J. N. B. Hewitt, Iroquois Americanist (SMNAB 1)

It took me several years to get a command of the Hewitt Six Nations ceremonial and text notes. – Bill Fenton1

John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt (1859–1937) is often described as a linguist by vocation, but his interest in linguistic structure was of a piece with a much broader set of research interests. He was a skilled comparativist who collected native language accounts in the service of historical reconstruction. In his reliance upon this particular set of sources and methods, Hewitt falls squarely within the Americanist Tradition.2

During his five decade career at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE hereafter), Hewitt returned from the field with scores of texts in Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, and Mohawk. Upon each return to D.C. he then proceeded to fastidiously gloss them at his own pace, and publish only in drips and drabs. In the years since his death his publications and manuscripts have served as rich source material for ongoing study of Iroquois culture history and the Iroquoian languages.

Bureau of American Ethnology
Undated portrait of John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. (NAA INV 02858800, Photo Lot 33, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.)

How Hewitt came to anthropology

J. N. B. Hewitt path to his vocation included no formal training or credentialization whatsoever. Instead, he gained his ultimately formidable combination of knowledge and skill by applying an aptitude for informal learning to a happy conjuncture of events across the years.

Two such conjunctures during his early life proved especially important. In the first, his studies with Tuscarora-speaking classmates beginning at age 11 allowed him the opportunity to learn the language. Hewitt was born on the eve of the Civil War at the Tuscarora Reservation on the right bank of the Niagara River. His white biological paternal grandparents passed away while his father David Brainard Hewitt was still a child, and the young orphan was adopted by a Tuscarora family. Hewitt’s mother Harriet Hewitt née Printup was an enrolled member of the Tuscarora Nation. While both David and Harriet spoke Tuscarora fluently, English was the language of their home. They homeschooled J. N. B. until age 11, at which point he began attended the reservation school where he learned Tuscarora from his speaker schoolmates. Tuscarora would come to serve not only as a field language during his later ethnographic research, but also as the foundation for comparative linguistic work with the various Iroquoian languages.

Although J. N. B. Hewitt’s parents were Tuscarora speakers, he acquired childhood fluency in the language not from them but rather from elementary school classmates. (Skaruːrę? Yerihętya?ta? – ‘Tuscarora School’; photo by Matthew T. Bradley, 09 August 2009.)

In the second, he began work as Erminnie A. Smith’s field assistant in 1880 during his early 20s. From Smith he learned the mechanics of phonetic transcription which he would come to use at the highest level. And through her BAE-funded Tuscarora dictionary project he gained an affiliation with one of the world’s premier ethnological research institutions. Smith passed in June of 1886. Within days of her death, BAE head John Wesley Powell received a letter from Hewitt proposing that he be brought to Washington to continue work on the Tuscarora dictionary project. Hewitt arrived in mid-July as a professional ethnologist in the employ of the U.S. Government, a billet he would keep until his death 51 years later.

Hewitt at the BAE

Hewitt’s duties at the BAE of course extended beyond a fieldwork/MS preparation cycle. Among other things, he was assigned to answer ethnological queries directed to the Bureau. He played an important part in the production of the Old Handbook,3 in which the byline JNBH indicates his authorship of individual articles. He was tasked with editorial work, as well, such as the Rudolph Friederich Kurz journal.

Hewitt’s place in the history of linguistics—both his contributions to Iroquoian historical linguistics and his unheralded theoretical sophistication—has been well-reviewed by Blair Rudes (“John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt: Tuscarora linguist.” Anthropological Linguistics 36, no. 4 (1994): 467–81). A top-notch article-length biography which includes a comprehensive bibliography is available thanks to the diligence of Elisabeth Tooker and Barbara Graymont (“J. N. B. Hewitt.” Histories of Anthropology Annual 3 (2007): 70–98. doi:10.1353/haa.0.0036). I will not parrot what these two excellent and readily available pieces of scholarship have to say. Rather, I want to spill some digital ink in a short discussion of a topic on which I do believe I have something to add. Namely, I want to offer an apologia of the supposedly poor publication record by which Mr. Hewitt has come to be seen.

