This week the Reading Room hosted an education course for two sessions examining historical perspectives on US education. Material from the SHLC joined Grinnell College Special Collections and Archives material in five stations covering course themes. One of the SHLC items students worked with was a 1685 excerpt from the Eliot’s Indian Bible, a touchpoint for class material on race, assimilation, and history of education. Alongside students this week, we learned more about the history one page from the collection carries and its context in history.

A leaf from the Eliot Bible, or Mamusse wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God. 2nd edition printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1685. 

 Alternate titles: Algonquian Bible. Eliot’s Bible. The Indian Bible.

About the Eliot Bible  

The Eliot Indian Bible was the first bible printed in British North America. The work is a translation of the Geneva Bible into the indigenous Massachusett dialect, a branch of Algonquian language. The first edition was printed as New Testament only in 1661 and was followed in 1663 by a full translation of 66 books from the Old and New Testament.  

John Eliot (1604-1690), an English Puritan minister, arrived to the Massachusett Bay Colony in 1631. In an attempt to evangelize and convert Native Americans, he spent fourteen years learning the Massachusett language and translating the Christian Bible into a language previously unwritten. Eliot and other English collaborators are credited on title pages of early editions of the “Indian Bible”, but omit his indigenous collaborators Job Nesutan (Massachusett), John Sassamon (Massachusett), Cockenoe (Montaukett) and James Printer (Nipmuk) who assisted in his learning the language, devising a written system, and translation. James Printer was a printer’s apprentice at Samuel Green’s press where original editions were printed.  

About the second edition  

Many first editions of Eliot’s translations were lost during the destruction of King Philip’s War (1675-1676) which decimated the indigenous population of southern New England. In 1685, Eliot and surviving collaborators assisted in a corrected second edition being published, again at the press of Samuel Green and with the assistance of John Printer. It is assumed about 2,000 second editions were produced; an unknown number of books exist today. A surviving copy of this edition is digitized at the Internet Archive.  The Salisbury House Library Collection leaf is page 449/450 in the digitized edition; it comes from the book of II Chronicles. 

The image at right shows the original title page of this edition; an English translation reads:

Image of an original title page from this print edition from the Internet Archive digitized copy.

The Whole Holy His-Bible God, both Old Testament and also New Testament. This turned by the-servant-of-Christ, who is called John Eliot. [Nahohtoeu ontchetoe Printeuoomuk.] 

Cambridge.  

Printed by Samuel Green.  MDCLXXXV (1685) 

Samuel Green was one of the earliest printers in the American colonies and was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. James Printer worked in his print shop as a printer’s apprentice, then typesetter.  

The SHLC Leaf: What we don’t know

The origin of the SHLC leaf–including when or from whom it was purchased–remains unknown as this item doesn’t have corresponding provenance information. It is housed in a paper folder with mylar (a preservation safe film) window cover with a mount that appears to be the second or third instance of it being displayed as a single leaf. Book breaking, or separating pages from books for individual sale was common among book sellers during the Weeks family era of collecting. One of the most infamous ‘book-breakers’ or biblioclasts, as he called himself, was Otto Ege who would assemble portfolios for sale. Who sold this leaf–was it from Otto Ege himself? Where have other leaves from this copy gone? Who were past owners?

The language today

The historical Massachusett language recorded in the Eliot translation is also known as Natick or Wôpanâak and associated with the Wompanoag tribe today. With great losses to the population during the 17th century from epidemics, violence, relocation, and assimilation inflicted by colonization, the language has been an endangered or “sleeping language” for over a century with lack of native and fluent speakers and communities of youth learning the language. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) began in the 1990s to revitalize the language and continues today. Learn more about the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project at www.wlrp.org or hear more about language reclamation from a March 2021 public radio highlight On Point.