Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies

The temporal hierarchisation of the indigenous American other and the Lewis and Clark expedition: a new post in the Languages and/in time series

The endpoint of this survey is one of the most significant collections of indigenous American languages made at the end of the long eighteenth century: it was also the prelude to a whole series of systematic studies, grammars, and dictionaries that would go hand in hand with the establishment of linguistics and lexicography as autonomous academic-scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century. This endpoint was the collection of vocabularies prepared as part of the expedition west of the Mississippi led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark between 1804 and 1806. Promoted by Thomas Jefferson immediately after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the symbolic significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition in North American history can hardly be overestimated.[1]

Paradoxically, the historical noteworthiness of Lewis and Clark’s vocabularies is undiminished by the fact that they were lost before being published with the account. However, what can be gleaned from related sources place these vocabularies at the very crossroads of ethnographic curiosity, geographical and scientific exploration, colonial and commercial projects, and the temporal hierarchisation of the indigenous American other. Lewis and Clark’s journals and the rich array of other texts and maps amassed in the course of the expedition went through a particularly tormented publishing process, complicated by the death of Lewis in 1809.[2] The vocabularies were not included in the first edition (which drew on the journals and other sources, prepared by Nicholas Biddle and edited by Paul Allen).[3] An edition of the material pertaining to scientific observations as a supplement to the journals was planned under the supervision of Benjamin Smith Barton, naturalist and vice-president of the American Philosophical Society. After Barton’s premature death, Jefferson tried to gather together all the manuscript materials but, by then, the vocabularies (which according to Biddle were in Barton’s possession) had been lost. ‘They formed, I think,  a bundle of loose sheets each sheet containing a printed vocabulary in English with the corresponding Indian name in manuscript – recalled Biddle –. There was also another collection of Indian vocabularies, which, if I am not mistaken, was in the handwriting of Mr Jefferson’.[4]

Having passed through Biddle’s and/or Barton’s hands, then, or perhaps having remained in Clark’s possession, the twenty-three vocabularies collected during the expedition were never to arrive to the archives of the American Philosophical Society.[5]

What has survived is the empty form with lists of words in English which Jefferson designed to be filled in with the various native languages, the tantalising ghost of those ‘blank vocabularies’ mentioned in the ‘Documents relating to the equipment of the expedition’.[6] The journals, correspondence and prospectus for the edition prepared by Lewis all mention their being compiled in various locations during the journey.[7] Jefferson had planned to publish the Lewis and Clark vocabularies along with others he had compiled.[8] Sadly, his collection too was lost in 1809, on his trip back to Monticello after the end of his presidency:

I had thro’ the course of my life availed myself of every opportunity of procuring vocabularies of the languages of every tribe which either myself or my friends could have access to. They amounted to about 40 more or less perfect. But in their passage from Washington to this place, the trunk in which they were was stolen and plundered, and some fragments only of the vocabularies were recovered.[9]

The Lewis and Clark vocabularies were part of a broader project of systematic documentation which Jefferson had been promoting since the 1780s.[10] Within this framework, he also gradually perfected the above-mentioned blank form comprising around 280 commonly used English words, with empty spaces alongside for their translation, which was used by numerous collaborators of the American Philosophical Society.[11] On the one hand, linguistic knowledge was essential for the republican government penetration into those territories, which had seemingly become ripe for colonisation in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase. But this extensive knowledge was also meant to facilitate studies of the indigenous American historical past and of the genealogical relationships between languages (and nations) to ‘search for affinities between these and the languages of Europe and Asia’.[12]

I have long believed we can never get any information of the ancient history of the Indians, of their descent and filiation, but from a knowledge and comparative view of their languages.[13]

At the same time, the urgency of documenting these languages comes from the realisation of their speakers’ possible – indeed probable – extinction, given the processes set in motion by European expansion:

It is to be lamented then, very much to be lamented, that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish […], it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now, or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race.[14]

