On July 4th, Americans will celebrate the 239th anniversary of their nation’s independence from Great Britain. And like many other historical world events, interpreters were key in making it happen. This is in large part due to the collaboration between the colonies and the native tribes during the revolution, though interpreters for languages such as French and German were also elemental. Here are just a few figures whose interpreting ability aided American independence.
As a young man, James Dean (no relation to cinema icon) was sent to live amongst the Oneida, a people of the Iriqouis Confederacy. He quickly and skillfully learned their language, along with other Iriquois tongues, and became an interpreter for the Patriots during the war. He also played a large part in negotiating land deals between the Native Americans and the colonists.
Haym Salomon, born in Poland, immigrated to America and worked as a financial broker in New York City while financing the Revolution. He was captured by the British and was pardoned because of his ability to interpret for the German-speaking troops that sided with the British. Ever the Patriot, he used this opportunity to free prisoners captured by the British and persuade German troops to desert.
The son of an interpreter, John Montour carried on his father’s legacy. This was facilitated by the fact that his mother was Delaware, a tribe native to the Delaware Valley. In 1778, Montour lived with the Wyandot in the Sandusky River Valley. Having this connection with the Wyandot allowed the Americans to cross their territory and march against the British in Detroit. His ability to communicate with Native American tribes proved instrumental before, during, and after the revolution, even if his loyalties wavered.
James Lovell was a member of Congress and the Committee of Secret Correspondence, a committee assembled to gain French aid during the revolution. He acted as an interpreter for the French officers arriving in Philadelphia, the seat of the Second Continental Congress.
Apart from being the Secretary of the Treasury during the Washington administration and decorating the American ten dollar bill, Alexander Hamilton served as George Washington’s French interpreter. With France as an ally, transparent communication was crucial.