THE WALAM OLUM: ITS ORIGIN AND AUTHENTICITY

From The Lenape and their Legends by Daniel G. Brinton (1884)


Rafinesque and his Writings.


Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, to whom we owe the preservation and first translation of the WALAM OLUM, was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinolple, Oct. 22d, 1783, and died in Philadelphia, of cancer of the stomach, Sept 18th, l840

His first visit to this country was in 1802 He remained until 1804, when he went to Sicily, where he commenced business As the French were unpopular there, he added "Schmaltz" to his name, for "prudent considerations," that being the surname of his mother's family

In 1815 he returned to America, but had the misfortune to be shipwrecked on the coast, losing his manuscripts and much of his property On his arrival, he supported himself by teaching, occupying his leisure time in scientific pursuits and travel In 18l9 he was appointed " Professor of Historical and Natural Sciences," in Transylvania University, Kentucky.

This position he was obliged to resign, for technical reasons, in 1826 when he returned to Philadelphia, which city he made his home during the rest of his life

From his early youth he was an indefatigable student, collector and writer in various branches of knowledge, especially in natural history. On the title-page of the last work that he published, " The Good Book and Amenities of Nature " (Philadelphia, 1840 he claims to be the author of " 220 books, pamphlets, essays and tracts " Including his contributions to periodicals, there is no reason to doubt the correctness of this estimate. They began when he was nineteen, and were composed in English, French, Italian and Latin, all of which he wrote with facility.

His earlier essays were principally on botanical subjects; later, he included zoology and conchology; and during the last fifteen years of his life the history and antiquities of America appear to have occupied his most earnest attention.

The value of his writings in these various branches has been canvassed by several eminent critics in their respective lines.

First in point of time was Prof. Asa Gray, who in the year following Rafinesque's death published in the "American Journal of science and Arts," Vol Xl, an analysis of his botanical writings. He awards him considerable credit for his earlier investigations, but much less for his later ones. To quote Dr. Gray's words "A gradual deterioration will be observed in Rafinesque's botanical writings from 1819 to 1830, when the passion for establishing new genera and species appears to have become a complete monomania ." But modern believers in the doctrine of the evolution of plant forms and the development of botanical species will incline to think that there was a method in this madness, when they read the passage from Rafinesque's writings, about 1836, which Dr. Gray quotes as conclusively proving that, in things botanical, Rafinesque had lost his wits. It is this: " But it is needless to dispute about new genera, species and varieties. Every variety is a deviation, which becomes a species as soon as it is permanent by reproduction. Deviations in essential organs may thus gradually become new genera. " This is really an anticipation of Darwinianism in botany.

The next year, in the same journal, appeared a " Notice of the Zoological Writings of the late C. S. Rafinesque," by Prof. S. S. Haldeman. It is, on the whole, deprecatory, and convicts Rafinesque of errors of observation as well as of inference; at the same time, not denying his enthusiasm and his occasional quickness to appreciate zoological facts.

In 1864 the conchological writings of Rafinesque were collected and published, in Philadelphia, by A. G. Binney and Geo. W. Tryon, Jr., without comments. One of the editors informs me that they have positive merit, although the author was too credulous and too desirous of novelties.

The antiquarian productions of Rafinesque, which interest us most in this connection, were reviewed with caustic severity by Dr. S. F. Haven, especially the "Ancient Annals of Kentucky," which was printed as an introduction to Marshall's History of that State, in 1824. It is, indeed, an absurd production, a reconstruction of alleged history on the flimsiest foundations; but, alas! not a whit more absurd than the laborious card houses of many a subsequent antiquary of renown.

His principal work in this branch appeared in Philadelphia in 1836, entitled: "The American Nations; or, Outlines of a National History; of the Ancient and Modern Nations of North and South America." It was printed for the author, and is in two parts. Others were announced but never appeared, nor did the maps and illustrations which the title page promised. Its pages are filled with extravagant theories and baseless analogies. In the first part he prints with notes his translation of the WALAM OLUM, and his explanation of its significance.


History of the WALAM OLUM.


Rafinesque's account of the origin of the WALAM OLUM may be introduced by a passage in the last work he published, "The Good Book." In that erratic volume he tells us that he had long been collecting the signs and pictographs current among, the North American Indians, and adds:--

"Of these I have now 60 used by the Southern or Floridian Tribes of Louisiana to Florida, based upon their language of Signs--40 used by the Osages and Arkanzas, based on the same--74 used by the Lenapian (Delaware and akin) tribes in their WALAM OLUM or Records--besides 30 simple signs that can be traced out of the NEOBAGUN or Delineation of the Chipwas or Ninniwas, a branch of the last."

