Known Land, Foreign Tongue: Early European Attempts to Navigate the Algonquian Language.

Known Land, Foreign Tongue: Early European Attempts to Navigate the Algonquian Language.

by Robert A. Geake

For those who ventured out on the sailing voyage to America in the early to mid-  seventeenth century, there was a sense of a continent somewhat known, a familiarity with  a landscape they had not yet laid eyes upon. For those more learned among them, there were images and textual descriptions printed for a hundred years in Europe. By mid-century, these would have had widespread distribution from the fleets of Dutch, French, and finally, English vessels that plied the trade from North America.

Of course, the gap between what was “known”, and what was to be found on the Continent, was often very wide, and none more so than how to approach and engage Native American tribes. Trade conducted with the Aboriginal people of the eastern seaboard included complex agreements sealed and augmented with ritual and ceremony, a complexity completely lost on most Europeans. As historian G. Edward White explains,

“European visitors to the North Americas…were immediately confounded by their ignorance of Amerindian Languages and Amerindians inability to ‘read or write’. For much of the sixteenth century, as European contacts in North America remained limited to commercial adventurers and the occasional voyage of exploration and discovery, Europeans sought to solve the language barrier in two ways. One was to develop ‘pidgin’ languages, blends of some Amerindian and some European words, in order to facilitate some commercial exchange”.[1]

One of the earliest serious attempts to understand the native language came from the pen of Thomas Harriot, an English astronomer and mathematician who visited Roanoke Island with an expedition in 1585-1586. Harriot learned some Algonquian from two native Americans who had been brought to London in 1584 and returned with him on his voyage to Virginia.

Thomas Harriot published an account of his travels in 1588 which shows to modern scholars “a deep understanding and respect for the cultural practices of the people he encountered in Virginia”. More ambitiously, Harriot drafted a phonetic alphabet of the Algonquian he learned, and,  as Richard W. Bailey noted, “a lexicon consisting mostly of nouns but there were many of them”.

Among these was the word “Werowance”, which the Englishman translated as “chief Lorde”. This title stayed in use with writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as the various “indian histories” were published. Harriot was also the first English writer to make mention of the “Herbe…called by inhabitants Uppowoc…The Spaniardes generally call it Tobacco”.

By mid 17th century, when Roger Williams was penning his “A Key Into The Language of America” after living for over a decade among the Narragansett people, there was more than commerce on the mind of these early interpreters of the language, there was conversion as well. In looking at this period closely, we come to see a true attempt  in published works, to better understand the language and thus improve communication between Europeans and Native Americans.[2]  This improved communication it was hoped, would lead to education for their young, and ultimately to conversion in the protestant faith.

                                        19th century drawing of Roger Williams circa 1636

But within the scope of that design there had to be an understanding of a people and their culture, in effect an acceptance of that culture on a respective level before one could convert them to the English faith.  Williams wrote in his introduction that his book hoped to “unlocke some Rarities concerning the Natives  themselves, not yet discovered”.  His “observations” on Narragansett life, is an almanac of the rites and rituals of seasons, as well as the most extensive vocabulary  then written of a Native American language.

Williams would write of the Narragansett that

“their language is exceedingly copious, and they have five or six words sometimes for one thing”.[3]

Minister John Eliot began his missionary work in 1646 to convert the remnants of those tribes whose people were largely lost to epidemics before he met their descendants, and found  some success both in interpreting their language and in “Christianizing” a fair number of the “Massachusetts people”. These followers began the first “praying town” in Natick. Eliot wrote of the “Massachusetts” language as well that

“the manner of formation of the nouns and verbs have such a latitude of use, that there needeth little other syntaxis in the language”.

Eliot immersed himself in Native dialect to bring the Gospel to the Massachusetts people, first, in the form of religious pamphlets, and then in 1663,  an “Indian Bible” written in the local Natick dialect was published. His teacher (and servant) for more than thirty years was a Native American named Job Nesutan. It was from this “pregnant-witted” Indian, that Eliot learned the language, and several others of the Massachusett, including the later murdered John Sassamon, would contribute to the writing and publication of Eliot’s Bible.

