John Russell Bartlett

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John Russell Bartlett : biography

October 23, 1805 – May 28, 1886

John Russell Bartlett (October 23, 1805 – May 28, 1886) was an American historian and linguist.


Bartlett was born in Providence, Rhode Island. From his first to his eighteenth year he lived in Kingston, Canada; he was then in turn, from 1824 to 1836, a clerk in a dry goods store, a book-keeper and a bank cashier at Providence, and for more than ten years after 1836 he was a bookseller in New York City, returning to Providence in 1850.

In 1850–1853 he was the commissioner on the part of the United States for the survey of the boundary between the United States and Mexico, but owing to the lack of funds did not finish the work. During this time he traveled with Henry Cheever Pratt throughout the Southwest. The autoethnonym of the Seri people of northwestern Mexico, Comcaac (which he wrote as "komkak"), was first recorded by Bartlett during a short visit to the area in early 1852. The word was included in the list of approximately 180 words that Bartlett archived in the Bureau of American Ethnology (now part of the National Anthropological Archives, housed at the Smithsonian).

After being superseded by another commissioner upon the accession of President Franklin Pierce, he published A Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua (2 vols., 1854), which, contains much valuable scientific and historical material concerning the south-west. In 1842, he joined ethnologist and public servant Albert Gallatin in founding the American Ethnological Society. He is chiefly remembered however, for his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), a pioneering work which, although supplanted by later dialect studies, is still of value to students of language and remains a valuable contribution to the subject. The work is referenced frequently by the Oxford English Dictionary in which it is given the abbreviation "BARTLETT Dict. Amer."

From 1855 to 1872 he was Secretary of State of Rhode Island, and while serving in this capacity thoroughly re-arranged and classified the state records and prepared various bibliographies and compilations, relating chiefly to the history of the state. He was for several years librarian of the John Carter Brown library and collated an exhaustive catalogue which was published in four volumes. He died in Providence on May 28, 1886.


John Russell Bartlett should not be confused with John Bartlett, publisher of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.