In these lines Rafinesque makes an important statement, which has been amply verified by the investigations of Col. Garrick Mallery, Dr. W. J. Hoffman and Capt. W. P. Clark, within the last decade, and that is, that the Indian pictographic system was based on their gesture speech.

So far as I remember, he was the first to perceive this suggestive fact; and he had announced it some time before 1840. Already, in " The American Nations " (1836), he wrote, " the Graphic Signs correspond to these Manual Signs."

Here he anticipates a leading result of the latest archaeological research; and I give his words the greater prominence, because they seem to have been overlooked by all the recent writers on Indian Gesture-speech and Sign-language.

The NEOBAGUN, the Chipeway medicine song to which he alludes, is likewise spoken of in " The American Nations," where he says: " The Ninniwas or Chipiwas have such painted tales or annals, called NEOBAGUN (male tool) by the former." I suspect he derived his knowledge of this from the Shawnee " Song for Medicine Hunting," called " Nah-o-bah-e-gun-num," or, The Four Sticks, the words and figures of which were appended by Dr. James to Tanner's Narrative, published in 1830.


Discovery of the WALAM OLUM


As for the Lenape records, he gives this not very clear account of his acquisition of them:--

" Having obtained, through the late Dr. Ward, of Indiana some of the original WALAM OLUM (painted record) of the Linapi Tribe of Wapihani or White River, the translation will be given of the songs annexed to each."

On a later page he wrote :

"Olum implies a record, a notched stick, an engraved piece of wood or bark. It comes from ol, hollow or graved record. These actual olum were at first obtained in 1820 as a reward for a medical cure, deemed a curiosity; and were inexplicable. In 1822 were obtained from another individual the songs annexed thereto in the original language; but no one could be found by me able to translate them. I had therefore to learn the language since, by the help of Zeisberger, Heckewelder and a manuscript dictionary, on purpose to translate them, which I only accomplished in 1833. The contents were totally unknown to me in 1824 when I published my 'Annals of Kentucky'

I have attempted to identify this " Dr. Ward, of Indiana;'' but no such person is known in the early medical annals of that state. There is, however, an old and well-known Kentucky family of that name, who, about 1820 resided, and still do reside, in the neighborhood of Cynthialla. One of these, in 1824-25, was a friend of Rafinesque, invited him to his house, and shared his archaeological tastes, as Rafinesque mentions in his autobiography.' It was there, no doubt, that he copied the signs and the original text of the WALAM Olum. My efforts to learn further about the originals from living members of the family have been unsuccessful. From a note in Rafinesque's handwriting, on the title page of his MS. of 1833, it would appear that he had at least seen the wooden tablets. This note reads:--

"This Mpt & the wooden original was (sic) procured in 1822 in Kentucky--but was inexplicable till a deep study of the Linapi enabled me to translate them with explanations. (Dr. Ward.)"

The name of Dr. Ward added in brackets is, I judge, merely a note, and is not intended to in-ply that the sentence is a quotation.

Was it a Forgery ?

The crucial question arises: Was the WALAM OLUM a forgery by Rafinesque ?

It is necessary to ask and to answer this question, though it seems, at first sight, an insult to the memory of the man to do so. No one has ever felt it requisite to propound such an inquiry about the pieces of the celebrated Mexican collection of the Chevalier Boturini, who, as an antiquary, was scarcely less visionary than Rafinesque.

But, unquestionably, an air of distrust and doubt shadowed Rafinesque's scientific reputation during his life, and he was not admitted on a favorable footing to the learned circles of the city where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. His articles were declined a hearing in its societies; and the learned linguist, Mr Peter Stephen Duponceau, whose specialty was the Delaware language, wholly and deliberately ignored everything by the author of "The American Nations."

Why was this ?

Rafinesque was poor, eccentric, negligent of his person, full of impractical schemes and extravagant theories, and manufactured and sold in a small way a secret nostrum which he called " pulmel," for the cure of consumption. All these were traits calculated to lower him in the respect of the citizens of Philadelphia, and the consequence was, that although a member of some scientific societies, he seems to have taken no part in their proceedings, and was looked upon as an undesirable acquaintance, and as a sort of scientific outcast.

As early as 1819 Prof. Benjamin Silliman declined to publish contributions from him in the "American Journal of Science, " and returned him his MSS. Dr. Gray strongly intimates that Rafinesque's assertions on scientific matters were at times intentionally false, as when he said that he had seen Robin's collection of Louisiana plants in France, whereas that botanist never prepared dried specimens; and the like.

