The Native American studies of Horatio Hale

Horatio Hale

Horatio Hale (1817-1898)

On May 3, 1817, American-Canadian ethnologist, philologist and businessman Horatio Hale was born. Hale studied language as a key for classifying ancient peoples and being able to trace their migrations. He was the first to discover that the Tutelo language of Virginia belonged to the Siouan family, and to identify the Cherokee language as a member of the Iroquoian family of languages.

Horatio Hale attended Harvard College and in 1834, he published an essay on languages consisting of an Algonkin vocabulary, which he gathered from a band of Indians who had camped on the college grounds. A few years later, Charles Wilkes organized the United States Exploring Expedition for which Hale was recommended, while yet an undergraduate student. On the expedition, Hale was appointed ethnologist and philologist. Horatio Hale visited South America, Australasia, Polynesia, and North-western America before returning overland. Further, the expedition continued to Polynesia. Hale prepared the sixth volume, ‘Ethnography and Philology‘ as a result of the expedition.

After earning his master’s degree, Hale first toured Europe and afterwards began his law studies. During 1856 he began to administer the estate of his father-in-law in Ontario, Canada. There, Horatio Hale devoted his time to improving the local school system. It was not until 1867 that he began to become scientifically active again. He studied the language, culture and history of the Iroquois people living in a reserve near Amherstburg from about 1867 to 1877 in cooperation with the Mohawk chief George Henry Martin Johnson. Among other things, he examined the Wampum belts used to record the oral tradition of the Iroquois peoples.

Further, the Canadian reserves on the banks of the Thames and Grand River provided Hale a great opportunity for further investigation into American-Indian questions. His work ‘The Iroquois Book of Rites‘ was published in 1883. In order to study Native Americans, Hale was mentored by the Iroquois chiefs George Henry Martin Johnson and John Fraser. He further consulted with native informants and documented the oral history and rituals of the Iroquois Confederacy. Horatio Hale also managed to determine that Mohawk was the oldest and that the Laurentian languages were also Iroquoian. During his studies, Hale was especially able to increase his reputation through his theory of the origin of the diversities of human languages and dialects. Hale further emphasized the importance of languages as tests of mental capacity, demonstrating that Native American languages were complex and had a high capacity for classification.

Hale made many valuable contributions to the science of ethnology, attracting attention particularly by his theory of the origin of the diversities of human languages and dialects – a theory suggested by his study of child-languages, or the languages invented by little children. He also emphasized the importance of languages as tests of mental capacity, demonstrating that Native American languages were complex and had a high capacity for classification.

Horatio Hale died on 29 December 1896 at Clinton, Ontario, at age 79.

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