Despite the difficulty in grappling with the language, it is important to remember that these early efforts of understanding the Algonquian language have remained the most reliable for modern scholars. Yet in the main, we find these ministers mocked in modern historic literature and equated, as Biblical fathers to the sins of those mislead and vengeance-minded offspring.

For instance, the student looking for sources available for this period might easily turn to the Routeledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies where we find

“…the first American translators (of Native language) included Puritan ministers who learned Indian languages to convert the natives…Conversion went hand in hand with conquest, so that translation facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands. Here, translators and interpreters mediated between significant cultural differences that were inscribed in the translating language”.

The author refers to the distinct difference in appreciation, and the naming of property. Algonquian place names most often referred to use or an ancient legend in their culture. Use of land was granted to neighboring tribes provided they pay tribute to the tribe within those boundaries, a tacit agreement that appeared among native Americans long before the European arrival.

The English of course, placed property in private hands through written agreements, with carefully drawn out plots and boundaries and signed by both parties and witnesses.  As such, private property was not be violated or trespassed upon by any person. Such fencing off parcels of land belonging to a whole was an unsettling and alien practice to the Native American. The Encyclopedia continues:

“The colonists recognized such differences from the start. Yet driven by an imperialist impulse, they rendered Indian language and culture into characteristically English terms-legal, commercial, political. This is even apparent in A Key to the Language of America (1643)”.

Surely this weighty judgment of imperialist intent, cannot be invoked upon Winslow,  Williams, Eliot,, or a handful of other early secular interpreters.  It is a mistake also, I think, to group these individuals under the mere and malodorous label of “Puritan ministers”, as each, in their unique observances of native life exhibit a humanistic engagement that enabled them to obtain a cache of early American customs and daily living that is still relevant today in the work of students and scholars alike.

As William S. Simmons notes, “…persons who were alienated from the dominant orthodoxy of Puritan society tended to view Indians in a more positive light and identified with them to a greater extent.”[4]

These ministers who took themselves as missionaries to native populations, were not promoting the tenets of imperialism, indeed they, as other early white settlers were seeking escape from those very vices imperialism brings. In their own “conversion” from the Anglican hierarchal faith to the belief in saving the individual soul, as Cohn wrote, was an act of “turning back from sin to embrace God, reversing one’s earlier path”.

This would have certainly applied to Roger Williams who is first mentioned anonymously in William Wood’s “New England Prospects” (1634). Wood wrote:

“One of the English preachers, in a special good intent of doing good to their soules, hath spent much time in attaining to their language, wherein he is so good a proficient, and he can spake to their understanding, and they to his; much loving and respecting him for his love and counsel.”

           19th century painting depicting Williams in the “smokey hovels” of the Narragansett.

Robert Baillie, one of William’s staunchest opponents of soul-liberty, thought the preacher practically alone in his “longing for the Indian’s soules”. In his own treatise, written in 1645, Baillie acknowledged that

“Only Williams in the time of his banishment from among them did assay what could be done with these desolate souls, and by a little experience did find a wonderful great facility to gain thousands of them.”[5]

In order to acquire as much knowledge of the language, as well as the Native “Customes, Manners, and Worship”, Williams adapted, more than any other translator, to native ritual and practices, and learned

“through varieties of intercourses with them Day and Night, Summer and Winter, by Land and Sea”.

While Roger Williams found that the Narragansett and neighboring tribes were often open to hearing about the white man’s God, it did not diminish their respect and loyalty to the deities that intertwined their lives and culture with the cycle of the world around them. The failure to convert many would not initially trouble Williams as it did later Puritan ministers. Williams wrote that

“I was persuaded, and am, that God’s way is first to turne from it’s idolls, both of heart, worship, and conversation, before it is capable of worship, to the true and living God.” The lack of true repentance among the Native Americans was also “the bane of million(s) of soules in England, and all other nations professing to be Christian nations..”

