Scientific Instructions and Native American Linguistics in the Imperial United States: The Department of War's 1826 Vocabulary


In 1826, the Department of War published a set of instructions for collecting Native American languages. These instructions exemplified how the practices, goals, and organization of science in the United States developed amidst tensions between ideals of equality and realities of imperialism. Scientific experts in Europe had long circulated instructions meant to ensure that informants collected specific kinds of information and circulated it in specific ways. The authors of the 1826 instructions, however, encouraged informants to collect and package information in whatever way was best suited to their local situation and personal talents. At one level, the philologists behind these instructions, particularly Peter Stephen Du Ponceau and Albert Gallatin, were seeking a practical solution to a problem that had vexed metropolitan experts for centuries: the impossibility of actually regulating the work of distant field collectors. Yet these philologists also had broader goals. They wanted the 1826 vocabulary to demonstrate that long-distance networks embodying Enlightenment beliefs—particularly the idea that granting individuals more independence would enable their talents to flourish—would generate knowledge more effectively than networks micromanaged by elite savants. They also hoped that the linguistic information field collectors gathered would bolster a federal Indian policy oriented toward uplifting and incorporating Indians and, therefore, challenge visions of U.S. imperialism that emphasized strict racial hierarchies. Although the 1826 vocabulary failed to further these goals, it revealed some of the many contexts in which imperialism was debated and enacted in the early nineteenth century and how these contexts affected intellectual life.