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Hymnal in the Ottawa Language

Ottawa hymnal  printed by Meeker

As depicted by this hymnal, which translates English hymns into the Ottawa language, Reverend Jotham Meeker created a system of writing (known as an orthography) for Native American languages.

Jotham Meeker was born in Hamilton County, Ohio, on November 8, 1804. He had little formal education, but trained as a printer in Cincinnati for seven years. In 1825 Meeker accepted a call to serve as a missionary among Native Americans. He first served as a teacher and preacher among the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes in Michigan. While there, Meeker learned to speak three Native American languages and began experimenting with a phonetic system of Indian orthography.

Translating and Preserving Indian Languages

While Meeker's phonetic printing system was not wholly original, it did have several distinct advantages. Other methods, including Sequoyah's development of a syllabary (composed of syllables rather than merely vowels and consonants) for the Cherokee language, used specially designed characters to represent Indian sounds. As seen in the accompanying hymnal (view image of  pages four & five), Meeker saw that by using ordinary type he could print in an Indian language as easily and cheaply as in English. Employing 23 letters for translating Indian languages, Meeker's system also enabled him to print in many Native American languages, including Delaware, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Otoe, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Wea, Kansas, and Ioway.

Page one from Meeker's hymnal in Ottawat languageUnder the auspices of the Board of Baptist Missions, Meeker moved to Kansas in 1833 to work among the many Eastern tribes (including the Ottawa) that had recently been forced to settle on lands west of the Missouri River. Meeker brought a printing press from Ohio by boat to Independence, Missouri, and then by wagon to the Shawnee Baptist Mission (present-day Johnson County, Kansas) where he took up residence as a printer and missionary among the Shawnee tribe.

Meeker's first printed work, a twenty-four page primer in the Delaware language, appeared in March 1834. Using the printing press and his writing system, Meeker printed some 65 works in ten Indian languages, including the first newspaper printed in Kansas, The Shawnee Sun. The press focused on producing small books containing hymns, selections from the Scriptures, and other works of a religious nature, translated into various Indian languages by Meeker and other missionaries. All used his phonetic system of printing. While Meeker's printing press largely promoted the teachings of the missionaries, it also served an invaluable role in helping to preserve the indigenous languages of native peoples.

Jotham MeekerIn May 1837 Meeker began his own mission among the Ottawa tribe, moving to a site near present-day Ottawa, Kansas, with his wife Eleanor. The press remained active at Shawnee Mission, with Meeker supplying additional translated material for publication, such as the 1845 hymnal pictured above. Meeker transferred the printing press from the Shawnee to the Ottawa mission in 1849 and resumed printing, producing a code of the Ottawa tribal laws in their native language and in English. Suffering from recurrent illnesses, Meeker died at the Ottawa mission in January 1855.

The Kansas Historical Society's rich collection of materials relating to Jotham Meeker and his family includes rare copies of printed works published by Meeker's press, as well as manuscripts containing correspondence and journal entries. The papers of Jotham Meeker were presented to the Society on November 22, 1886, by Edward Byram, a grandson who lived in Shannon, Kansas. In early 2004, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Keith, of Pollock Pines, California, descendants of Jotham Meeker, donated additional letters and poems written by him and other members of the Meeker family.

Entry: Hymnal in the Ottawa Language

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2004

Date Modified: December 2014

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