John P. Williamson on Writing the English-Dakota Dictionary

Once upon a time,

Someone found a suitcase of old, old letters in an old, old house. They were charmed letters. We know because Someone did not throw the letters away.

Instead, Someone took the suitcase to the Dakotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen, South Dakota to be appraised. Someone never returned to claim the letters.

This happened so long ago that Someone may no longer be living. But a decade ago, Jeff Williamson, a descendant of this man,

John Poage Williamson, 1835-1917

went looking for information about his great-grandfather, John P. Williamson. Jeff talked to Alan Woolworth who told him the Dakotah Prairie Museum had letters written between some Williamsons and some Riggs. Jeff told his research friends about the letters at the Dakotah Prairie Museum.

Jeff’s friends were so excited that some of them drove to Aberdeen to read the letters. You see, the suitcase contained new old, old letters. The Dakota Prairie Museum is a museum, not a library. Historians never thought to look there for letters.

This story is about one of those charmed letters.

The first page of this letter is missing. Maybe the day Somebody’s Ancestor placed the old, old letters in the suitcase at the old, old house, the window was open. Maybe the breeze puffed the first page to the floor, where a tabby cat, dozing in the sun, took a lazy swipe at the page, batting it under the settee where it was forgotten.

Or maybe Somebody’s Ancestor needed to wrap a sandwich and grabbed the nearest piece of paper, which happened to be the first page of this letter. History is like that.

We’ll never know.

In any case, John P. Williamson’s letter about writing the English-Dakota Dictionary, probably written to his friend Alfred Riggs in Santee, Nebraska, maybe around the year 1888, abruptly opens on page three.

You may think this strange. But some grown-ups pick up old, old letters and read them to themselves as bedtime stories. Really. So suitcases full of new old, old letters make them very, very happy.

The End


Manuscript L74.14.540.1 No date. Found with 1888 letters. The Dakotah Prairie Museum, Aberdeen, SD. Transcription by Carrie Reber Zeman 2012.

“off without reading Websters definition or consulting an other dictionary. However I doubt whether I so wrote ten per cent. Sometimes on difficult words I have read all Webster said and compared other Desk Dic’s and studied a good deal and sometimes consulted Indians. This in the other extreme and over done in a few cases. The great majority of the words I glance at Websters main definitions & divisions, determine upon divisions I think suitable –then consult other works. I preferred to frame my Sioux words first before looking at former works, because it makes the work more original and gives a wider range.

As to dialects I think I followed a little different course at different times. If I had the whole to do over, I shd follow the plan I have, I think, the Santee, then add the Ihanktanwan and the Titonwan, marked I and T (or otherwise). For example, Knife, n. Isan; (I & [T?]) mina. And Across the River Aksanpa; (T.) Koakata [?]. In the latter case leaving it to be understood that Yankton follows the Santee. I did not pay as much attention to dialects as I shd like to have done. The Titonwan especially is almost wanting where as it really varies from the Santee more widely than the Yankton. I understand the Tit. now better than when I made the compilation & yet would feel quite lame in writing it without a good assistant. And I do not know that it is best to try much in that line.

I formerly took a good many notes and you furnished me a good many. These were however mostly made from the School Dictionary and I think have nearly all been used in that and you will get the advantage of them by referring to it. At least I have no notes of that character in shape that I can furnish you [ ] without the trouble of reviewing the whole field and writing them off. And I would most as so compile the whole thing as to go into that.

The easiest way I can help you any will be for me to look over your copy as you suggested. It will not be very hard work to read it and make the outside corrections which I can do from memory. If I feel right smart I may dip into it more or less deeply.

So much for the Dictionary. Good luck to ye.

I will send down the old copy by Express to your name at Springfield.

Yours Tly,

John P. Williamson


Williamson’s English-Dakota Dictionary did not appear in print until 1902.

Why are letters like this one important? The Dakota language in its written forms has filtered down to us through layers of outside mediation: non-Dakota people like John Poage Williamson. John P., the youngest son of Presbyterian missionary to the Dakota, Thomas S. Williamson and his wife Margaret Poage Williamson, was born at Lac qui Parle in 1835, the same year his father began teaching Dakota people to write in a form of the Dakota language the missionaries had reduced to fit the Roman alphabet.

As an adult, John P. Williamson, who grew up from infancy in a Dakota-speaking community, was widely acknowledged to be the best non-Dakota speaker of that language in his generation. He went on to spend his life in Dakota-speaking communities as a missionary pastor.

Yet, today, Gwen Westerman tells a great joke about the English-Dakota Dictionary being only half as thick as the Dakota-English version. What happened to the Dakota language via writing and  translation? Dakota scholars  are asking those questions.

Letters like this are windows into the process which yielded John P. Williamson’s Dictionary, the most widely owned English-Santee Dakota Dictionary in circulation today.


Edited 10/2/12 with the help of Jeff Williamson. Thanks Jeff!

This entry was posted in Dakota Language, John P. Williamson, Primary Sources. Bookmark the permalink.

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