That Hewitt squandered talent and resources through a mix of constitutional laziness combined with federal worker tenuritis seems to me to be not only a facile conclusion, but also at odds with the available evidence. Hewitt maintained a commitment to fieldwork and the collection of original material throughout his career, nor did his fastidiousness in his manuscript work waiver. His work output was something of the flip side of the academic whose prolific publication record is riddled with errors, short on detail, and long on repetition. Both sorts of scholars do put in the hours. What is lacking is not a willingness to labor, but rather a balanced portfolio at the end of the day.

To my mind, Hewitt’s publication record can only be properly appreciated in the context of the nature of Iroquoian comparative research. I first encountered Hewitt’s work almost a decade ago while doing graduate coursework. At the time I was interested in Iroquoian comparative work only insomuch as it focused on the Cherokee. In the summer between my first and second years of coursework I had the pleasure of meeting Blair Rudes, who kindly made available to me a copy of Hewitt’s 1887 manuscript which firmly established the genetic links between Cherokee and the Northern Iroquoian languages. That fall my H500 instructor Ray DeMallie was gracious enough to allow me to do my centerpiece biographical project on Hewitt rather than a Boasian. It was during this assignment that I first encountered the prevailing perception of Hewitt as a lazy writer who failed to live up to his initial promise.

I began to develop a nascent interest in Iroquoian Studies while still in residence at IUB. I can remember how checking out a book on Huron settlement pattern studies led me to check out a book on the Onondaga settlement sequence which led me to a dissertation on the Susquehannock settlement sequence, and how trying to learn more about the possible Iroquoian identity of the Meherrin led me to the published report of a dig at a Nottoway site. There was soon a stack of library books and a queue of ILL requests the extent of which I would be a little embarrassed to admit to.

In the autumn of 2008 I relocated to western Massachusetts near the New York State line. This has provided me the privilege of traveling some in the Haudenosaunee homeland, and my interest in comparative Iroquoian research deepened all the more. Without going too inside baseball, let me just say that there is a lot there, and not only in the form of primary data to assimilate. It’s a truism that data is never independent of models and theories, and nowhere is this truism truer than in the case of Iroquoianists.

Iroquoianists are somewhat unusual in the rate at which their original research is problem oriented and in which their results are interpreted and reported in light of past syntheses. At its best, this lends a feeling of coherence and a feeling of participation within a community of the likeminded. At its worst, it runs the risk of groupthink built on a foundation of unexamined first principles. As an example, Iroquoianists have a tendency to use the terms “lineage” and “clan segment” interchangeably, and thereby hangs the going theory of Iroquoian social evolution. I can imagine Hewitt, a comparativist by nature who found himself going to work every day at one of the world’s great storehouses of ethnological knowledge, feeling the weight of making sense of a mass of data and understanding the work it would take to address the inadequacy of prevailing theories each and every time he wrote anything of consequence.

Five Nations of the Iroquois
The Noses—a water gap on the Mohawk River—form the eastern door of the Haudenosaunee Longhouse. Once a scholar walks into the room that is Iroquoian Studies there is a tremendous amount of material with which to come to terms. (Photo by Matthew T. Bradley, 22 June 2010.)

Perhaps I read too much of myself into Hewitt, but when I turned to my H500 project as a source for this post I felt that the years in-between the two helped me understand his career trajectory. His publication record looks much more impressive read with the eyes of an Iroquoianist than it did read with the eyes of a novitiate student with narrow research interests.

Suggestions for further research

John Swanton’s obituary (“John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt.” American Anthropologist, n.s., 40, no. 2 (April–June 1938): 286–90 + pl. 5. doi:10.1525/aa.1938.40.2.02a00090) provides the foundation for Tooker and Graymont’s excellent Histories of Anthropology Annual article. At least two stones do remain unturned, though, and it is with them that I close.

Material culture collection work. I am aware that Hewitt collected material culture items in the course of his BAE field work, though I do not know the extent of this work nor its relation to his text collection. Perhaps an unpublished collections report exists. If not, the compilation of such a report would seem a most worthwhile contribution to our knowledge of Hewitt’s career, as well as to the history of the Iroquois people and to BAE institutional history.

Possible mental health issues. I raise this possibility with the caveat that diagnosis at a distance should always be received with a grain of salt. I certainly do not mean to pathologize Hewitt or his work. It’s just that in learning more about him and his life that a few things jumped out at me. The fact that they co-occur over the course of Hewitt’s life course strikes me as more suggestive than their mere presence alone.

  1. Hewitt’s justly earned reputation for meticulousness may have been at least partly attributable to OCD. I don’t deny that his perfectionism may also have due, in whole or in part, to some “software” issues. He may simply not have bought into a good enough mother model of manuscript preparation.
  2. After the death of his first wife, Hewitt suffered three nervous breakdowns. The first was of ten days’ duration, and the latter two persisted for two months a piece. It is certainly possible that these episodes were entirely the psychological outcome of the grieving and bereavement process. In the context of nos. 1 & 3 here I do wonder, however.
  3. After Hewitt’s own death, his work space was found to harbor numerous BAE archival and library materials that he had not properly checked out. Again, this may simply indicate a privileged attitude on the part of a senior employee. On the other hand, it may also be indicative of the sort of hoarding sometimes tied to OCD.


1. William N. Fenton, Iroquois journey: an anthropologist remembers. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 46–47.

2. Regna Darnell, Invisible genealogies: a history of Americanist anthropology, Vol. 1 in Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

3. I.e., Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. In two parts, BAE Bulletin 30 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1907, 1910).

Select bibliography

Curtain, Jeremiah, and John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt, collectors. “Seneca fiction, legends, and myths,” edited by John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. In Thirty-second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1910–11, 37–813. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1918.

Hewitt, John Napoleon Brinton. “The Cheroki an Iroquoian Language. A Critical Study and Comparison of Ethymologies, words, sentence words, phrase-forms and conjugations common to the Cherokian and Iroquoian tongues to establish their common origin.” Manuscript 447, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Suitland, Md., July and August 1887.

———. “Polysynthesis in the languages of the American Indians.” American Anthropologist, o.s., A6, no. 4 (October 1893): 381–408. doi:10.1525/aa.1893.6.4.02a00050.

———. “Iroquoian cosmology, first part.” In Twenty-first Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1899–1900, 127–339 + pl. LXIV–LXIX. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1903.

———. “Iroquoian cosmology, second part.” In Forty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1925–26, 449–819. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1928.

Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz: an account of his experiences among fur traders and American Indians on the Mississippi and the upper Missouri Rivers during the years 1846 to 1852. Translated by Myrtis Jarrell and edited by John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 115. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1937.

Rudes, Blair A. Tuscarora–English/English–Tuscarora dictionary. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

3 thoughts on “J. N. B. Hewitt, Iroquois Americanist (SMNAB 1)

  1. A lovely and informative piece. I couldn’t keep a smile from my face as I read,

    “His work output was something of the flip side of the academic whose prolific publication record is riddled with errors, short on detail, and long on repetition.”

    That is, of course, why his work will be recalled and reused long after the work of all but the most brilliant theorists has been relegated to history’s dustbin.

  2. If you had about 10-15 of these characters and made the narratives chapter length you would have a very fine book that I would eagerly press into the hands of every American Indian Studies scholar. Thanks for educating me about a figure I knew nothing about. Looking forward to the next installment in the series!

    And kudos for including the DOI for the AA piece. This is the new standard that we should all be striving towards.

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