several other APS members have contributed to the project. The Historical and Literary Committee took a special interest in Indian vocabularies, as they did in other historical documents, publishing an important collection of them as the first volume of their Transactions in 1816. The head of the committee, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, prefaced this volume with the statement that he was not wedded to any particular theory of Indian origins, but wished only to obtain a "bird's eye view" of them all to guage the depth of linguistic diversity in North America and to discern how these languages relate to those of the Old World. The APS has collected materials on Indian languages continuously since that time.

Scope and content

The vocabularies comprising the American Indian Vocabulary Collection were assembled by the Historical and Literary Committee in 1816, when preparing for the first volume of their Transactions. The resulting collection consists of 23 vocabularies of 19 languages collected between 1784 to 1828, along with letters of transmittal and other associated information. A number of individuals were invovled in recording the vocabularies, including Benjamin Hawkins, William Thornton, David Campbell, Daniel Smith, Constantine Volney, Constantine Rafinesque, William Vans Murray, John Heckewelder, Martin Duralde, Campanius Holm, and Jefferson himself.

The majority of the vocabularies record languages in what is now the eastern half of the United States, ranging from Osage, Quapaw, and Shawnee in the lower Mississippi Valley to Natick and Mohegan in New England. Rafinesque submitted vocabularies for two non-North American languages, the extinct Taino language of Haiti and for Chontal in Central America, and Jefferson himself recorded one vocabulary, Unquachog from the Pusspatock settlement near Brookhaven, Long Island.

A number of the original printed forms of the Jefferson vocabulary (ca. 1790-1792) are included. These materials were in many instances copied by Peter S. Du Ponceau into his private collection of Indian vocabularies (Mss. 497 In2) and were, in this form, utilized by Albert Gallatin for his Synopsis (1836). Gallatin had also seen the Jefferson manuscripts.

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


Acquired by the Historical and Literary Committee of the APS from John G. E. Heckewelder, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, Thomas Jefferson and others, 1816-1828.

Preferred citation

Cite as: American Indian Vocabulary Collection, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2002.

Other finding aids

The vocabularies are also described in the online Daythal Kendall Guide to Native American Collections at the American Philosophical Society.

Related material

Among several other Indian language collections at the APS, two are directly related to the Historical and Literary Committee Collection:

Thomas Jefferson's comparative vocabulary (Call no. 497.3 J35), which includes Du Ponceau's Indian Vocabulary Collection (Call no. 497.3 In2) includes information on 73 languages. The North American languages recorded by Du Ponceau provided the basis for Albert Gallatin's "A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes Within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America," Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society 2 (1836): 1-422.


Peter S. Du Ponceau, "Report of the Corresponding Secretary...," Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society 1 (1819): xvii-1.

Early American History Note

These three volumes contain APS's correspondence and records relating to Native American languages. MOLE contains a detailed inventory of the collection. The first volume contains extensive correspondence on Native American languages, some of which is addressed to Thomas Jefferson. Much of this material is from the early to mid nineteenth centutry. The second volume contains Thomas Jefferson's printed form that he sent out to individuals asking for Native American language information. The third volume contains photostats of a dictionary of the Miami language.

Indexing Terms


  • Language Material
  • Lexica
  • Native American Materials


  • Quinnipiac language

Personal Name(s)

  • Barbour, James, 1775-1842
  • Barton, Benjamin Smith, 1766-1815
  • Bromley, Walter, 1775?-1838
  • Butrick, Daniel S.
  • Campanius Holm, Johan, 1601-1683
  • Campbell, David
  • Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, 1760-1844
  • Duralde, Martin
  • Gambold, John, approximately 1761-1827
  • Gurley, George
  • Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816
  • Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823
  • Izard, George, 1777-1828
  • Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826
  • Kells, Richard
  • Little Turtle, 1747-1812
  • Murray, William Vans, 1760-1803
  • Rafinesque, C. S. (Constantine Samuel), 1783-1840
  • Senseman, Gottlob, 1745-1800
  • Smith, Daniel, 1748-1818
  • Thornton, William (1759-1828)
  • Volney, C.-F. (Constantin François), 1757-1820
  • Wells, William
  • Zeisberger, John, 1721-1808


