the picture name

The time has come to talk of the picture-name of the Delaware chief, Wingymund, who drew it on a tree according to his companion at the siege of Fort Pitt, Chief White Eyes. A report of this tree reached England in 1880 thanks to Nicholas Creswell, an Englishman in the colonies who drew the tree-drawing of Wingymund and copied down a (somewhat garbled) account of its reading by White Eyes.

Wingymund’s tree-drawing as we see it today has been shot through with confusions and distractions; it is a challenge to even arrive at Nicholas’ original copy of the drawing, while the original is now lost (even its location is unclear). Nevertheless, long pondering of the various versions of the drawing and different explanations, alongside research into the Indian wars associated with Pontiac, establish certain facts about the tree-drawing, and one of those pretty certain conclusions is that this strange symbol is more or less a fair reproduction of Wingymund’s own mark.

I wish to understand whether this sign is an equivalent of the alphabetic letters that spell the sound of the name, a half-way house to a word made of letters, or something other than prototype writing. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately for the digression, we can only approach the whole problem by way of the accidental debris of history that has piled up around Nicholas’ original copy. Partly for this reason I approach Wingymund’s own sign by way of the singularly interesting take on his tree-drawing by the great, late-Victorian comparative philologist, Isaac Taylor. Of the five or six takes on this picture we have pulled out of the learned journals, Taylor’s reading is head and shoulders above any other, including (and especially the nincompoop) Nicholas Creswell. Most curious for our inquiry, however, Taylor explains all the other details of the tree-drawing but inexplicably fails to mention the queer sign that means Wingymund.

What did Taylor dislike about this sign that caused him to walk carefully through Wingymund’s drawing yet pass over in silence just this pictorial proper name?

Part of the answer, I think, is that he simply wanted to bypass any likely dispute with the philosophers. Does a picture that is a proper name follow the same rules of meaning as spoken proper names and proper names written with letters? According to the English philosophers J.S. Mill this would give the picture-name the status of a ‘meaningless mark’, while (his godson) Bertrand Russell would have us read the picture-name as one or more definite propositions (many but not all of which we would read from the rest of the picture).

This picture-name is a detail on a bigger picture, which we know from the reproduction in print of a sketch drawn in a notepad of a drawing on a tree in Ohio. Here is the first printed reproduction (which, we now know, is by no means an exact reproduction of the original sketch).

For me, looking at this late 18th century printed account of Wingymund’s drawing is shocking because I have discovered it to be half-forgery. Some 16 decades after its composition Nicholas’ journal was published, and Yotam and I found within it a reproduction in print of the drawing made in the journal in Ohio. Nicholas’ original drawing is different in certain details from the one above, as even more so is the key provided to the various picture elements. 

A word, then, on transmission. When looking at the various print versions of the picture while trying to imagine the original drawing on the tree we are from the first confronted with what seems to be a genuine drawing (made i think in front of the tree) and a confused explanation written up later in the day when Nicholas had come down with a fever. But I think this root problem began in the morning when Nicholas stopped paying attention to the explanation of Captain White Eyes.

Nicholas Creswell – a young man out of sympathy with revolutionary colonial sentiment and enamored with the native fairy-story he enters down river of Fort Pitt – evidently lost attention by the time Chief White Eyes arrived at the sun – from this point his explanation is garbled and then at the end lucid but lacking key details. External evidence (published testimonies of others) establish that White Eyes was with Wingymund at the siege of Fort Pitt and while Nicholas knows that the picture at the center is an English fort attacked by the Indians he does not know it to be Fort Pitt).

A nastier turn than Nicholas’ daydream soon enters in London. William Bray, an older associate of Creswell with ambition for scholarly reputation, persuaded Nicholas to draw the picture for him, pressed him to make up the bits he had not been listening to, and published as a letter to a learned journal the note on ‘Indian picture-writing’ the first page of which is seen above.

But these distractions and distortions and straight bullshit, which unleash a curious story of 19th-century reception, only enter the drawing with the third sign, the sun. The meaning of the first two signs – the tortoise and the queer sign that is a proper name – were clearly seen by Nicholas.


ExordiumI came upon this personal mark unexpectedly, while reading the opening chapters of The Alphabet (2 vols. 1883) by the great Anglican comparative philologist of the 19th century, Isaac Taylor.

Isaac Taylor is the subject of this exordium. It begins, though, with Archibald Sayce, the Welsh student of Max Müller at Oxford who built a library on an Egyptian faluca and wrote books about ancient Babylon, Egypt, and the archaeology of the Old Testament while sailing up and down the Nile. The Rev. Sayce is a stepping stone to the Cambridge educated and future Canon of York Cathedral, the (scandalously) liberal churchman, Isaac Taylor.

