(Four Bears,
a Mandan chief)
by George Catlin
from his
North American
Indian Portfolio

(London, 1844)

Native Americans

The study of Native Americans has been a component of American Studies (broadly considered) since the first Europeans visited the New World. Christopher Columbus, upon returning from his first voyage to America (1492–3), described in his report the people he found among what he called “the recently discovered islands in the Indian sea”, and it was from this point that “Indians” came to be a subject of interest to writers about the Americas – explorers, settlers, missionaries, naturalists, historians. Readers wanted to know about their society, their habits, their ceremonies, their manner of dress, their means of warfare. Natives were a help to settlers, but also competition for land and resources, and they differed from Europeans in many ways.

The Chapin Library has substantial resources concerned with the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These begin with copies of the Columbus report printed in Rome in 1493 and Basel in 1494; the latter is the first illustrated edition. Native peoples are dealt with also in most subsequent accounts of travel or settlement in America in the period of early colonization, an area in which the Chapin Library is well supplied. Even a small work such as John Josselyn’s New-Englands Rarities Discovered (London, 1672), which is chiefly about the natural history of New England, includes native remedies for sickness and “a perfect Description of an Indian SQUA, in all her Bravery”. Thomas Hariot’s Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (Frankfurt am Main, 1590) is particularly notable for its illustrations, engraved from drawings made on the spot by John White, whose portrayal of the Indian combines native culture with classical European notions of the physical form.

Among the settlers in America were those who sought to convert the native peoples to Christianity. Numerous publications in the Chapin Library document these activities, such as accounts of Jesuit missions in North America and the writings of Eleazar Wheelock on his charity school for Indians, originally in Lebanon, Connecticut (later Dartmouth College in New Hampshire). Religious texts were translated into Native American languages: one important example in the Chapin Library is the Bible translated by Puritan minister John Eliot into the Massachusett dialect of Algonquian and printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1661–3 under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England – the first Bible printed in what would become the United States. Another is the Primer for the Use of the Mohawk Children, published in London in 1786. A more direct study of Native American languages, among others, is Roger Williams’ Key into the Language of America (i.e. New England), London, 1643.

Also in the Chapin Library are works concerned with relations between settlers and natives, such as The History of the Wars of New-England, with the Eastern Indians (Boston, 1726) by Samuel Penhallow, and The History of the Five Indian Nations (New York, 1727) by Cadwallader Colden, the first colonial representative to the Iroquois confederacy. Conflicts between these peoples are recounted as well in popular captivity narratives, such as those by Mary Rowlandson, John Norton, and Elizabeth Hanson (the Chapin Library has editions of 1682, 1748, and 1760 respectively).

As European settlement moved West in the United States, native peoples were assimilated, eradicated, or displaced. The literature of the westward movement in America is extensive, encompassing accounts of travelers, missionaries, exploring expeditions, and works promoting settlement and commerce. Publications such as the journal of Lewis and Clark, of which the Chapin Library has both the first American and first British editions (both published in 1814), and of the expedition accounts of explorers such as Zebulon Pike and John Charles Frémont, are well known and have much of value to the student of Native Americans. But other works should not be overlooked, such as the Annual Registers of Indian affairs within the “Indian Territory” (today part of nine states including Kansas and Oklahoma) by the Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy: the Chapin Library has the three numbers for 1835–7.

Aspects of the disappearing Native American culture were preserved also in art. Thomas M’Kenney, a government superintendent of Indian trade, engaged the artist Charles Bird King to paint the portraits of prominent Indians who visited Washington, D.C. These were reproduced as hand-colored lithographs in History of the Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia, 1836–44) with text by M’Kenney and James Hall. The Chapin Library has both the folio and later octavo editions. Another important collection of pictures in the Library is that of George Catlin, the North American Indian Portfolio (London, 1844): these are based on Catlin’s visits to fifty tribes while journeying from his base in St. Louis.

Resources for the study of Native Americans may also be found in the Archives and Special Collections department of the Williams College Libraries. The Archives reading room and offices are shared with the Chapin Library.


All of these materials are available for use in the Archives/Chapin reading room in Sawyer Library, Room 441.

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This page was last updated on 16 September 2014