In point of fact, concludes Jefferson, an archive of indigenous American languages will make further research possible in the future.[15] What emerges from Jefferson’s project is thus a dual historical location of Native American languages: glotto-genealogical – designed to trace the origin of the first American societies through their languages – and programmatical – to be used at some point in the future for documentation and research. The role of linguistic compilers assigned to Lewis and Clark is the embodiment of that close connection between linguistics as natural history and new ideas of imperial expansion. The relatively independent status as texts of the expedition vocabularies, and the plan to publish them separately are indicative of a trend towards lexicographical collections being increasingly detached from the immediate context in which they were drawn up – the journey and its account – at the same time they are also, incidentally, the cause of the vocabularies loss.


[1] Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1904), 7 vols. In this edition see Reuben Gold Thwaites, ‘Introduction’, I, pp. xvii–lviii, and Victor Hugo Paltsits, ‘Bibliographical Data’, I, pp. lxi–lxxxiv. On Jefferson’s role: ‘Appendix’ in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 193–287, especially ‘Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis’, June 20, 1803, pp. 347–352; and ‘Ethnological information desired’, n.p., n.d., pp. 283–287; see also Thwaites, ‘Introduction’, pp. xxxiii–xxxiv.

[2] Paul Russell Cutright, A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals (Norman, 1976); Paltsits, ‘Bibliographical Data’, pp. lxvi–xciii; Gary E. Moulton, ‘Provenance and description of the journals’, in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Moulton (Lincoln, 1983-2001), 13 vols, II, Appendix B, digital ed.: Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/, section Journals; a partial publication is Message from the President of the United States (City of Washington, 1806); on which see also Paltsits, ‘Bibliographical Data’, pp. lxiii–lxv; the journal of sergeant Patrick Gass was published in Philadelphia in 1807.

[3] History of the Exploration under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri (Philadelphia, 1814). Biddle’s version went through twenty editions in English by 1904.

[4] Letter from Nicholas Biddle to William Tilghman, April 6, 1818, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 408–410, quote on page 409; see also Jefferson to Abbé Correa da Serra, April 26, 1816, pp. 394–396, see 395; Jefferson to John Vaughan, June 28, 1817, pp. 400–401; Jefferson to Peter S. Duponceau, November 7, 1817, pp. 402–404, see p. 402.

[5] Cutright, A History, p. 88 note 33; Megan Snyder-Camp, ‘“No general use can ever be made of the wrecks of my loss”: A reconsidered history of the Indian vocabularies collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition’, Wicazo Sa Review, 30/2 (2015), pp. 129–139.

[6] Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, p. 232.

[7] Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, I, pp. 132, 277; IV, pp. 12, 273, 275, 363; VII, pp. 212, 337, 365 (here for the prospectus), 394–395, 397 (here Clark to Jefferson).

[8] Jefferson to Abbé Correa da Serra, April 26, 1816, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 394–396, quote on pages 394–395.

[9] Jefferson to Peter S. Duponceau, November 7, 1817, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 402–404, quote on page 403; see also Rivett, Unscripted America, p. 209.

[10] Rivett, Unscripted America, pp. 209–237.

[11] American Philosophical Society Historical and Literary Committee, American Indian Vocabulary Collection, a description can be found on the Society’s website: <https://search.amphilsoc.org/collections/search>.

[12] Jefferson to Abbé Correa da Serra, April 26, 1816, in Lewis and Clark, Original Journals, VII, pp. 394–396, quote on pages 394–395.

[13] Jefferson to Colonel Hawkins, March 14, 1800, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, ed. H. A. Washington (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 325–327, quote on page 326.

[14] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the state of Virginia (1783) (Chapel Hill and London, 1982), p. 101, emphasis added.

[15] Gordon M. Sayre, ‘Jefferson and Native Americans: Policy and archive’, in Frank Shuffelton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 61–72.


This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “‘Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage’: Phrasebooks for European Travellers in Eighteenth-Century North America”, History (2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.13138.

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Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies," in Geographies of Time, 01/12/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1907.

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