  • Atacapas language
  • Cherokee language
  • Chickasaw language
  • Chippewa language
  • Choctaw language
  • Chontal language
  • Creek language
  • Delaware language
  • Indians of North America -- Languages
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics
  • Massachusett language
  • Miami language (Ind. and Okla.)
  • Micmac language
  • Mohegan language
  • Munsee language
  • Nanticoke language
  • Native America
  • Osage language
  • Quapaw language
  • Taino language
  • Unquachog language

Detailed Inventory

 Vocabularies and Correspondence
1784-18280.25 lin. feet
Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, 1760-1844.
List of vocabularies communicated by Jefferson, Heckewelder, and Murray
1a Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, 1760-1844.
ALS to John Vaughan
Oct. 5, 18201p.

List of additional vocabularies communicated

Access digital object:

1b Address sheet to Thomas Jefferson

Note: "papers which were lost in the trunk no. 28 found on the S. side of the river 3 or 4 miles above Manchester & returned to me by Mr. Jefferson July 2, 1809."

Access digital object:

1c Vaughan, John, 1756-1841.
Oct 18251p.

In hand of John Vaughan: "Indian vocabularies sent to A.P. Soc. By Thos. Jefferson."

Access digital object:

Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816.
Vocabulary of the Cherokee and Choctaw languages
prior to 17848p.

Communicated by Jefferson, with note in his hand attributing authorship to Benjamin Hawkins. Overhill Cherokee; list of ca. 200 items, including parts of body, terms of relationship, natural objects, and a few phrases. Freeman and Smith 663

Access digital object:

Thornton, William, 1759-1828. Little Turtle, 1747-1812. Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826. Wells, William.
Vocabulary of the Miami language taken in part from Little Turtle
Jan. 11, 180217p.

Communicated by Jefferson, with note attirbuting to William Thornton, as taken from Little Turtle and William Wells, the translator. Manuscript copied from a Jefferson standard vocabulary, with entries from two informants in different columns, with orthography explained in advance and peculiarities noted. "Taken at the City of Washington in part from Little Turtle, but principally from Capt. Wells, the Interpreter." Freeman and Smith 2225

Access digital object:

Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816.
Benjamin Hawkins to Thomas Jefferson
July 12, 18004p.

Concerning Indian languages and affairs at Creek agency. Encloses comparative vocabulary of Creek and Choctaw, with explanatory information in letter. Freeman and Smith 809

Access digital object:

Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816.
A comparative vocabulary of the Muskoges, or Creek, Chickasaw, Chocktaw and Cherokee languages, with some words in the language of the old Indians of Keowa

Comparative vocabulary with English, following standard Jefferson list. Cherokee derived from David Campbell's list.  Freeman and Smith 662 and 810

Access digital object:

Campbell, David.
Vocabulary of the Cherokee language
[received August 5, 1800]8p.

Standard Jefferson vocabulary, copied and completed. Freeman and Smith 649

Access digital object:

Smith, Daniel.
Daniel Smith to Thomas Jefferson
July 6, 18001p.

Forwards Chickasaw vocabulary ('Vocabulary of the Chickasaw Indians, Tennessee'), following request to Judge Campbell; lacked Jefferson's word list, but took down those he could remember from Chickasaw family friendly to Smith.  Freeman and Smith 702

Access digital object:

Smith, Daniel.
Vocabulary of the Chickasaw Indians, Tennessee
July 6, 18002p.

English list copies printed Jefferson vocabulary, but with slightly different arrangement because of folding paper. Includes added note in Jefferson's hand. Freeman and Smith 703

Access digital object:

Volney, C.-F. (Constantin-François), 1757-1820.
Vocabulary of the Miami Indians
March, 17984p.

