October 31


“Cut up and salt away beef. Take proof of 1st form.” Thus reads the entry for this date in 1835 in the journal of the Rev. Jotham Meeker, printer to the Baptist mission at Shawanoe in the Indian Territory, in what later became the state of Kansas.

Jotham Meeker was apprenticed to the trade in Cincinnati in the early 1820’s. Shortly after hearing an address in his local church by Robert Simerwell, a missionary to the Indians in the wilds of Michigan, the young printer received a call to missionary work and journeyed to Michigan in 1825 to work with the Potawatomies. Here he became interested in the Indian language, a study which was to continue all his life.

While in Michigan, Meeker was licensed to preach the gospel, but in 1831 he found it necessary to give up missionary work to return to printing in order to support his wife and mother. The following year, however, he was again prevailed to resume his mission at Sault Ste. Marie, where he remained until ordered by the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions to proceed to the Indian Territory and to organize a press with which to print and distribute the literature needed to win the favor of the Indians.

Meeker purchased a used Seth Adams press in Cincinnati, along with all the necessary types and equipment for a printing office. These he ordered to be shipped to the Shawanoe mission station. There on Mach 8, 1834 he printed the Shawanoe Hymn, the first recorded printing in the Territory.

Throughout his career as a printer and missionary, Meeker was intensely interested in the establishment of an Indian orthography by which the native Americans could more quickly assimilate the language of the white man. Meeker’s approach to this system was to devise written or printed characters to represent certain positions of the organs of speech. Every uncompounded sound which could be distinguished by the ear was indicated by a character. In the Indian languages most of these sounds were what would be considered vowel sounds. Since Meeker used ordinary English characters, special types did not have to be devised for the written language.


The hardships of conducting a pioneer printing office may be noted from Meeker’s journal in which he faithfully recorded the events of his life. On January 18, 1841 he wrote that he had translated all day but that the ink was freezing, making writing difficult. On November 8 he wrote that he was 37 years of age that day, had completed the translation of Matthew’s Gospel and had printed part of it. On the 9th he observed that he had received some manuscript sheets “almost destroyed by mice—must spend some days in writing them over.”

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