From English to Algonquian: Early New England Translations




By the late 1630s, English colonists spread themselves across New England, many making their way toward the Connecticut River Valley. Soon, English settlements began to appear along the river, in a part of New England where tensions ran high amongst the Pequot, Narragansett, and Mohegan tribes. While natives traded with the Dutch colony to the south and worked to forge tribal alliances, an increased English presence in Connecticut undermined Indian sovereignty. In an effort to defy subjugation, Pequots in the area attacked English settlements and trade posts. The English responded by capturing nearly two hundred Pequots and killing hundreds more.  

Many native captives of the Pequot War were brought to Boston to be sold into slavery. One of these native captives was a young Montauk man from Long Island named Cockenoe. Cockenoe was made a servant in the home of Richard Callicott of Dorchester, not far from where John Eliot was living in neighboring Roxbury. Cockenoe and Eliot met in the 1640s, at which point Cockenoe—who had already learned the English language before being brought to Massachusetts—became Eliot’s first native interpreter. Eliot reveals the importance of his relationship with Cockenoe in his Indian Grammar (1666), in which he describes Cockenoe as

A pregnant witted young man, who had been a Servant in an English house, who pretty well understood our Language, better then [sic] he could speak it, and well understood his own Language, and hath a clear pronunciation: Him I made my Interpreter. By his help I translated the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and many Texts of Scripture: also I compiled both Exhortations and Prayers by his help. I diligently marked the difference of their Grammar from ours; when I found the way of them, I would pursue a Word, a Noun, a Verb, through all variations I could think of. And thus I came at it.

Though their relationship lasted less than a decade, Cockenoe helped Eliot learn the native’s language and helped him produce the first-ever works printed in that language.