In this respect, Williams refused to view the Native Americans as mere heathens.

He wrote in his “Key into the Language” that

“Nature knows no difference between European and Americans in blood, birth, bodies &c. God having of one blood made all mankind, Acts 17. And all by nature being children of wrath, Eph. 2.”

Still, the Algonquian tongue, though some biographers have made use of his proficiency in old world languages to assert that William’s in effect, learned easily; but in his own writings, it was at first, a source of bafflement and wonder.

“There is a mixture of this Language North and South, from the place of my abode, about six hundred miles; yet within the two hundred miles…their Dialects do exceedingly differ; yet not so, but (within that compasse) a man may, by this helpe, converse with thousands of Natives all over the Countrey…”.

Daniel Gookin would write a generation later that “The Indians of the parts of New England, especially upon the sea coasts, used the same sort of speech and language, only with some difference in the expressions, as they differ in other counties in England, yet so as they can well understand each other”, but those who encountered with the Algonquian dialects in the 1630’s, he were very much in uncharted territory.

Williams recognized that sometimes one “expression” of a word differed from another within the meaning of the same word. He wrote in his Directions for the Use of the Language that

Title page of “A Key Into the Language of America” Courtesy of the Brown     University Library Special Collections.

“Because the Life of all Language is in the Pronunciation, I have been at the Paines and Charged to cause the Accents, Tones, or sounds to be affixed”

These differing dialects however, seem to have been a continuous source of frustration for the English minister. There are several episodes recorded in “A Key”, that illustrate this problem in perceiving the language as a whole. On one occasion,

Williams traveled with the Narragansett to a neighboring town and preached to a Native American audience. They had some difficulty in understanding, but through the old drawback of mixed words and gestures, William’s message was received.

On another occasion, William’s writes:

“I once travailed to an Island in the wildest of our parts, where in the night an Indian (as he said) had a vision or dream of the Sun (whom they worship for a God) darting a Beame into his Breast which he conceived to be the Messenger of his Death”.

The man gathered his friends from near and far and fasted for ten days awaiting death. Williams was stranded on the Island during this ordeal, (having travailed from my Barke, the wind being contrary) and as is evident, frustrated at his inability to minister to the stricken family:

“…little could I speake to them to their understandings especially because of the change of their Dialect, or manner of speech from our neighbors”.

Williams recorded that “…the varietie of their Dialects and proper speech within thirtie or fortie miles each of other, is very great…”  Despite these difficulties, Williams was able to discern some differences and recorded these. One example for his readers was the different pronunciations of the word for “dog”:

                           Anum,  The Cowweset

                           Ayim    The Narriganset

                           Arum    The Qunnippiuck

                           Alum     The Neepmuck


      In his biographical introduction to The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Reuben Aldridge Guild points out that Williams “ had acquired his knowledge of the language from intercourse with at least three independent tribes…and it is certain that, in some instances, he has admitted words which are not in Narragansett dialect”.

The very name “Narragansett”, containing the letter “r” was first printed in “A Key…” though the letter “r” was not pronounced in the language. The misspelling as it occurred, became part of the English lexicon, though in William’s own “letter” of introduction, he used, and spelled the proper name of Nanhiganeuk. Guild also posed three examples of Nipmuck words that made their way into Williams’ unwieldy grammar-Guild clearly prefers Eliot’s more “civilized” method; but acknowledged that

“On the whole, the language of the Key does not differ more widely from that of Eliot’s Bible, than does the latter from the Massachusetts Psalter and translations of John’s Gospel, printed for the use of the Indians of Massachusetts in 1709”.

                                    Eliot’s “Indian Bible” Courtesy of Non Solus/Wordpress

This debate continues into modern times. In a paper presented before the thirty eighth Algonquian conference, David J. Costa continues the estimations of Ives Goddard, Kathleen Bragdon, and others that much of William’s vocabulary and phrases in “A Key…” are composed in the “Coweset” dialect, rather than what he terms the “Southern Narragansett”, and indicates the presence as well of Massachusetts and Connecticut dialect detected from alternative inflectional endings. [6]

Eliot’s Bible also had an unintended effect upon the different dialects spoken among the Algonquian in southeastern Massachusetts. Writing from Martha’s Vineyard in 1722, Experience Mayhew noted the change, subtle as it was, between the language spoken on the island, and the origin of Eliot’s Bible and Grammar among the Indians of Natick.

