Kansas Historical Quarterly - The Shawnee Sun
The First Indian-language Periodical
Published in the United States
Doug C. McMurtrie
November 1933 (Vol. 2, No. 4), pages 338 to 342
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.
AFTER Jotham Meeker had set up his press at the Shawanoe Baptist mission in 1834, one of the most interesting things he undertook to print was a small “newspaper” in the language of the Shawnee Indians. This Shawnee Sun, to name it by the translation of its Indian title, was the first periodical publication to be printed in what is now Kansas, and the first in all the land to be printed wholly in an Indian language.
In his journal, which is preserved in the valuable collections of the Kansas Historical Society, Meeker recorded that he began “setting types on the 1st No. of the Shawanoe Sun” on February 18, 1835 Composition continued on the two days following and was finished on the 21st, when the pages were made up and proofs taken. On the 23d the proof was read and the corrections made, and on the 24th the type was put in the press and printed. Thus we know exactly the date of the erection of this rather interesting typographic landmark.
This little paper began with monthly issues, the first being for March, 1835. Meeker's journal records the issues of April, May and June, after which there was a pause until October. Thereafter the issues were rather irregular until April, 1837, which is the last of which Meeker makes mention. In the summer of 1837, Meeker moved from the Shawanoe mission to his new mission for the Ottawa Indians, near the present city of Ottawa, Kan. The printing office at Shawanoe was then turned over to John G. Pratt, who was sent out from Massachusetts to continue the Shawanoe printing.
Pratt continued the Shawnee Sun, probably at irregular intervals. However, it was suspended entirely for a little over a year in 1830-1840, while Pratt was absent from Shawanoe on sick leave. It was resumed again by 1841 (Pratt returned to the mission in November, 1840), and the Baptist Missionary Magazine, organ of the Board of Foreign Missions, mentions its continued publication up to 1844.
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The editor of the Shawnee Sun throughout its life was Johnston Lykins, another of the Baptist missionaries at Shawanoe, whose special field of labor was with the Shawnees. Lykins, however, was absent on sick leave in 1836 and did not return to duty until May, 1837 and during this interval it would appear that Meeker was the editor as well as the printer of the little sheet. In fact, Meeker made numerous entries in his journal which show that he devoted considerable time to writing or translating articles for the Sun, either alone, or with the help of Joseph Deshane, an interpreter, or with an Indian named Blackfeather, who, on at least two occasions, is mentioned as a contributor to the paper. But Meeker was not only the editor and the printer-he was also the inventor of a method by which the sounds of the Shawnee language (and of several other Indian languages) might be represented by the letters of the English alphabet.
As a creator of orthographies for the languages of the natives, Meeker was diligent and ingenious. He simply took the letters for sounds that did not occur in the given Indian tongue and arbitrarily assigned to them sounds that needed to be expressed. Thus, for the Shawnee, he gave to b the sound of th in thin, and to i the sound of a in far. As printed, the Indian title of the Shawnee Sun read Siwinowe Kesibwi, which Isaac McCoy, in his account of the paper, transliterated Shau-wau-nowe Kesauthwau-an approximation to the sounds of the words. Crude as this system of “writing Indian” may seem, it was practical, as the Indians, even adults, learned to read by it, and even in some individual instances to write by it in their own language.
The Shawnee Sun “circulated” among the Indians at and near the mission settlement. On January 11, 1837, Meeker noted in his journal that he had “distributed 100 copies of the Shawanoe, Sun among the Shawanoes.” Presumably, copies were sent to the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, at Boston and presumably copies were given to the local Indian agent for forwarding to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, at Washington. But the little paper must have been printed in a quite limited edition, possibly not more than one hundred and fifty or two hundred copies to an issue.
MCMURTRIE: THE SHAWNEE SUN 341
It is easy to understand why copies of the Shawnee Sun have disappeared. Indians in the days of the Shawanoe mission did not preserve files of newspapers. If copies were sent to the Board of Foreign Missions or to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, no importance was attached to them; at least, no record of such copies can now be found. Meeker himself made up two partial files; an entry in his journal on December 12, 1836, reads “Famine all the old Nos. of the Sun and bind two volumes of it.” By that date, the journal had recorded the printing of eleven issues of the paper. But these two files seem not to have survived the vicissitudes of flood and storm to which Meeker's few earthly possessions were subjected. We do not even know how many issues appeared. Meeker mentions fourteen up to April, 1837, the last which he printed, and in a memorandum book kept by Johnston Lykins there is mention of an issue in May, 1842. Of all the copies that were printed, one single, solitary copy is known to have survived, and even that copy is not yet securely rescued from oblivion.
