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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Unique Treasure

Last week a scholar in Vermont called with questions about a peculiar pamphlet in the Society rare book collection. Its title page opens with the bizarre phrase, "Iontri8aiestak8a ionskaneks…" and continues with equally strange typography.

The little book is a religious primer in the Mohawk language printed at Montreal in 1777, and investigation revealed that the Society's is the only known copy.

The scholar, Kathryn Merriam, is researching an Iroquois linguist named J.N.B. Hewitt (1859-1937). She came across correspondence from 1929 in which Hewitt and a colleague attempted to unravel the primer's history by examining a photostatic facsimile.

That correspondence cited an 1888 bibliography in which the only copy listed was the Society's. Today, more than 120 years later, it is the only one described in WorldCat, a library database including more than 660 million publications held by more than 70,000 libraries worldwide.

To assist Merriam's research, we digitized the primer and added it to Turning Points in Wisconsin History, which contains more than a dozen early works in or about American Indian languages.

Its contents consist of prayers and ceremonies of the French Roman Catholic service, translated into Mohawk for the use of Indian converts. It was printed by Fleury Mesplet, who established his printing shop in Montreal in 1775 and published a second Mohawk primer in 1781.

This, apparently the only surviving copy, once belonged to missionary Eleazer Williams (1788-1858), whose faint signature can be seen on the title page. It was date-stamped on the front paste-down in 1880, shortly after William's papers first began to arrive at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Society's programs try to include the broadest possible audiences -- from young children to elderly genealogists, from Civil War re-enactors to government officials -- but we also still serve professional historians and academic specialists.

Luckily, the collections are rich enough to help everyone discover compelling stories, and the staff are committed to helping anyone who wants to learn more about their past.

:: Posted in Curiosities on September 29, 2010

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