Prepared on Jefferson's printed form. Additional note in French. Freeman and Smith 2226

Access digital object:

10 Duralde, Martin.
Suite du vocabulaire de la langue des Atacapas
April 23, 18028p.

In French with Atakapa terms. A vocabulary with examples; together with comment on their traditions and on the discovery of an elephant "carcasse." Freeman and Smith 422

Access digital object:

11 Duralde, Martin.
Vocabulaire de la langue des Chatimachas et Croyance des Chetimachas
April 23, 18029p.

The Jefferson standard list translated into French together with an essay on the beliefs, cosmography, marriage. Later printed by Gallatin (1836). Freeman and Smith 729

Access digital object:

12 Duralde, Martin.
Martin Duralde to William Dunbar
April 24, 180211p.

Letter of transmittal accompanying vocabularies no. 10, 11, in French, with commentary on the Indians and collection of information. Letter in French; translation; transmits vocabularies of the Chetimachas and the Atacapas; mentions Opeloussas and Conchati, also "mobilian language," agriculture; bones in wells, skeleton of elephant. Freeman and Smith 421

Access digital object:

13 Duralde, Martin.
Martin Duralde to William Dunbar (translation)
April 24, 18027p.

Translation of letter in French; transmits vocabularies of the Chetimachas and the Atacapas; mentions Opeloussas and Conchati, also "mobilian language," agriculture; bones in wells, skeleton of elephant.  Freeman and Smith 421

Access digital object:

14 Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
Vocabulary of the Unquachog Indians
1791 June 132p.

Recorded by Jefferson at Pusspatock Settlement, Brookhaven, Long Island, June 13, 1791, in the presence of James Madison and General Floyd. Recorded from two old women fluent in the language, and one young woman with some knowledge of the language. None of them are named by Jefferson. Freeman and Smith 2335

Access digital object:

15 Murray, William Vans, 1760-1803.
William Vans Murray to Thomas Jefferson
Sept. 18, 17922p.

Forwards vocabulary of the Nanticokes; describes condition of Maryland remnants. Mentions receipt of printed vocabulary form "last spring." Freeman and Smith 2365

Access digital object:

16 Murray, William Vans, 1760-1803.
Vocabulary of the Nanticoke Indians
Sept. 18, 17922p.

Standard Jefferson vocabulary on 1 page; printed items on other page. Taken in a Maryland wigwam in summer of 1792 (see letter to Jefferson, Sept. 18, 1792). Freeman and Smith 2366

Access digital object:

17 Madison, James, 1751-1836. Unidentified.
Vocabulary of the Delaware Indians
Dec. 17921p.

Submitted on Jefferson's printed vocabulary form. Recorded from unnamed Lenape speakers at Edgpiiluk, New Jersey. Donated by Thomas Jefferson in 1817. Freeman and Smith 1190

Access digital object:

18 Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
Vocabulary [broadside]

Blank version of Jefferson's printed vocabulary form. Form intended to be filled in with the Indian language equivalents for 280 commonly used English words. One copy is blank, and the remaining two have been filled in with the vocabularies of the Delaware and Nanticoke Indians (the latter was completed by William V. Murray). Jefferson was an ardent collector of Indian vocabularies which he believed would shed light on the ultimate origins of American Indians.

Other Descriptive Information: Freeman and Smith 2051. Goodman 276

Access digital object:

19 Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823.
Mahicanni [Mohegan] words taken down from the mouth of one of that nation who had been born in Connecticut

A small notebook list, similar to that of Heckewelder's "Shawanese" [Miami] list. Used in Gallatin (1836). Freeman and Smith 2077

Access digital object:

20 Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823.
Vocabulary of the Shawanese [i.e. Miami] language

"Taken down by means of a White Woman who had been 20 Years a Prisoner with that Nation." The language is Miami, not Shawnee. Freeman and Smith 3670

Access digital object:

21, 22b Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823.
Comparative vocabulary of the Delaware, Minsi, Mohicon, Natick, Chippeway, Shawanoe [i.e. Miami], and Nanticoke languages

See also Heckewelder to Du Ponceau, July 14, 1828. Freeman and Smith 349

Access digital object:

22, 22a Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823.
Comparative vocabulary of the Lenni Lenape, Mahicanni, Nanticoke, Shawano, Natick, Chippuwa and Algonquin languages

Numerals; kinship terms. "Shawano" may be Shawnee or Miami langauge. Specific kind of Anishinaabemowin indicated by "Chippuwa" is undetermined. Specific kind of Algonquian language indicated by "Algonkin" also undetermined.  Freeman and Smith 350

Access digital object:

23 Murray, Dr..
A vocabulary of the Osage language
[communicated] Oct. 23, 18185p.

Communicated by John C. Warren from Murray, "who resides at Louisville." A vocabulary of the Osage language; Osage-English, ca. 200 words. Freeman and Smith 2611

Access digital object:

24 Barbour, James, 1775-1842.
[Circular requesting that Indian languages of the U.S. be recorded and sent to the War Department]

A form letter, describing enclosures (missing): a standard vocabulary, including words of Catherine the Great; a list of verb forms and sentences; and a list of tribes and languages arranged by Albert Gallatin. Recommends use of Pickering orthography. Freeman and Smith 1973. Duplicate in Broadside Collection, no. 112.

