Making a Dictionary ‘American’

Do people still buy print dictionaries? If you use a dictionary at all, it is likely to be an online dictionary, such as dictionary.com, thefreedictionary.com, or yourdictionary.com or Wikipedia for a more detailed entry, or even just asking your phone for a definition. But with all those online options, printed dictionaries still have fans and buyers.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary has gone through multiple printings by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt even though its former publisher, Wiley, was ready to drop it back in 2011.

That dictionary and several others carry the name of Noah Webster. In 1828, Noah Webster‘s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. The keyword in its title is “American.”

Webster decided to put together his dictionary because he wanted an American dictionary of English that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England.

This was a half-century after the revolution to separate from England, but that wasn’t the only reason to have an American version. Communication across the growing United States was hampered by regional dialects that differed drastically, and also a lack of standardization in spelling and usage.

Noah Webster was not a publisher or lexicographer. He was a Connecticut school teacher. He was unhappy with the lack of school supplies, small one-room schoolhouses, and leftover textbooks from England that did not represent life in America.

He actually published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783. The first section was later retitled The American Spelling Book, but was nicknamed the “Blue-Backed Speller.”

In these books and later in his dictionary, Webster gave American rules of spelling. He simplified and standardized words. He took the letter “u” out of many English words – colour and honour became color and honor based on American pronunciation. The double G of waggon was made single. Musick lost its K. Theatre and centre had a letter reversal to theater and center.

original Webster dictionary
Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 is considered one of the documents that changed the world

He started compiling his dictionary which continued the standardizing and Americanizing of spellings. But he also included new American words. many of those words came from colonists’ adoption of Native American words for new things they encountered. Some of the spellings and pronunciations of those native words are pretty far off from their original use by American Indians, but his versions became the accepted forms. This is when words such as skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory and opossum became “officially” part of American English. He also added new words like lengthy. Words such as presidential, Congress, and caucus were added to those used in England’s monarchy.

Noah put in 30 years on this project. When it was published in 1828, it cost about $20 which kept it out of the hands of most Americans. Webster died in 1843 and did not see any widespread sales of his dictionary, but it was accepted by educators.

 

Webster had other interests beyond words, spelling and dictionaries. In his book, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, Joshua Kendall writes about how Noah lobbied for copyright law, served as an adviser to George Washington, wrote his own edition of the Bible, and his enumerating of houses in major cities led to the first American census.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

December 28, 1890 – 128 years ago – was the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

It happened despite a treaty signed two decades before in which the United States government guaranteed local tribes rights to their sacred land around the Black Hills.

But in the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the treaty was broken.

I was assigned to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for a college history course and the book revealed to me my ignorance of American Indian history. And what a sad and terrible history it is.

Part of today’s Writers Almanac gives a short summary of why the event occurred after the tribes were forced off their sacred land and placed on reservations.

People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889, a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation, and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders, and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot, and when he found out what had happened, he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.

I wrote earlier about one of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre – the famous medicine man, Black Elk, and his book Black Elk Speaks. This was another book I read in college after finishing my assigned reading. Both books were revelatory both in the history and my own spirituality and in forming a philosophy for my own life’s path.

Black Elk said about the massacre:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

Brave New World

map
Portion of map including Roanoke Island, drawn by John White during his initial visit in 1585

There are lots of stories in history of people disappearing with a trace. There are even tales of groups of people, ships, and airplanes vanishing and never being found. I am fascinated by things like “ghost ships.”  A ghost or phantom ship has no living crew aboard. I have read about the fictional Flying Dutchman and a real ghost ship found adrift with its crew missing or dead, like the Mary Celeste.

But there are few cases of entire lost cities,. I have read about lost cities in South American jungles suddenly and inexplicably being abandoned with no sign of where the inhabitants went. But what about one closer to Paradelle? That is the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke  .

The story begins in 1584 when Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter for the colonization of the area of North America. For the purposes of history’s timeline, let’s look back at that time. The year before, The Queen’s Company of actors was formed in London. In 1584, playwright Christopher Marlowe received his a bachelor’s degree. The year after the Virginia colony of Roanoke Island was established by Sir Walter Raleigh, the twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born  to Anne and William Shakespeare.