“Indeed, the difference was something greater than now it is, before our Indians had use of the Bible and other books translated by Mr. Eliot; but since that, most of the little differences betwixt them have been happily lost.”

By 1769 when Ezra Stiles of Newport composed a 45 word vocabulary of the “Narragansett” , the language had changed significantly from a century before, and the dialect spoken by the Indians of southern Rhode Island had shifted to Eastern-Niantic.

Still, it is generally concurred that Roger Williams and John Eliot succeeded more than any other early interpreters, and their work has been used by Frank Waabu O’Brien and the Aquidneck Indian Council to reconstruct the language. But neither Williams, nor later translators, appear to have recognized that gesture and performance of a story, or descriptive answers to questions, also played a role in their meaning and significance.

While gesture was often noted by the early translators, most famously by Cotton Mather who later coined these rituals as “joining signs with words”, the English clearly were at a loss in translating such gestures or their implicit meanings.

Furthermore, as historian Laura T. Murray points out,

“Euro-American observers were often not aware of the possibility that in their presence Indians may have modified their gestural vocabularies”.[7]

The Algonquian Language itself was deeply rooted in the Native American belief that the world around them was a source of wonder. Early observers often wrote of the Indians placing spiritual qualities on the creatures around them-all had come from  the hand of Caukkawonit , all held meaning, and were paid tribute in pottery, painting, and stone.

When John Eliot visited the Massachusetts people, he was asked many questions concerning the biblical writings he quoted to them. They had a particular curiosity of those of the natural world:

“Why must we be like Salt? …What meaneth that, Let the trees of the Wood rejoice?”

Eliot’s answer that

“God gave us two books, and that in the book of the creature, every creature was a word or sentence& c.”  gave the Native American an interpretation that “the wonder of the world, not the power of the book, was viewed as foundational. By “reading” the natural world , the Indians seemed to have understood Eliot to be saying, one can understand God and be saved by him.”[8]

The telling of a story in metaphor was a common trait among the Algonquian whose long standing practice of oral history bred many great and famous story-tellers. This love of story and metaphor among the people was a god-send for the ministers in relaying Biblical tales to Native Americans. It was less useful however, in translating Native American memory and meaning into the English language.

The acting out of a story or “performance” by Native Americans meant that to Europeans no one story was told the same, but with different gestures, emphasis, and expressions from each speaker. Dennis Tedlock has written of such oral performances that “These are not fixed texts. The stresses, pitches, pauses, and also the sheer words are different from one (performer) to the next., and even from one occasion to the next, according to place and time, according to who is in the audience, according to what they do and do not know, according to what questions they may have been asked”.[9]

In writing of an early encounter with Native Americans on Cape Cod, Thomas Shepard, who accompanied Eliot to many villages, wrote of a Native American’s statement that their forefathers once knew God, but had long fallen into a “great sleep” , that

“with such metaphoricall language they usually express what eminent things they meane”

Edward Winslow had observed in a note appended in his The Glorious Progress of the Gospel, amongst the Indians in New England  that  ”The better sort of them are full of such like expressions, affecting to speak in Parables”[10]

In composing his Tears of Repentance, Eliot opined that while he had “been true & faithful unto their souls, and in writing and reading their Confessions, I have not knowingly or willingly made them better, than the Lord helped themselves to make them, but am verily persuaded that I have rather rendered them weaker (for the most part) than they delivered them; partly by missing some words of weight in some Sentences, partly by my short and curt touches of what they more fully spake, and partly by reason of the different Idioms of their Language and ours”.

