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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1836 to 1838 > Ottawa

Some time before the arrival of these Californians, and soon after Mezzofanti's coming to Rome, Bishop Fenwick. of Cincinnati, had sent for education to the Propaganda two North American Indians, youths of the Ottawa tribe, then residing near Mackinaw, at the upper end of Lake Michegan. The elder of these, named Augustine Hamelin, was a half-breed, being the son of a French father ; the younger, whose Indian name was Macco-dohenesi,{"theBlackbird,") was of pure Ottawa blood. Unhappily, as almost invariably happens in similar circumstances, the Indian, although a youth of much promise and very remarkable piety, pined away in the College, and eventually died from the bursting of a blood-vessel. Augustin Hamelin, the elder, spent a considerable time in the Propaganda, where he studied with great success, but in the end, being seized with blood-spitting, the authorities of the College, apprehensive of a recurrence of the same disease which had befallen Maccodobenesi, judged it more prudent to send him back to America. In consequence, he rejoined his tribe in the year 1835, or 1836. Mrs. Jameson, who in her " Rambles among the Red Men," speaks of the Roman Catholic Ottawa converts in general, as "in appearance, dress, intelligence, industry, and general civilization, superior to the converts of all other communions," refers in particular to " a well-looking young man, dressed in European fashion and in black, of mixed blood, French and Indian, who had been sent, when young, to be educated at the Propaganda, and was lately come to settle as a teacher and interpreter among his people."* This youth, there can be no doubt, was Hamelin. Having come soon afterwards to Washington, as one of a deputation from his tribe to negociate a treaty with the United States Government, he produced a great sensation by his high education, his great general knowledge, and especially his skill in languages; and on a subsequent occasion, in 184-0, Bishop O'Connor, of Pittsburgh, who had known him in the Propaganda, and to whom I am indebted for these particulars re. garding him, encountered him in Philadelphia, engaged in a similar mission to the American Government.

The well-known Indian philologer, M. du Ponceau, met him about the same time, and speaks with much praise of his intelligence and ability. It was from Hamelin that M. du Ponceau obtained the information regarding the Ottawa language which he has used in the comparative vocabulary of Indian languages, appended to his Memoire sur le Systeme Grammaticale des Langues Indiennes.

Whether Mezzofanti learned the Ottawa dialect from these youths I have not positively ascertained. Indeed it is difficult to say at what precise time he first directed his attention to the Indian languages of North America. He certainly knew something of them before he left Bologna. He read for M. Libri, in 1830, a book in one of the Indian languages. Prince Lewis Lucian Bonaparte too, in a communication with hich he has honoured me, mentions a conversation with him at Bologna, in which he spoke of these Indian languages, and alluded to one in particular in which the letter B is wanting ; "not," as he explained, to the Prince, " on account of any peculiarity in the genius of the language which excludes this sound, but because the Indians of this tribe wear a heavy ornament suspended by a ring from the under lip, which by dragging the under lip downwards, and thus preventing its contact with the upper, renders it impossible for them to produce the sound of B or any other labial." It is probable therefore, that even before he first met Hamelin and his companion, Mezzofanti had already learnt something of these Indian languages ; and as, in his conversation with Dr. Kip, some years later, the only languages which he mentioned as known to him are the Chippewa, the Delaware, and the Algonquin, it is most likely that it was the first of these—a variety of which is spoken by the Ottawas—that formed his medium of conversation with these youths. On this point, Dr. O'Connor is unable to speak from his own knowledge.

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