SEVERAL Native Americans who journeyed to England during the colonial era have enjoyed scholarly and even popular attention: Manteo, the Roanoke colonists' interpreter-guide; Squanto, the Pilgrims' "spetiall instrument"; Pocahontas, the Virginia colony's fabled and often fictionalized Powhatan princess; and several well-publicized eighteenth-century diplomatic delegates to London, including Tomochichi of the Yamacraws and Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) of the Mohawks. 1 Almost entirely overlooked are many other Indian voyagers to the east, including those from North and South America who crossed the Atlantic between 1584 and 1618 under the direct or indirect aegis of Sir Walter Ralegh. During those thirty-five years, perhaps twenty American natives under his sponsorship were in England to receive instruction in the English language and to impart knowledge useful for colonial enterprises. Most of Ralegh's Indian recruits sooner or later returned to their homelands, where many played key roles in England's early overseas ventures. 1
Because the historical records of late Tudor-early Stuart England are woefully incomplete, sometimes confusing, and occasionally contradictory, no precise enumeration of the Indians under Ralegh's nominal control who traveled to England is possible. A tentative roster includes six or more from Roanoke Island and the lower Chesapeake Bay between1584 and 1603 , of whom only Manteo has received much attention. The stories of twelve or more natives of Guiana and Trinidad who made the journey between1594 and 1618 are barely known, although these diverse and generally long-lived travelers must have been more visible and notable in England than many of the Indians who attract greater historical attention. At least three of the South American natives were from ruling families; one returned home to assume the tribe's leadership at his father's death. Several had extensive stays in London--the longest for fourteen years--often lodging in Ralegh's mansion on the Thames. After returning to their homelands, several English-trained Indians provided crucial aid to later expeditions into Guiana, sometimes saving Englishmen, including Ralegh, from almost certain death. After his incarceration in1603 , two or more Guiana natives attended Ralegh in the Tower of London. The last of the Guianans he took to England witnessed his beheading. By the time King James contrived Ralegh's execution, that swashbuckling knight--far better known to posterity for battling Irishmen and Spaniards than for educating and employing Indians--had initiated and fostered the practice of transporting American natives to England, training them to speak English, introducing them to Anglican Christianity, assuring their return to America, and reaping tangible benefits from their support of England's imperial ventures. 2
Language, Ralegh seems to have recognized from the outset, was an essential instrument of empire.2 Without communication between his explorers and colonists, on the one hand, and the natives of Roanoke and Guiana, on the other, viable English outposts would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to maintain, as would be effective exploration and exploitation of native territory. Ralegh and his linguistically talented friend Thomas Hariot accordingly implemented indoctrination in English speech and customs gentle enough for most of his interpreter-guides to develop lasting loyalty to Sir Walter and his nation. Roanoke native Wanchese excepted, they were not Calibans whose profit from language instruction was knowing how to curse or whose maltreatment inspired rebellion; rather, in both Carolina and Guiana, Ralegh's Indians appear to have been conscientious translators and staunch allies to his own and his agents' subsequent expeditions. Even if, like most adult learners of a second language, his repatriated Indians' facility in English often faded in the absence of opportunities to speak it, they frequently aided the monolingual explorers who later visited their lands. Ralegh and Hariot were proficient schoolmasters.3
Alden T. Vaughan, "Sir Walter Ralegh's Indian Interpreters, 1584–1618," The William and Mary Quarterly April 2002
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I have been lecturing recently on the topic of “Oral History for the Genealogist.” When I get the opportunity, I like to ask my audience to give me their definition for “oral history.” I explain that lexicographers (dictionary compilers) generally create definitions from how the word is used in speech and writing. So, I tell the audience, they either can offer up a dictionary-like definition or give me an example of a genealogist, like themselves, engaging in “family oral history.” In social science research, this kind of definition is called an operational definition. Whether or not formally stated (such as in my little exercise), operational definitions greatly influence how we interpret our sources and our data.
I have received a variety of definitions, one which I want to discuss here. This definition is simply stated as: “Oral history is what you get from family when you ask them to tell you about your ancestors. It helps you find records.” What is interesting about this definition is the embedded assumption that family “oral history” is part of your early research, but has little additional value as your research matures into looking at written records.
I hope to correct a misconception about the “starting with family” advice given to most beginner genealogists. It’s not that I disagree with that advice. I support approaching family early in your research. However, the manner in which this advice is communicated suggests that once you have visited mom, Grandpa Jones or Aunt Mayzie—once you’ve gotten elders tell you the names and vitals of all the ancestors that they can recall—you can contentedly consign your living relatives back to holiday visits and the periodic phone call to catch up on current events. The fact that they might know more about the family genealogy than they initially provided just does not get the attention that I am convinced is warranted.