And here, if you will excuse me, I swivel for a moment to the great beast that lurks deep in the mine that is Tolkien Studies, which I call here National Socialism. Tom Shippey long ago pointed out that what Tolkien was was a great Germanic philologist, and then put the cat back in the bag by framing the significance of this discipline in terms of some ivory tower squabbles between academic students of ‘literature’ and ‘language.’ And everyone ever since has been content to let the cat stay in this drab bag because letting out this cat compels you to use the word Aryan.

If you want to speak about Tolkien as a scholar you must know how to handle this word, which state of the art term was the great contribution to western culture of the discipline of 19th-century comparative philology. And if you wish to use this word fittingly I suggest that you must master the story that Isaac Taylor tells in his The Origin of the Aryans (1890). If you read his book on what we today would call ‘the aryan paradigm shift’ you will even read differently JRRT’s lecture English and Welsh.

Why does Taylor introduce Wingymund’s tree-drawing into his earlier book on The Alphabet?

Taylor was a liberal Anglican and enamored with a vision of ‘evolution’ as revealed by the comparative method.  The history of the alphabet as he tells it is a story of myriad beginnings in all human communities, a full step to an alphabet taken already in ancient Egypt but the revolutionary discarding all the old cumbersome picture writing and reliance upon only an alphabet was a step taken once in history, by ‘an ancient Semitic people’ (who, Taylor does not stop to say, made the revolution manifest with what Christians call the Old Testament) and – as his two volumes spell out in great and subtle detail, all known alphabets (he published in 1883) descend from this ancient Semitic alphabet (which contains some relationship to the older Egyptian letters).

A fascinating story that does not seem to explain why Taylor reproduces Wingymund’s picture from the great 6 volume history of the native American tribes of Henry Schoolcraft. He does so because he wants to see in the drawing a first evolutionary step, namely from rude pictures of objects (or animals, as he takes the recently discovered cave paintings of France to reveal) to a concept. The concept that Taylor finds in one detail is not the proper name of the artist and chief actor (he singularly does not mention this element) but rather the tortoise, the first element of the diagram given, it seems from Nicholas’ report, by Chief White Eyes —

— who is the only person in this picture who knew what the tree-drawing signified (Nicholas was with Mr Anderson, a white Indian trader, and Nancy, an Indian woman who had become attached to Nicholas at a campfire a few nights back. It may well be that Nicholas was thinking about Nancy when White Eyes was talking about the sun, but my sense is that both Nancy and Mr. Anderson would have been more lucid reporters of what White Eyes explained than Nicholas Creswell.

Still, Nicholas in his journal recorded the tortoise as the clan to which Wingemund and his war party belonged and as such the tortoise entered print in Archeologia in 1880 and so it was recorded by Schoolcraft around 1856, whose very reproduction of the drawing gave it a credibility its more lucid readers found unfathomable. Taylor was quite right to regard everything Schoolcraft reported about the drawing as dubious, but as a matter of fact what he said about the tortoise was surely correct.

Taylor says it means ‘safety’ or ‘home again’; the last chapter of The Hobbit, and that this queer sign is in fact an IDEOGRAM – the first step of a universal tendency of cultural evolution that will eventually, if astonishingly rarely, culminate in the almost magical invention of an alphabet.

All the 19th-century commentators took the drawing – and key – from Schoolcraft. He gave a seal of north American authority to an English fraud. In the 1880s there is a reaction of sorts. One anthropologist declares the whole drawing a fraud (a too sweeping rejection, I am certain). Another, Schoolcraft’s Boston editor, reproduced the drawing in a book for young folks but doctored the picture in light of Schoolcraft’s own doctoring of the key.

Meanwhile in England, Taylor has the singular merit of seeing that: (i) the picture itself was (more or less) genuine; and (ii) the  key given by Schoolcraft was largely bunk. Given what we can now read in Nicholas’ journal we know that Taylor still threw out one baby in the bathwater, but the speculations that he sets out as authoritative reading concerning those parts of the picture in which Nicholas was not paying attention are insightful and ingenious and perhaps as near to the truth as we are likely to get.

This is not the time to enter into Taylor’s reading of the rest of the picture. What concerns us now is the baby he threw out and the picture-name he passes over, which actions are I suspect related.

