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Jotham Meeker Papers, 1825-1864

Kansas Historical Society microfilm rolls MS 617 – MS 618



Jotham Meeker was born in Hamilton County, Ohio, November 8, 1804. He received little formal education, but was trained as a printer in Cincinatti for seven years. In 1825 Meeker decided to become a missionary to the Indians of Michigan territory. His first assignment was in Michigan, where he served as a teacher and preacher among the Pottawatomis, the Ottawas, and later the Chippewas. While there, Meeker learned to speak three Native American languages and began experimenting with a phonetic system of Indian orthography.

The phonetic printing devised by Meeker was not an original invention. All other methods, however, used specially designed characters to represent Indian sounds. The advantage of Meeker's system was that by using ordinary type he could print in an Indian language as easily and cheaply as in English. He used only twenty-three letters for translating any of the three languages.

Meeker was sent to Kansas in 1833 by the Board of Baptist Missions. This move followed the decision of the government to transfer the eastern tribes to lands west of the Missouri river, where the more than twenty nations were promised possession "so long as the sun shone, the grass grew and the rivers ran down hill." Meeker was assigned to the Shawnee tribe as a printer-missionary. He set out with his wife and a printing press in September 1833. His expense account lists the following: "Printing apparatus, including transportation, $468.13. . . . In the article of printing apparatus I include $35.00 worth of paper and ink." By February 1834 he had set up the press at the Shawnee Baptist Mission in present Johnson County, Kansas. The following month his first work appeared, a twenty-four page primer in the Delaware language. In all he printed some sixty-five works in ten Indian languages, including a newspaper, the Shawnee Sun. Most of them were of a religious character and all used his phonetic system of printing.

In May 1837 Meeker began his own mission among the Ottawas. In this location, near the present city of Ottawa, Kansas, he and his family devoted themselves to the temporal and spiritual welfare of the Indians for eighteen years. The Shawnee printing plant was moved to the Ottawa mission in 1849 and for a time Meeker resumed printing, producing among other things a code of the Ottawa tribal laws in the native language and in English. Handicapped all his life with recurring illnesses and a slight physique, Meeker died at the Ottawa mission in January 1855. His wife, Eleanor Richardson Meeker and three daughters survived him. Mrs. Meeker remained at the mission for a short time in an attempt to carry on the work but was forced to leave because of her own poor health. Jotham Meeker's influence among the Indians can be seen in the obituary notice that was printed in the Missionary Magazine: "His probity and his interested concern won the most confiding affection of the people. They looked up to him as a father and consulted him on all national concerns; and so single was their trust in him, that they would not receive their money from the government till he had first counted it."

Contents List

Description of the Collection

These papers of Jotham Meeker were presented to the Kansas State Historical Society on November 22, 1886, by Edward Byram, a grandson who lived in Shannon, Kansas. The journals of Jotham Meeker were not filmed with the correspondence on these rolls because at the time of microfilming a separate letterpress publication was intended. Instead, a typescript of his journal, 1832-1855, was filmed as microfilm roll MS 174; see related manuscript collections below.

The arrangement of this collection is chronological. Undated and miscellaneous items follow the dated material. Typed copies of some letters follow the original. They were already included in the collection and are not always true copies. Some have endings and addresses that do not now appear in the manuscripts. The copies were in the collection when it was prepared for microfilming and have been included because of the information they contain.

Targets have been used sparingly, and except for introductory notes no editorial material has been included. Short titles on small pieces of white paper introduce each new series and are easily noticed during rapid winding of the film. Dates supplied by the editors have been bracketed in the upper right-hand portion of letters.

Included for the use of researchers, even though it contains some errors, is a rough draft of a calendar of the Meeker correspondence. This has been filmed at the beginning of each roll of film.

The theme of the correspondence is primarily concerned with Indian missions and related subjects. Particularly informative are the letters between Meeker and such individuals as the Rev. Isaac McCoy, the Rev. Johnston Lykins, and various members of the American Baptist Board of Foreign Missions. The topics range from discussion of the hardships of mission life to Indian removal policies, the building of a transcontinental railroad, and important national affairs affecting the Indians. Life at Carey Baptist Mission in Michigan territory, Thomas Station in Michigan territory, Shawnee Mission in Kansas, and Ottawa Mission, near the present site of Ottawa, Kansas, is reflected through Meeker's annual reports, expense records, and personal letters for the years 1825 through 1854. The collection also contains many personal letters of the Meeker family that portray the hardships of marriage and raising children in a different cultural setting.

Among the miscellaneous items that have been microfilmed with the correspondence are a sample of the sermons written by Jotham Meeker and a forty page, hand-written pamphlet illustrating the phonetic system which he used in writing and printing the Indian languages. A manuscript by Noonday, an Ottawa chief, has been included because it describes a variety of traditions and ceremonies of the Ottawas. The final item of the collection is a brief history of the family of Jotham Meeker's daughter, Maria Meeker Simpson.

Microfilm List

MS 617

Introduction and Calendar

Correspondence and Papers of Jotham Meeker, 1825-1845

MS 618

Introduction and Calendar

Correspondence and Papers of Jotham Meeker, 1846-1864, undated

Sermon of Jotham Meeker

Indian Language and Grammar

"Indian Traditions and Ceremonies," by Noonday, an Ottawa Chief

Brief History of Maria Meeker Simpson and Family

The microfilm of the Jotham Meeker papers may be used in the research room of the Kansas State Historical Society, borrowed through interlibrary loan, or purchased.

Related Records and Collections

Secondary Sources

McCoy, Isaac. History of Baptist Indian Missions. Washington: William M. Morrison, 1840.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. "Pioneer Printing in Kansas." Kansas Historical Quarterly 1 (November 1931): 3-16.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. and Albert H. Allen. Jotham Meeker: Pioneer Printer of Kansas. New York: Eyncourt Press, 1930.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. "The Shawnee Sun: The First Indian-Language Periodical Published in the United States." Kansas Historical Quarterly 2 (November 1932): 339-342. Printed in Shawnee Language by Jotham Meeker at Baptist mission in 1834.

Related Manuscript Collections

MS 1307 - Johnston Lykins Collection


Letters and other papers, undated. Physician, missionary, and Indian agent.

MS 604 - MS 616 Isaac McCoy Collection


Papers, 1808-1874. Correspondence and papers of the Rev. Isaac McCoy, Baptist minister, Indian missionary, surveyor, and author.

MS 756 - Meeker Family, Correspondence & Papers, 1825-1868


Letters of Eleanor Richardson Meeker, Jotham Meeker, and Eliza (Meeker) Keith.

MS 174 - Jotham Meeker, Journal, 1832-1855


An account of Meeker's life as a Baptist minister, Indian missionary, and printer in Kansas. Typescript copy.

This guide and the microfilm it describes were made possible by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

Additional Information for Researchers


The Jotham Meeker papers are the property of the Kansas State Historical Society. Brief quotations are authorized without restriction but publication of any major portion of the material on this film must be approved in writing by an officer of the Society. Literary rights are not owned by the Society and therefore cannot be conveyed.


"Jotham Meeker Papers" (microfilm edition), manuscript division, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka.