On this day in 1820, John Wood, a mathematics professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, put together a list of about 250 words in the Nottoway language. He learned them while visiting the tribe’s Southampton County reservation (pop. 27) earlier in the year and talking with sixty-year-old Edie Turner, a native speaker. Wood described Turner as a “Queen” who, although illiterate, was “extremely intelligent.” Then—obviously in honor of a forthcoming Saint Patrick’s Day celebration!—declared the Nottoway language to be “evidently of Celtic origin.”
Wood decided to send his collection of words to one of the nation’s foremost collectors of Indian language lists, Thomas Jefferson. Years earlier, the former president had compiled about fifty vocabularies and was readying them for publication when, on his way home from Washington to Monticello, lost them. In a letter written at the time, Jefferson explained that on the James River a thief had stolen the trunk that contained the papers, but “being disappointed on opening it, threw into the river all it’s [sic] contents of which he thought he could make no use. [A]mong these were the whole of the vocabularies. [S]ome leaves floated ashore & were found in the mud …”
This strikes me as not so different from the time I completely wiped my hard drive clean—by accident.
Anyway, eleven years later, Jefferson mailed John Wood’s new vocabulary to Peter Stephen DuPonceau. The French-born linguist corrected Jefferson’s mistaken impression that Nottoway was an Algonquian language (even he knew it wasn’t Celtic), instead identifying it as Iroquoian. Sometime later, James Trezvant, a lawyer in Jerusalem, Southampton County, and a member of Congress (1825–1831), also visited the Nottoways, creating a word list of his own that included what he said was the tribe’s name for itself: Cherohakah—which is now, more or less, the name of a state-recognized Indian tribe.
ONE MORE COOL FACT: One of the words that appeared on the Wood-Trezvant lists was “hokeh,” meaning “yes.” It appears to be a cognate of the Choctaw word “okeh,” or “it is,” which has traditionally, but likely incorrectly, been considered a source for the English word “okay.”
IMAGE: The Nottoway family of Walter Turner poses for an unknown photographer in front of a house in Southampton County in 1918 (Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia / Virginia Indian Archive)