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 The Historical and Literary Committee took a special interest in Indian vocabularies, as they did in other historical documents, publishing an important collection of them as the first volume of their Transactions in 1816.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
1. 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

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."

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

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

2. 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 Freeman and Smith 663

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3. 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 Freeman and Smith 2225

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

Letter of transmittal accompanying vocabulary no. 5, and describing informants and conditions of collection Freeman and Smith 809

5. Hawkins, Benjamin, 1754-1816.
A comparative vocabulary of the Muskoges, or Creek, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, and Cherokee languages

Freeman and Smith 662 and 810

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

Freeman and Smith 649

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7. Smith, Daniel.
ALS to [Thomas Jefferson]
July 6, 18001p.

Letter of transmittal accompanying vocabulary no. 8 Freeman and Smith 702

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

Freeman and Smith 703

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

Employing Jefferson's printed form for vocabulary Freeman and Smith 2226

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

Freeman and Smith 422

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

Includes commentary on Chitimacha religion Freeman and Smith 729

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12. Duralde, Martin.
ALS 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. Freeman and Smith 421

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13. Duralde, Martin.
Translation of ALS to William Dunbar
April 24, 18027p.

Freeman and Smith 421

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14. Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826.
Vocabulary of the Unquachog Indians

Recorded by Jefferson at Pusspatock Settlement, Brookhaven, Long Island, June 13, 1791, in the presence of James Madison and General Floyd. Freeman and Smith 2335

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

Letter of transmittal accompanying vocabulary no. 16, with brief comments on the Nanticokes. Freeman and Smith 2365

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

Submitted on Jefferson's printed vocabulary form. Oversized. Freeman and Smith 2366

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

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

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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

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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
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." Despite the identification, the language is Miami, not Shawnee. Freeman and Smith 3670

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

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

Freeman and Smith 350

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

Communicated by John C. Warren from Murray, "who resides at Louisville." Freeman and Smith 2611

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

Freeman and Smith 1973. Duplicate in Broadside Collection, no. 112.

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. Freeman and Smith 3708

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

Includes some commentary on comparative linguistics of indigenous languages of Guatemala. Freeman and Smith 746

27. Izard, George, 1777-1828.
ALS to Robert Walsh
March 21, 18251p.

Offers services in collecting languages in Arkansas. Freeman and Smith 3095

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

Freeman and Smith 3097

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

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31. Izard, George, 1777-1828.
ALS 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

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

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

Freeman and Smith 3096

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

Freeman and Smith 3099

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

Comparing Micmac and Delaware from resident of Halifax. Freeman and Smith 2238

36. Bromley, Walter, 1775?-1838.
A few specimens of the verbs of the Micmac Indians
[April 26, 1819]8p.
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
38. Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen, 1760-1844.
A vocabulary of the language of the Massachusetts Indians... extracted from Eliot's grammar and from his translation of the Bible and New Testament
39. Gambold, John, approximately 1761-1827.
ALS to Peter S. Du Ponceau
July 20, 18183p.

Regarding efforts to learn Cherokee; recommending Daniel Butrick.

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

Complaining of white harassment of Cherokees to remove.

41. Butrick, D. S. (Daniel Sabin), 1789-1847.
Conjugation of a verb in the Cherokee language
[Oct. 29, 1818]4p.
42. Butrick, D. S. (Daniel Sabin), 1789-1847.
Remarks on the verbs of the Cherokee language; Sounds of the Cherokee
43. Robert, Vicar general of Quebec.
ALS to Peter S. Du Ponceau
Aug. 8, 18183p.

Relaying information on contacts for Catholic missionaries among the Iroquois, Algonkian, Abnakis, and Micmac of Lower Canada.

44. Barton, Benjamin Smith, 1766-1815.
Queries concerning the northern Indians
March 31, 17972p.
45. Senseman, Gottlob, 1745-1800.
Answers to Dr. Benjamin Smith Bartton's queries concerning the northern Indians, for David Zeisberger
46. Zeisberger, David, 1721-1808. Heckewelder, John Gottlieb Ernestus, 1743-1823.
Answers to Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton's queries on the Northern Indians
47. R[ichard] Kells.
ALS to William Short
May 25, 17841p.

Has engaged Mr. Gurley, a clergyman, to collect vocabulary for Jefferson among the Nottoway.

48. Gurley, George.
ALS to Rich[ar]d Kells
May 15, 17841p.
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.