We see in the writings of these missionaries that,

“the conversations of prostelytes and preachers involved not only disagreements over how to interpret metaphor but even how to recognize it and how to imagine its opposite, the ever-elusive literal truth”.[11]

Algonquian language was embedded as well and extended upon the body, garments, and everyday items and utensils, as well as the landscape.

“Of Bookes and Letters they have none…” Willaiams had written, yet

“They paint their garments & c. The men paint their faces in Warre. Both men and women for pride & c.”  In one of his “Observations”, Williams notes that “Wannum, their red painting which they most delight in, and is  both the bark of the pine, as also a red earth”.

The Narragansett women who sculpted soapstone bowls, the basket-weavers who wove traditional patterns and motifs throughout generations, were expanding the language into a further realm of Native American understanding. This connectedness to the earth extended to sites within the natural landscape of ceremonial places, burial grounds, and stories pecked on boulders along the shoreline.

As the anthropologist Edward J. Lenick writes,

“Algonquian peoples lived in a physical world that was often harsh and mysterious. Over their long history, they developed a deep spiritual connection with manitous who inhabited special places on the landscape. The people developed rites, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions in dealing with the vast mystery of existence. Some of their visions and dreams were rendered in stone, and specially chosen physical settings became part of a sacred landscape”.[12]

In considering one aspect of the argument in its simplest form, we might say that comparing the painting on canvas to painting on the garment, or the body, is an expansion of the respective languages into the visual, and thus, has an associated vocabulary to express the form, or “story” of the painting into language. If we accept this, we see that native Americans must also have held a representative vocabulary. In the Englishman’s observation that Indians only painted their garments or faces, rather than on wood or canvas, meant that they failed to conceptualize their meaning, and so these expressions were minimized.

Williams records but a handful of colors in his vocabulary, and notes

“It hath been the foolish Custome of all barbarous Nations to paint and figure their Faces and Bodies…” He also observed that,  “they commonly paint these moose and deer-skins for summer wearing, with varieties of forms and colours”

A hint of the ministers’ own disdain for this form of expression can be found in another passage from ”A Key…” when he ponders why a Native American would possess a looking glass:

“They…having no beautie but a swarfish colour, and no dressing but nakedness; but pride appears in any color, and the meanest dress; and besides generally the women paint their faces with all sorts of colours”.

Roger Williams clearly had nothing but contempt for such display, and never thought to observe the practice as anything but vanity. This is seen in the brief dialogue he includes in “A Key…”, which rapidly degenerates into an English scolding of the native American ritual:

Anakesu  /  He is painted

                               Aunakeuck / They are painted

                               Tawhitch auna  / Why doe you paint

Kean ?                     your self   

                               Cheskhosh  /  Wipe off

                               Cummachiteouwu-  /  You spoile your Face.

nash kuskeesuckquash

Mat pitch cowahick  /  The God that made you

manit keesiteonckqus          will not know you.


At first reading, it might be surprising that the English minister makes no mention of the sites of worship around him or the “inscribed” or “written” rocks that so fascinated Ezra Stiles more than a century after Williams’ wanderings in Rhode Island.  Indeed, Eliot makes no mention of them either, though from their own writings it appears that their puritan sensibilities were offended by the rituals and practices of the Native Americans they encountered.  English ministers consistently wrote with reproach of the powwows “antics” and “animal like” noises performed during adulations for the sick.  Williams wrote of Narragansett religious rituals and powwows or “priests”[13]

                                              Early 2oth century powwow, Narragansett

“These do begin and order their service, and Invocation of their Gods, and all the people follow, and join interchangeably in a laborious bodily service, unto sweating, especially of the Priest, who spends himself in strange Antick Gestures, and Actions even unto fainting”.