That royal charter specified that Raleigh needed to establish a colony in North America, or lose his right to colonization. They were hoping to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories … to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy” and establish a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain

Raleigh dispatched an exploratory expedition that arrived on Roanoke Island on July 4. They established relations with the local natives, the Secotans and Croatoans. Two Croatoans returned with the crew and based on the information given, Raleigh organized a second expedition, to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.

After a rather questionable start on the island, Grenville still decided to leave 108 men to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island and promised to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies.

April 1586 passed and there was no sign of Grenville’s relief fleet. In June, after the colonists stupidly avenged a minor theft by the natives by destroying their village, there was an attack on the fort by the local Native Americans. The colonists were able to repel the natives, and soon after the attack, Sir Francis Drake on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, stopped at the colony and offered to take the colonists back to England.

Several colonists took the offer and returned along with a cargo of new world new things: tobacco, maize, and potatoes. Grenville arrived shortly after Drake’s departure. He found the colony abandoned with no explanation.

Grenville returned to England, leaving behind a small detachment of fifteen men both to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.

In 1587, Raleigh sent a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay led by John White who was appointed governor of the colony. They were ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there by Grenville the previous year. But when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a skeleton that may have been the remains of one of the English garrison.

The master pilot of the fleet refused to let the colonists return to the ships, insisting that they establish the new colony on Roanoke rather than the Chesapeake Bay destination. The new colonists re-established relations with the Croatoan and other local tribes – except for those with whom the earlier colonists had with.

The colonists persuaded their Governor White to return to England to ask for help. Left behind were about 115 colonists. This had been the first group of colonists that consisted of men and women. White left behind his newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, who is the first English child born in the Americas.

 

White was unable to find a ship to return to the colony because England was at war with Spain, and every seaworthy ship was claimed to fight the Spanish Armada.

White didn’t return to Roanoke Island for nearly three years. When he returned in 1590, he found the settlement deserted, and all the buildings taken down.

Where did they go? The only clues were the letters CRO carved into a tree, and the word CROATOAN carved into a stockade post.

There were no signs of sickness or violence. White had instructed them that if anything happened to them, they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree nearby, indicating that their disappearance had been forced. There was no cross.

The crew interpreted the message left to mean they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island). That made sense because they had already lived there and had a strong relationship with the natives.

Hatteras or  Croatoan Island is a barrier island located off the North Carolina coast. It is part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

White was unable to conduct a thorough search due to a massive storm that caused his crew to refuse to go any further. The next day, they left without looking further for the colonists.

There are several theories about why the Roanoke Colony became the Lost Colony. One theory is the colonists were slaughtered by Chief Powhatan. But no bodies were found and no archaeological evidence has been found to support this claim, though the massacre described by Powhatan might have been of the 15 people left behind by the first Roanoke expedition.

Another theory is that the colonists migrated with the Indians toward the interior of North Carolina.

One that seems to have good evidence is that the colony’s remaining survivors sought shelter with the Chowanoke tribe to survive. That tribe was attacked by another tribe that has been identified as the “Mandoag” (an Algonquian word that was generically used to identify an enemy nations) or the Tuscarora (Iroquois-speaking) or the Eno, also known as the Wainoke. Evidence for this theory points to the “Zuniga Map” drawn about 1607 by the Jamestown settler Francis Nelson. The map says “four men clothed that came from roonock” were living in an Iroquois site. A history written by another Jamestown colonist reported that the Indian settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen had two-story houses with stone walls that were designed by Roanoke settlers.

The Hatteras Indians spent a good amount of time living on “Ronoak-Island” and told stories that their ancestors were white people. The Hatteras were found to have gray eyes which does not occur with other Native Americans.

Another possibility is that the colonists tried to return to England on their own using  a pinnace and several small ships they were left for coastal exploration. They were ill-prepared for an ocean crossing and perished.

Less likely theories include that the Spanish destroyed the colony. Earlier the Spanish had destroyed French colonies at Fort Charles (South Carolina) and Fort Caroline (Florida) but the Spanish recorded that they were looking for the location of England’s failed colony as late as 1600, ten years after the colony was reported to be missing.

