Unraveling the Walam Olum

By Oestreicher, David M. | Natural History, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Unraveling the Walam Olum


Oestreicher, David M., Natural History


Before Charles Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in 1859, the Bible was still the scholar's mainstay, to which newly discovered continents, cultures, and conflicting mythologies presented a growing challenge. While European scholars focused on deciphering ancient Persian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics-and pondered the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompe-in America the great mystery was the American Indians: Where did they come from? Was there one creation of humanity, as depicted in Genesis, or were races created separately on each continent? If there was a single creation, where was the cradle of mankind? How and where did American Indians survive the biblical flood? Was there once a primordial language understood by all humanity? Did an advanced civilization in North America predate the American Indians and erect the mysterious earthen mounds in the Midwest? These and many other questions fascinated the public, as well as scholars.

Then, in 1836, a naturalist named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque announced that he had deciphered an ancient hieroglyphic document, painted and engraved on wooden tablets, that answered all these questions. According to Rafinesque, the document was an ancient record of the peopling of North America that had been written by the early Lenape (Delaware) Indians and passed down in the tribe for generations. He further claimed that a "Dr. Ward," from whom he had obtained the tablets, had originally received them from a grateful Lenape patient he had cured. (The "original" tablets were inexplicably lost; Rafinesque's notebook "copy" is the sole record of the hieroglyphs.) Rafinesque called the document Walam Olum, which he said meant "painted record" in Lenape, the Delaware language. The hieroglyphs allegedly documented how North America was settled by Lenape who had come from Asia across the frozen Bering Strait, conquered a moundbuilding people who had already settled in the Midwest, and then diversified into the various tribes of Algonquianspeaking peoples. As for a time frame, a long list of chiefs included in the text enabled Rafinesque to "compute the generations" back to a migration that began 3,600 years ago.

Rafinesque claimed to have acquired not only the original tablets but also a separate transcription of forgotten songs in the Delaware language that explained them. He declared that by 1833-after more than a decade of study-he was able to render a complete English translation of the epic history, which he published in his 1836 book The American Nations. Although the Walam Olum did not bring Rafinesque the instant acclaim he had hoped for, after his death a growing number of scholars would hail the saga as an epic comparable to the Iliad or the Bible.

A native of Constantinople who had been raised in France and Italy, Rafinesque emigrated to the United States in 1815. Although he was a well-known naturalist who had proposed more Latin names for plants than Linnaeus, Rafinesque was regarded by most of his contemporaries as an eccentric, rather than a great scholar. The Walam Olum, however, brought Constantine Rafinesque his greatest-although posthumous-fame.

For more than a century after Rafinesque's death, the Walam Olum assumed increasing importance in the literature about American Indian origins. Some of America's most prominent historians, ethnologists, and linguists-including Daniel Brinton, Cyrus Thomas, and Frank Speck-believed it contained crucial evidence for prehistoric Amerindian migrations and the identity of the mysterious Midwestern Mound Builders. But there were undercurrents of doubt from the first; the anthropologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an expert on Eastern Woodland Indians, questioned the document's authenticity. Even Brinton, who made a new translation in 1885, acknowledged "the possibility that a more searching criticism will demonstrate it to have been a fabrication [and] may condemn as labor lost the pains that I have bestowed upon it. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Unraveling the Walam Olum
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.