But first a confession. What arrested me when I first read Taylor’s chapter was his identification of the tortoise (or turtle) as an ideogram, and as such, in his scheme, evidence of the first step from pictures of things (as complex as a day, drawn by passages of the sun) to signs the appearance of which bears an apparently arbitrary relationship to their meaning.

The tortoise, declares Taylor, means ‘home again’ or ‘safety’ and is apparently similar to others found in the pages of Schoolcraft. When I read this my mind wandered long in dreams of writing the story of The Hobbit on a tree, with this tortoise connoting the end of the story – the hobbit back in his hobbit-hole.

I never managed to draw the story on a tree and, in any case, soon discovered that Taylor had simply made this up. Everyone else agrees, from Nicholas Creswell on, that the tortoise is the sign or totem of one of the three main Delaware clans.

At which point my sense of what a comparative philologist writing a book on the evolution of The Alphabet was doing was pulled from under my feet. After a long trawl, the better part taken in the company of my son, Yotam, in which we discovered Nicholas’ journal had been published, my feet are steady again. With this picture what Taylor was doing was quite reasonable given that the key passed down in these English publications was half bullshit. In fact, kudos to Taylor for spotting the bullshit without the aid of Creswell’s journal, which was only published 4 decades later.

But I still don’t get all of it. The (correct) key to the tortoise picture is given by Schoolcraft, it means a clan of the people. Schoolcraft also gives the (correct) key to the abstract squiggle that means the chief, Wingymund. Taylor appears to accept this second key because he mentions the Delaware chief Wingemund in his text, but his own explanation of the tree-drawing passes over this (and only this) sign. Taylor says nothing about Wingymund’s sign.

It seems that names are not sufficient for Taylor to hail an evolutionary step. He dismissed the common name (Tortoise Clan) offered by Schoolcraft and passes over any discussion of the proper name of the warrior-artist. An ideogram as Taylor has it, means something more than a name, it is more like a proposition, a sentence, a statement. His idea of the alphabet is that writing began with pictures and an evolutionary magic pulled letters out of pictures by way of hieroglyphs and syllable-signs. The process begins with a queer picture of a proposition, which generates the first sign that looks like a picture but is not, a mark that does not mean what it appears to show. I find this quite mind-blowing but also suspect that the picture-name upsets this vision of the evolution of picture-writing. The sign that means someone is surely primitive and remains so today (ideas change but names are names).

i think Taylor did not like the first two signs that Captain White Eyes read to Nicholas Creswell, reading from left to right: Tortoise and Queer Sign of the actor and artist. He  did not like them because pictures that meant nouns (common or private) did not fit his vision of the evolution of a picture of a scene into a written sentence.


Before continuing to Ali Baba’s house another word on Wingymund is in order because his is a proper name as highly charged as any in North American history.

He appears as a wise old Indian in the writings of a colonel the revolutionary army sent to talk peace with the Ohio tribes in the early years of the Revolution, and as such and more he appears in a novel written a century ago. But when the forts of Detroit and Pitt became, respectively, British and American outposts, the Ohio lands between them had of necessity take sides. White Eyes again took up against the British, but Wingymund now took up cause with the British against the Americans. This border strife among the Delaware is the context of a massacre of the Moravian Indians, which some months later spelled the horrific execution of Colonel Crawfurd, a lurid account of which was soon published into which crept the name of Wingemund. What North American culture appears unable to swallow is the testimony of the Moravian missionary among the Delaware, Heckewelder, who used a chapter on ‘friendship’ in his book on the Delaware to underline the nobleness of Wingemund’s role in the death of his one time friend, Crawfurd.

As with Nicholas’ unfortunate daydream and Bray’s underhand pressure to fabricate, this side of Wingemund’s story is only indirectly relevant to an inquiry into the proper name that is a drawing. The patriotism of Heckewelder has no bearing on the second sign that Chief White Eyes appears to have explained to Nicholas.

The whole Crawford business has a bearing, I suspect, only in that it does much to explain why even today Schoolcraft’s (or later versions of) version of the drawing still circulate together with the – fairly obvious – smudges he passed on in the textual key and nobody in the academic world has (yet) taken the golden opportunity of telling a tale of scholarly dastardliness and subsequent daydreaming and false scepticism and fantasy.


Stout, a philosophical psychologist of Edwardian Cambridge,says the mark on Ali Baba’s door has the same kind of significance as the shape of the knight on the chess board. The mark on Ali Baba’s door is said by J.S. Mill to be analogous to a proper name. Does this mean that Wingymund’s mark has meaning in similar fashion to the shape of the knight?