Access digital object:

25 Rafinesque, C. S. (Constantine Samuel), 1783-1840.
Vocabulary of the extinct Haytian or Taino language

Comparing Taino to Old World language (Berber, Cantabrian, Celtic, Coptic, etc.) Comparative list of 40 words (following Spanish orthography), by means of which the author asserts a relationship with the Berber and other African languages, as well as with the Maya and other Central American languages. His sources are Columbus, D'Aniera, Herrera, Edwards. Freeman and Smith 3708

Access digital object:

26 Rafinesque, C. S. (Constantine Samuel), 1783-1840.
Vocabulary of the Chontal language and its dialects spreading from Guatimala to Panama & Darien
Sept. 18267p.

Comparative list of 31 words using Spanish orthography which the author compiled from the works of various travelers. Discusses languages throughout Central America. For many of the named languages it is unclear which Indigenous language it may refer to, as some may also be lumped together or misconstrued. Compares Chontal ("Tzendal" , Tzeltal?, or Chontal of Nicaragua?), Quiché (K'iche'), "Quaregua" ("Quiriguitta", Q'eqchi'?), and "Urraba" (west of Darien). He attempts to reduce 28 languages to 6: Chontal, Maya, Poconchi (Poqomchi), Nahuatl (Nawat), Teca, and Chica (Caichi). Freeman and Smith 746

Access digital object:

27 Izard, George, 1777-1828.
George Izard to Robert Walsh
March 26, 18251p.

Offers to provide information on Indigenous people of Arkansas, including language information, if the society will direct his inquiries. Freeman and Smith 3095

Access digital object:

28 Keating, William Hypolitus, 1799-1840.
William Keating to George Izard
May 7, 18251p.

Encloses report of APS on items to study regarding Indigenous people of Arkansas. Freeman and Smith 3097

Access digital object:

29, 30 American Philosophical Society.
Report of committee to which George Izard's letter requesting data to guide his inquiries in Arkansas was referred, with notes for his guidance
May 6, 18257p., 9p.

Freeman and Smith 3092

Access digital object:

31 Izard, George, 1777-1828.
George Izard to the American Philosophical Society
Jan. 10, 18275p.

Transmitting Quapaw vocabulary, with comments on mode of collection, and transmits specimens of a "water witch" and tarantulas. Freeman and Smith 3094

Access digital object:

32 American Philosophical Society.
Report of committee to which was referred the communications of George Izard on the Arkansas territory and a vocabulary of the Quapaw language
[Jan. 18, 1828]1p.

Freeman and Smith 3093

Access digital object:

33 Izard, George, 1777-1828.
Notes respecting the Arkansas territory's aboriginal inhabitants, the Quapaw Indians
[Jan. 10 1827]7p.

Freeman and Smith 3096

Access digital object:

34 Izard, George, 1777-1828.
Vocabulary of the Quapaw Indians
[Jan. 10, 1827]6p.

Freeman and Smith 3099

Access digital object:

35 Bromley, Walter, 1775?-1838.
Walter Bromley to Thomas Wistar
April 26, 18193p.

Copy prepared and certified by Wistar and DuPonceau from original transmitting his "A few specimens of the verbs of the Micmac..." Has received Historical and Literary Committee Transactions; discusses DuPonceau and Heckewelder on language; an amateur attempt to use European-Latin grammatical categories in comparing Delaware and Mi'kmaq.  Freeman and Smith 2238

Access digital object:

36 Bromley, Walter, 1775?-1838.
A few specimens of the verbs of the Micmac Indians
[April 26, 1819]8p.

Mi'kmaq-English list together with conjugations of several verbs, numerals, pronouns. Follows Walker's orthography. Used in Gallatin (1836).