I felt early in this investigation that Rafinesque's assertions were, therefore, an insufficient warranty for the authenticity of this document.

As I failed in my efforts to substantiate them by local researches in Kentucky and Indiana, I saw that the evidence must come from the text itself. Nor would it be sufficient to prove that the words of the text were in the Lenape dialect. With Zeisberger and Heckewelder at hand, both of whose works had been years in print, it were easy to string together Lenape words.

But what Rafinesque certainly had not the ability to do, was to write a sentence in Lenape, to compose lines which an educated native would recognize as in the syntax of his own speech, though perhaps dialectically different.

This was the test that I determined to apply. I therefore communicated my doubts to my friend, the distinguished linguist, Mr. Horatio Hale, and asked him to state them to the Rev. Albert Anthony, a well educated native Delaware, equally conversant with his own tongue and with English. Mr. Anthony considered the subject fully, and concluded by expressing the positive opinion that the text as given was a genuine oral composition of a Delaware Indian. In many lines the etymology and syntax are correct, in others there are grammatical defects, which consist chiefly in the omission of terminal inflections.

The suggestion he offered to explain these defects is extremely natural. The person who wrote down this oral explanation of the signs, or, to speak more accurately, these chants which the signs were intended to keep in memory, was imperfectly acquainted with the native tongue, and did not always catch terminal sounds. The speaker also may have used here and there parts of that clipped language, or "white man's Indian," which I have before referred to as serving for the trading tongue between the two races.

This was also the opinion of the Moravian natives who examined the text. They all agreed that it impressed them as being of aboriginal origin, though the difference of the forms of words left them often in the dark as to the meaning.

This very obscurity is in fact a proof that Rafinesque did not manufacture it. Had he done so, he would have used the "Mission Delaware" words which he found in Zeisberger. But the text has quite a number not in that dialect, nor in any of the mission dictionaries.

Moreover, had he taken the words from such sources, he would in his translation have given their correct meanings; but in many instances he is absurdly far from their sense. Thus he writes: " The word for angels, angelatawiwak, is not borrowed, but real Linapi, and is the same as the Greek word angelos; "' whereas it is a verbal with a future sense from the very common Delaware verb angeln, to die. Many such examples will be noted in the vocabulary on a later page. In several cases the figures or symbols appear to me to bear out the corrected translations which I have given of the lines, and not that of Rafinesque. This, it will be observed, is an evidence, not merely that he must have received this text from other hands but the figures also, and weighs heavily in favor of the authentic character of both.

That it is a copy is also evident from some manifest mistakes in transcription, which Rafinesque preserves in his printed version, and endeavored to translate, not perceiving their erroneous form. Thus, in the fourth line of the first chant, he wrote owak, translating it "much air or clouds," when it is clearly a mere transposition for woak, the Unami form of the conjunction "and," as the sense requires. No such blunder would appear if he had forged the document.

It is true that a goodly share of the words in the earlier chants occur in Zeisberger. Thus it seems, at first sight, suspicious to find the three or four superlatives in III, 5, all given under examples of the superlatives, in Zeisberger's Grammar p. 105. It looks as if they had been bodily transferred into the song. So I thought; but afterwards I found these same superlatives in Heckewelder, who added specifically that " the Delawares had formed them to address or designate the Supreme being."

If we assume that this song is genuine, then Zeisberger was undoubtedly familiar with some version of it; had learned it probably, and placed most of its words in his vocabulary.

Some other collateral evidences of authenticity I have referred to on previous pages (pp. 67, 89, 136). From these considerations, and from a study of the text, the opinion I have formed of the WALAM OLUM is as follows:--

It is a genuine native production, which was repeated orally to some one indifferently conversant with the Delaware language, who wrote it down to the best of his ability. In its present form it can, as a whole, lay no claim either to antiquity, or to purity of linguistic form. Yet, as an authentic modern version, slightly colored by European teachings, of the ancient tribal traditions, it is well worth preservation, and will repay more study in the future than is given it in this volume. The narrator was probably one of the native chiefs or priests, who had spent his life in the Ohio and Indiana towns of the Lenape, and who, though with some knowledge of Christian instruction, preferred the pagan rites, legends and myths of his ancestors. Probably certain lines and passages were repeated in the archaic form in which they had been handed down for generations.


A general synopsis of the WALAM OLUM by Brinton

A portion of The Walam Olum

HOME The Last 12,000 Years

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