The minister then clarifies for his readers that

“I confesse to have most of these their customes by their owne Relation, for after once being in their Houses and beholding what their Worship was, I durst never bee an eye witnesse, Spectatour, or looker on, least I should have been partaker of Sathans Inventions and Worships, contrary to Ephes. 5. 14”

This then appears to explain Williams’, and other early interpreters lack of knowledge or at least, any mention of “sacred sites” and inscribed rocks in the area these Native Americans inhabited. As Lenick explains,

“Spirits and places of spiritual power were associated with special topographical features such as unusual boulders, rock formations, mountaintops, waterfalls, lakes, rivers/streams, and islands.”[14]

Individuals, especially powwows, endeavored to make contact with the spirits or Manitou inhabiting these places through isolation and intricate ceremony. By fasting, praying, and partaking of medicinal plants; these spirits could enter the individual and give them, and conversely the people, the guidance and direction they sought. Lenik writes of these “inscribed rocks” that

“Rock art, petroglyphs and pictographs, was often made by individuals who were successful in achieving contact with the spirits and receiving powerful medicine.

Shamans entered the rock haunts of the spirits, the abodes of the manitous, in a quest for spiritual power, and they illustrated the stories of their journeys on rocks as a record of their success”.[15]

                                           Late Algonquian Shaman art, circa 1852

It is my contention therefore that Williams and other early Puritan ministers were most likely unaware of these sacred sites, that the Native Americans “held back” knowledge of the inscribed rocks, sacred sites and their meanings. Only after a century of near decimation from disease and war, would Ezra Stiles be led to these sites, and by that  time there would be few Native Americans remaining to convey their origin and true meaning. In this act of self-exclusion, Williams and other early interpreters missed an integral thread of Native American language associated with spiritual belief and ritual.

A later generation of ministers whose pastoral missions would be torn asunder in the maelstrom of the years between King Philip’s War and the Salem witch trials,would with great effort excoriate the language even further from its origin, and in print, become intolerant of those Native Americans who clung to their beliefs.

Today, the effort to reconstruct the Algonquian tongue are mostly rooted in the vocabularies that Williams and Eliot compiled. A considerable “dictionary” is posted online for students to peruse and get a glimpse of the eloquence that European readers found so compelling. But today, the language is mostly silent, spoken only formally, by elders in ceremony and prayers.

“I don’t speak the language” a Narragansett man recently told me. Not that he didn’t appreciate his native tongue, but for reasons tied more to the spiritual; that to misspeak the language would be a graver insult to his ancestors than not to know the language at all.


[1] White, G. Edward ”Law in American History Vol. 1 From The Colonial Years Through The Civil War” p.19

[2] It may be noted that I continue to use the term “Native Americans” in my work. I’ve no idea if this is no longer politically correct in academic works-as in White’s use of “Amerindian”, but it seems to me the most simple and dignified expression of the people.

[3] Williams, Roger A Key Into the Language of America

[4] Simmons, William S. “Cultural Bias in the New England Puritan’s Perceptions of Indians” The William and Mary Quarterly , Vol. 38 No. 1 (Jan 1981)

[5] Baillie, Robert “Dissuasive From Our Errand of Time” (1645)

[6] Costa, David J. “The Dialectology of Southern New England Algonquian” from Papers of the Thirty-Eighth Algonquian Conference , University of Manitoba Press 2007.

[7] Murray, Laura T. “Joining Signs with Words: Missionaries, Metaphors and the Massachusetts Language” The New England quarterly Vol. 74 No. 1 (March 2001)

[8] Ibid. p. 77

[9] As cited in “John Eliot’s Playing Indian” by Joshua David Bellin.  Early American Literature Vol. 42 No. 1

[10] Winslow observed the respect Native Americans afforded story teller and pow-wows in their society. These ‘pow-wows’ or spiritual leaders would come to be seen as the enemy of European conversion.

[11] Murray, Linda T. “Joining Signs with words…” p. 69

[12] Lenik, Edward J. “Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. University of Alabama Press 2009

[13] Williams use of the word priest highlights further his revulsion of their actions as any Protestant reader would thus place their services and creed as, if not barbaric, then akin to the hated Catholic church.

[14] Leniik, Edward J. “Making Pictures in Stone” p. 4

[15] Ibid. p. 5

About rag57

Local historian writing about Native American and Colonial history in Rhode Island and New England
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