Access digital object:

37 Campanius Holm, Johan, 1601-1683. Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, 1760-1844.
A vocabulary of the language of the Delawares of New Sweden, translated by Peter S. Du Ponceau

Translated by Peter S. DuPonceau from the Swedish; a standard list used by DuPonceau, semantically ordered. Taken from Campanius Holm's Catechism (1696).

Access digital object:

38 Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, 1760-1844.
A vocabulary of the language of the Massachusetts Indians (commonly called Natick) extracted from Eliot's grammar and from his translation of the Bible and New Testament

A list of approximately 80 words, following a standard order used by DuPonceau. "Extracted from Eliot's grammar and from his translation of the Bible and New Testament."

Access digital object:

39 Gambold, John, approximately 1761-1827.
John Gambold to Peter S. Du Ponceau
July 20, 18183p.

Explains his lack of interest in Indigenous languages and customs. He hasn't learned the former, and the latter are useless because his view is that the Indian is dying out. He refers DuPonceau to Daniel Butrick who does not appear well. Gambold has been solicited by Barton and has filled in a questionnaire. He does not find Cherokee written with divided syllables.

Access digital object:

40 Gambold, John, approximately 1761-1827.
John Gambold to Peter S. Du Ponceau
Dec. 16, 18183p.

Concerned with attempts of government agents to induce the Cherokees to sell land and remove the Cherokees; can't amass a vocabulary. Effort at reclamation of the Indians is more important than the study of the Indians.

Access digital object:

41 Butrick, D. S. (Daniel Sabin), 1789-1847.
Conjugation of a verb in the Cherokee language
[Oct. 29, 1818]4p.

The verb "to take"; grammatical comments.

Access digital object:

42 Butrick, D. S. (Daniel Sabin), 1789-1847.
Remarks on the verbs of the Cherokee language; Sounds of the Cherokee

Principally relates to inflection; "sounds of the Cherokee."

Access digital object:

43 Robert, Vicar general of Quebec.
Robert, vicar general of Quebec, to Peter S. Du Ponceau
Aug. 8, 18183p.

Relaying information on contacts for Catholic missionaries among the Iroquois, Algonkian, Abenakis, and Micmac of Lower Canada. Offer to help Historical Committee in its collection of Indian vocabularies. Suggests contacting Joseph Marcoux at St. Regis for Iroquois; Mr. Malard at Lac de Deux Montagnes on Ottawa River for Algonquins; Mr. Roux, Séminaire du Montréal at Kistiagauche for Micmac; Mr. Romagner at Passamaquoddy for Abenaki.)

Access digital object:

44 Barton, Benjamin Smith, 1766-1815.
Queries concerning the northern Indians
March 31, 17972p.

Questions as to variations of skin color, stature; deformation of the head, rickets and deformity; speckled Indians; length of nursing; child-rearing; fertility; life-span; old age; insanity; suicide; plucking of hair; diseases. He seeks vocabularies of the Seneca, Tuscarora, Wyandot, and Cochnawaga.

Access digital object:

45 Senseman, Gottlob, 1745-1800.
Answers to Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton's queries concerning the northern Indians, for David Zeisberger

Numbered responses to the inquiries concerning Algonquian and "Iroquois Indians" [Haudenosaunee].

Access digital object:

46 Zeisberger, David, 1721-1808. Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823.
Answers to Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton's queries on the Northern Indians

Numbered responses to Barton's inquiries concerning Algonquian and "Iroquois Indians" [Haudenosaunee], similar in content to Zeisberger-Senseman answers, though more general.

Access digital object:

47 R[ichard] Kells.
Richard Kells to William Short
May 25, 17841p.

Has engaged Mr. Gurley, a clergyman, to collect vocabulary for Jefferson among the Nottoway. Sends material for Jefferson on the Nottaway Indians by Mr. Gurley. Comments on Gurley's clerical point of view as amusing.

Access digital object:

48 Gurley, George.
George Gurley to Richard Kells
May 15, 17841p.

Encloses his "Remarks on Indian names still to be found"; regards his remarks as affording "private amusement."

Access digital object:

49 Gurley, George.
Remarks on Indian names still to be found
[May 25, 1784]2p.

Etymology of "Tuckahoe" and other Nottoway words, tracing them to Arabic and Hebrew roots. Argues that Indian names are similar to the Hebrew; place names are evidence of Jewish origin of the Indians, etc.

Access digital object: