A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Eccentric nineteenth-century scholar Constantine Rafinesque composes a Native American epic
According to the 19th-century scholar Constantine Rafinesque, an ancient Lenape (Delaware) Indian tradition preserved the memory of the tribe crossing the frozen Bering Strait from Asia into America thousands of years ago. Rafinesque said his source, which he translated himself, was the Walam Olum or "Red Record," a bundle of wooden plaques engraved and painted with supposed Lenape symbols. It told how the Lenape entered the New World, overcame a Midwestern mound building people, and continued eastward, giving rise to the Algonquian-speaking tribes.
But there are gaps in Rafinesque's story. He claimed that he got the plaques in 1822 from a Dr. Ward, who had received them two years earlier from a Delaware patient. (The physician is not traceable in any historical source.) The symbols each stood for a verse in the Lenape epic, and Rafinesque said that he obtained the actual 183 verses two years later (from whom is unknown). Rafinesque published his translation in his 1836 book The American Nations, but the wooden plaques were lost (Rafinesque doesn't say how).
Many people believed Indians were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel and that the mounds were built by a vanished non-Indian race. Scholars saw the Walam Olum as evidence corroborating an Asian origin for Native Americans, as Rafinesque maintained. There were some doubts about the Walum Olam's authenticity, but it was republished in 1849 and a new translation came out in 1885.
The 1950s were a turning point. A study of the Walum Olam funded by pharmaceutical magnate and amateur archaeologist Eli Lilly (a staunch believer) gave it a passing grade and produced another translation. But the study revealed how problematic the Walum Olam was, and some prominent archaeologists began rejecting it. Carbon dating, newly developed, further called it into question. Rafinesque's timeframe for the Bering Strait crossing, based on the legend, put it about 3,600 years ago, while carbon dating placed it at least 12,000 years ago. Still, many scholars took the Walam Olum as genuine, if historically inaccurate.
While Stephen Williams in Fantastic Archaeology (1991) condemned it as a hoax, concluding the painted sticks and pictographs never existed, no definitive debunking appeared. It was up to David Oestricher to reveal how and why Rafinesque concocted the Walam Olum. Oestricher went to the right sources, Rafinseque's original papers and the Delaware themselves, and presented his results in his 1995 Rutgers University doctoral dissertation and in a popular article in Natural History in 1996.
Oestricher asked elderly Lenape in Oklahoma about the Walam Olum. They told him they had heard of it only recently, from anthropologists and archaeologists, and "found its text puzzling and often incomprehensible." Oestricher reviewed the translation with Lucy Parks Blalock (born in 1906, she was fluent in Lenape). They found many problems with it, such as the inclusion of English idioms that did not exist in Lenape. In the original manuscript, Oestricher found that Rafinesque had repeatedly crossed out Lenape words, replacing them with ones that better matched his English "translation." In fact, the English was written first, and then translated into Lenape.
If not an original Lenape epic, where did the tale come from? The story line resembles one in Rafinesque's Ancient History, or Annals of Kentucky (1824), which says the Lenape were a refugee group fleeing after the fall of "Oghuzian Empire." Driven into northeast Asia, they crossed the frozen Bering Strait into North America, overcame a powerful tribe and passed east over the Mississippi, and eventually arrived at the Delaware Bay area.
For the language, Rafinesque drew on the works of Moravian missionaries, specifically an 1827 grammar and an 1834 word list. But mixed in with genuine Lenape words were others borrowed by Rafinesque from other Indian languages, Aztec, and even Chinese. The symbols were likewise mixed: Ojibwa, Egyptian, ancient Chinese, and Maya. Rafinesque had apparently added other symbols in order to linguistically link the Lenape to Asia, substantiating his own theory about the origins of Native Americans.
Oestricher notes mistakes Rafinesque made in using his sources. He lists 25 chiefs by name, taking them from the 1834 word list. But Oestricher says Lenape custom is that names are never used by two people, living or deceased. Rafinesque even copied typographical errors in sources into his own manuscript.
Why the faking? Stephen Williams labels Rafinesque "complex" and "erratic and difficult" but "not insane." He notes Rafinesque's breadth of knowledge, and publications in many fields, ranging from a 248-page epic poem to a 300-page monograph on Ohio River fishes. Oestricher believes he might have been inspired by, and reacting to, the 1830 claim by Joseph Smith, founder of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of finding golden plates inscribed in Egyptian and saying Indians and Mound Builders were the descendants of Israelites. Passionate in his belief that Indians were of Asian origin, Rafinesque had denounced it as a hoax. But he equally could have been reacting to Josiah Priest, who, in his highly popular American Antiquities (1833), described archaeological and linguistic evidence across the continent for the Lost Tribes of Israel, Romans, Scandinavians, Egyptians, Welsh, and others. Priest drew Rafinesque's ire by taking his research and using it to support these wild claims.
Perhaps, says Oestricher, lack of money played a role. Rafinesque had entered a competition, with a substantial cash prize, sponsored by the Royal Institute of France. He submitted in October 1834 an essay about the Lenape language with no mention of the Walum Olam, despite his supposedly having studied it more than a decade. But in December he sent in a supplement--the Walum Olam. It appears that he composed it only after acquiring a copy of the 1834 word list.
The Walam Olum demonstrates the damage that hoaxes and fakes can inflict. Not only were scholars duped, but also many decades later younger Lenape, who cannot read or speak Lenape, had, according to Oestricher, "eagerly seized upon [the Walam Olum] as a glorious remnant of their culture." But Rafinesque had simply invented it--whether to promote his view of Native American origins or to win a handsome cash prize. Despite his significant scholarly achievements, he let his own beliefs or financial need override his scruples.