Thursday, September 15, 2016

One Immigrant's Biography Touches on America's Polyglot History

Albert Sieber was born 27 February 1843 in what is today Bad Schönborn, Baden, Germany. His father died when he was two, and, in 1851, his mother, Eva, brought her eight children to the United States, possibly fleeing conditions resulting from the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848-1849, which threw the German Confederation into turmoil. Sieber grew up in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, speaking German with his family and English with their American-born neighbors.

In 1862, he joined the First Minnesota Infantry and fought in the American Civil War. He was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. After the war, he prospected for gold in California and Nevada, and then managed a ranch in Arizona, which became his home state for the rest of his life, although he spent some time in other states and in Mexico. He learned to speak Spanish as well as three native languages including Apache.

In 1871, he was made Chief of Scouts under U.S. Army General George Stoneman. He fought against Apaches and other tribes for the next fifteen years. In the early 1880s, he met fellow scout Tom Horn (1860-1903). Some sources say that Sieber taught Horn to speak German, while others say that Horn grew up in an area in Missouri where he had already learned the language from German immigrants. What does seem to be certain is that the two men frequently spoke German with each other and that Horn also became fluent in Spanish and Apache. The two interpreters were instrumental in negotiating the surrenders of several chiefs including Geronimo (who, BTW, is said to have been fluent in Spanish).

As well as occasionally helping to track down outlaws, Sieber was often called upon to find Apaches who had left reservations. Although Sieber dutifully fought against and arrested Apaches, he also developed a deep respect for them. In 1890, he was discharged from government service after he protested the mistreatment of Apaches at the San Carlos (Arizona) Reservation.

After a fruitless return to prospecting, Sieber went into the construction business and became supervisor to a road crew made up of Apaches. He was crushed by a boulder during a construction project on 19 February 1907 and was buried in Globe, Arizona.

This story reminds us that, although we tend to think of American society as relentlessly monolingual, most of American history has been characterized by contact between different cultures and languages. Notably, the languages of the native inhabitants of the Americas had to be dealt with by all of the first explorers and immigrants from Europe. I happen to have an elementary history textbook from 1867, which spends far more time on the native population than the history books I was raised on. It was deemed important, before the frontier closed at the end of the nineteenth century, to know who and where the Indians were.

In addition to Native Americans, the Americas were divided up between different European colonial powers including Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal. British settlers in North America especially came into contact with French speakers. As the United States pushed into Florida, Texas and the southwestern territories, Spanish quickly became important. This is to say nothing of the waves of immigrants, first from Germany and later from many other lands, who made the largest American cities sing with the sounds of other languages. (New Orleans, Louisiana still recognizes its heritage of Spanish, French, Afro-Caribbean and even German immigration.)



It was only a relatively brief period in the twentieth century when a majority of Americans settled into the complacency of not feeling a need to learn a foreign language. (With roots in the nineteenth century; see John Dewey and James Garfield.) That era has ended in the present century. We have many more non-English speakers flooding into the United States, and, like it or not, our connections to the rest of the world are becoming closer than ever. All for good and ill.


Addendum: American Presidents and Foreign Language Study


George Washington was monolingual and had reason to regret it. As a young officer fighting for the British against the French, he was forced to sign a treaty that was written in French. He could not understand the document but his own interpreter assured him that it was acceptable. He signed it and later found out that he had admitted to British atrocities against the French. His military career was on hiatus for several years as a result of the incident.


John Adams only knew classical languages, principally Latin. He was at a disadvantage when he went to Europe as a kind of ambassador-at-large during the American Revolution. He did not speak French or Dutch, and that made it difficult for him to achieve agreements with these needed allies. He was jealous of Benjamin Franklin whose command of French made him more popular at the French Court.


Thomas Jefferson spoke French and Italian and could read at least five other languages.


James Madison studied modern and classical languages, including Hebrew.


Most college educated presidents had to learn a foreign language, most often Latin.


John Quincy Adams, son of John, spoke French and other languages fluently, which came in handy in his successful stint as secretary of state before he became president.


Martin van Buren was descended from Dutch settlers, and, surprisingly, since his ancestors had been in New York since colonial times, van Buren still spoke some Dutch, which he had learned from his parents.


Abraham Lincoln only knew a few Latin phrases that were necessary for his legal work. He once wrote that, on the frontier where he grew up, anyone who knew Latin was looked upon as some sort of wizard.


West Point graduates such as Ulysses S. Grant were all required to study French, but some were better at it than others. I do not know how well Grant or other West Pointers who became president did in foreign languages.



James Garfield was the second president to be assassinated in office and never lived long enough to make an impression on history, but his other occupation was in education. As a member of the board of trustees of Hiram College in Ohio, he steered the curriculum away from classical subjects and more toward a peculiarly American-centric curriculum in which foreign languages, especially classical ones, were de-emphasized. This was paradoxical because Garfield himself had taught Latin, Greek and German.



Although Harry Truman did not attend college, he had four years of Latin in high school.



Jimmy Carter read the Bible in Spanish as well as English.



The above list is not exhaustive. Any college graduate in an earlier era had to at least attempt a foreign language, and Woodrow Wilson, the only president who earned a Ph.D., had to have studied several languages and to have mastered at least one foreign language. (German?)

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