Pieces of Our Past
March 1, 2013
Artifact: Ojibwe-English Dictionary
Size: 8.0 x 12.75 x 2.5 inches
Significance: Rev. Ernst G. H. Miessler, a missionary to the Ojibwe people (also known as Chippewa) in Michigan, compiled an Ojibwe-English dictionary in the 1850s with the help of his interpreter. The bound, handwritten dictionary pictured is actually a second revision as the first was destroyed in the great Chicago fire in 1871. Titled “A Dictionary of the Chippiway Language, Part II, Chippiway-English,” the volume has a nine-page introduction in German by Miessler dated 1903.
How the dictionary was compiled: E. G. H. Miessler, having had a passion for mission work since childhood, left Germany in 1851 to serve as an assistant missionary in the Bethany Mission in Michigan. Two years later he was in charge of the mission but encountered a stumbling block: how to teach English to his students without a dictionary available. Thus Miessler, along with his interpreter, James Gruett, began the daunting task of compiling a dictionary in 1853. Using a good English-German dictionary he had, Miessler read the words aloud in English and Gruett supplied the Ojibwe equivalent. Miessler then copied the Ojibwe words followed by their English equivalent into a second part. Next came the task of alphabetizing the Ojibwe words, which he did by cutting them apart word by word and then reassembling them in alphabetical order. The result of this tedious work was a dictionary in two parts: English-Ojibwe and Ojibwe-English. Before arranging the financing needed to publish the dictionary, Miessler came across an already-published dictionary by a Roman Catholic missionary and no longer saw the need to publish his work. Miessler died on March 1, 1916.
For more information about Miessler’s missionary work, please see the Fall 2012 issue of Concordia Historical Institute’s Historical Footnotes.