In the late 1930s, a series of stones were “discovered” that claimed to have been written by Eleanor Dare, mother of Virginia Dare, telling about where the colonists traveled and their end. But most historians believe that they are a fraud.

Unfortunately, there is not much archaeological evidence due to shoreline erosion on the island.  A fort was found on the north shore and the settlement was assumed to be nearby. The northern shore, between 1851 and 1970, lost 928 feet because of erosion. Assuming erosion to have been similar in the time leading up to and following the brief life of the settlement,  the site of any dwellings is under water.

But we don’t know for sure.

Earlier I read  A Brave Vessel which inspired me to write one of my daily poems about the anniversary of the landing of the settlers who would found the Jamestown settlement. The age of exploration is one of my favorite periods of history.

Today, Hatteras Island is known for sport fishing, surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding, and is known as “the blue marlin capital of the world.”

Have we given up on the Roanoke mystery? No, the Lost Colony of Roanoke DNA Project was founded in 2007 to try to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony using historical records, migration patterns, oral histories and DNA testing. As of 2016, they have not yet been able to positively identify any descendants of the colony.



The finding of Raleigh’s lost colony (1907)

Finding the Lost Colony of Roanoke

That Mayflower Compact

Signing the Mayflower Compact
Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899

 

I watched a few TV programs about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving this week. The story is different from what I remember being taught in school. Of course, the lessons learning in elementary school full of turkeys and happy Pilgrims and Indians sitting at the table have deeper providence in my brain than some of the “real history” I learned in later years. That first Thanksgiving happened the year after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World.

The Mayflower had set sail from Plymouth, England, on September 16 1620, with just over 100 people aboard. About half of them were religious separatists and were known as Saints or, later, Puritans. They had broken away from the Church of England.

They were navigating to the colony of Virginia where land was set aside for them. The set their course to landfall at the Hudson River in what is now New York. They were blown off course by bad storms and ended up arriving off of Cape Cod instead.

That is a common story for these early arrivals to the New World. I’ve never heard a good explanation for why all these early colonists didn’t take a few week to get provisions and just set sail again for the right place.

Since they were not in the Virginia Colony, they were not bound by their original charter with King James and felt the need to establish a provisional system of government while they waited for a new royal charter from England. The Mayflower Compact was signed in November 1620.

Pilgrim leaders drafted the compact partially to ease tensions between the Puritan Separatists and the other passengers, and they wrote it while they were anchored in Provincetown Harbor.

It was only a 200-word document based loosely on a Puritan church covenant and it created a civil body politic “to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”

Every adult male passenger had to sign the compact before going ashore.

The compact was the first attempt at forming a democratic government in what would become the United States of America, and it remained in use until the Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed the Plymouth Colony in 1691.

Days of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving
An autumn version, painted by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, of the “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts)

Our modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is sometimes traced back to a not-very-well-documented late autumn November 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts.

A year after their mistaken arrival (they intended to go to Virginia), this feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a first good harvest.

Pilgrims and Puritans began emigrating from England in the 1620s and brought a tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them.

It was “official” when Governor Bradford planned the colony’s thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.

Unlike the “first Thanksgiving” that is in many of our brains from school and popular culture,  the one that was first was on February 21, 1621.  A group of the starving Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were saved by the last-minute arrival of a ship from Dublin bringing food.  Pilgrims in the winter of their first year had no harvest to rely on and faced the end of the their project to colonize the New World.  According to records at the Massachusetts Historical Society, a wife of one of the prominent Plymouth Rock brethren was the daughter of a Dublin merchant and that it was he who chartered a vessel, loaded it with food and sent it to Plymouth.

Thanksgiving observances are common throughout the world. American-style Thanksgiving is currently on the rise in the United Kingdom, with 1 in 6 Britons now celebrating the holiday. In 2014, it was reported that Turkey sales increased by 95% as a result of the rise in popularity of Thanksgiving in Britain.

ferris-thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving by JLG Ferris is a more traditional depiction of the holiday’s origin – Library of Congress