The surviving copy of the Shawnee Sun is one of the issue for November, 1841. At the time of the publication of our book on Jotham Meeker, in the spring of 1930, Mr. Allen and I had tried in vain to locate this copy. A reproduction of the first page had been printed in the Kansas City (Kansas) Sun of Friday, February 18, 1898; the original had then just been presented to Mr. Emanuel F. Heisler by Charles Bluejacket, a Shawnee chief then living in the Indian territory. After that, the original vanished so far as available knowledge of it was concerned. The search was continued, with the invaluable assistance of Mr. Ford B. Wright, librarian of the public library of Kansas City, Mo., who finally found the long-sought copy in March, 1930. This was unfortunately too late for including a reproduction of it in the Meeker book, which was then printed and in the bindery. But as no reproduction of this elusive rarity has been published since thirty-five years ago, and as the newspaper reproduction of it in 1898 is practically inaccessible, it seems quite in order to present it again, in order that the record of thus strange little paper may be preserved for at least another generation.
The original of the copy, dated November, 1841, is now in the possession of a member of the Heisler family, in Kansas City, Kan. It consists of but two pages (one leaf), but a divided word at the
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end of the second page makes it seem likely that there were four pages in the paper as printed. The pages were numbered, the second page of the existing copy being page 70. If this issue originally consisted of four pages, it ran to page 72. If the pages were numbered consecutively from the beginning of publication in 1836, and if each issue consisted of four pages, the issue of November, 1841, would have been the eighteenth issue. There is no volume number or serial number on this issue.
The only English words in the two pages of the existing copy are in the combined date line and imprint, which reads: “J. Lykins, Editor. November, 1841. Baptist Mission Press.” Not being familiar with the Shawnee language, I am unable to give any account of the subject matter of the four principal articles on the two pages, but my guess is that much of it consisted of didactic Baptist theology. The page measures about 6 3/4 by 10 3/4 inches, with the text in two 8 1/2-inch columns containing 52 lines of pica type to the full column. The printer, whose name does not appear, was undoubtedly John G. Pratt.
Attached to the unique copy of the Shawnee Sun here described is a printed note which may be presented, by way of conclusion, because of its testimony to the difficulties under which the Baptist Mission Press was conducted. It reads: “In the year 1838 there were shipped from Boston via New Orleans to the Shawnee Baptist mission in Kansas (about five miles west of Westport, Mo.) several boxes of paper and printing material. These goods were addressed to Westport Landing, which had not yet appeared upon the maps, and as the forwarding agent at New Orleans did not know where Westport Landing was located, he sent the goods to Fort Gibson, on the Arkansas, in the Indian territory. The goods were returned to New Orleans, and then sent up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, being more than a year on the way before Mr. Pratt received them. This certificate is printed upon a part of the paper then and there received. The paper is a coarse book paper, and was used in printing books in eight  different dialects, for the Indians, viz., the Otoe, Kaw, Potawatomie, Ottawa, Shawnee, Delaware and Miami languages. A newspaper was also printed, the Sauwa-noe Ke-sawthwa, `the Shawnee Sun,' (the first paper ever printed in the territory . . . printed here from 1836 to 1842).” With this note is attached a certificate, dated in June, 1897, signed by John G. Pratt, to the effect that certificates of membership for the Wyandotte County Historical Society were printed on sheets from that shipment of paper made in 1838.
1. Isaac McCoy, History of Baptist Indian Missions (Washington, New York, and Utica, 1840), p. 488 says: “This was the first newspaper ever published exclusively in an Indian language.” The Cherokee Phoenix, begun at New Echota, Ga., in February, 1828, was partly in Cherokee and partly in English.
2. Douglas C. McMurtrie and Albert H. Allen, Jotham Meeker, Pioneer Printer of Kansas (Chicago, 1980), p. 69; and see, also, under “Siwinowe Kesibwi,” on p. 140.
3. The Meeker journal records issues of the Sun (in addition to those mentioned) for December, 1836, January, February, July, August and November, 1830, January, February and April, 1837. In view of the care with which Meeker made a note of almost everything he did, it is hardly possible that there were also other issues not mentioned in the journal.
4. McCoy, op. cit., p. 504.
5. For a more extended account of the Meeker orthographies, see McMurtrie and Allen, op. cit., pp. 25-30, and McCoy, op. cit., pp. 471-476.
6. By 1837 the Board of Foreign Missions had adopted a rule that at least one copy of everything printed at any of its missionary stations should be sent to the Board (Baptist Missionary Magazine, v. 21 1841 pp 208-209) But the Board seems to have made no provision that the material thus collected should be preserved.
7. Preserved in the collections of the Kansas Historical Society.
8. The Kansas Historical Society has two clippings of the newspaper reproduction, but they are yellowing and becoming frail with age.