Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880

By Phillip H. Round | Go to book overview

CHAPTER
One
THE COMING OF THE BOOK
TO INDIAN COUNTRY

FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, Native peoples and Europeans in British North America related to each other by and through the book. In early English contact literature, the figure of the book as an agent of conquest is ubiquitous, as are myriad fantasies about Native codex production and consumption. The official seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, one of the most influential missionary bodies in early America, features a ship arriving to the shores of the New World, a missionary at its bow waving a book at the Native people gathered there (figure 5).

For this study, we can pinpoint the exact year the book may be said to have “come” to Indian Country in British North America. In 1663, John Eliot (ca. 1604–90), Puritan missionary pastor to the indigenous nations of southern New England, published an Algonquian translation of the Christian Bible. Looking back at over a hundred years of proselytizing efforts in America, nineteenth- century missionary Samuel Bartlett focused on the primacy of Eliot’s Indian Bible for all future evangelical endeavors. It was, he believed, “the index and monument of [Eliot’s] achievements,” having been the “first and long the only, Bible printed in America.”1

Bartlett’s 1876 narrative of the Christian evangelization of Native peoples in North American is structured as the story of how print came to the New World’s “unlettered” masses. In this retelling, Eliot’s book project leads seamlessly to the work of Eleazar Wheelock, founder of Moor’s Charity School (1754), the first sustained “Indian School” in the colonies. Wheelock oversaw the education into alphabetic literacy of Native luminaries such as Joseph Brant and Samson Occom. He was also responsible for the distribution of a great deal of print — especially primers and spellers — throughout New England and New York. From Wheelock, Bartlett moves to John Sergeant,

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