History Timeline 1800s

Indian petroglyphs mentioned in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Nemaha River, Troy, Kansas. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Historic New Orleans wharf scene along the Mississippi River. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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  • 1806 Detail

    1806 - Noah Webster publishes his first American English dictionary.

    Noah Webster


    It was known, in full, as the "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," and boasted that it included more than five hundred words never before added to any other English compends amongst a total of thirty-seven thousand words. This was, the first American English dictionary, penned by Noah Webster, albeit not the first English dictionary. It is acknowledged, by some, or even most, that the first English book regarded as a dictionary was authored by Robert Cawdrey, Church of England clergy and schoolmaster, in 1604. And that Cawdrey text used words gathered together before, by Richard Mulcaster and Edmund Coote, in 1582 and abouts. There likely was some text even before that which attempted the same.

    Now with that in mind, let's not downplay the establishment of Noah Webster and his first American English dictionary, first published in 1804, or the even bigger and expanded dictionary that Webster began working on soon after, to be published in 1828 with over sixty-five thousand words. Webster had been a noted lexicographer, lawyer, textbook writer, member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, and editor whose Blue-Backed Speller books (nicknamed that because of their blue covers) had been the backbone of education for generations. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in the Connecticut Colony, and a graduate of Yale in 1778, Webster supported the American Revolution, serving in the Connecticut Militia, and nearly, with other members of his family, were called into the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, only to arrive after the battle had been won by the Americans. He spent his early working years running a private school that he founded in western Connecticut, as well as writing the Blue-Backed Speller, first published in 1783, and spanning a variety of titles from its first, The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language to the The Elementary Spelling Book over its three hundred and eight-five editions.

    How dedicated was Webster in making sure his dictionary was accurate and complete? He learned twenty-eight different languages so he could understand derivation, as well as the difference in dialects from the variety of immigrants from different parts of the world who now lived in the United States. It was his goal to standardize speech. The dictionary was not a great success, nor critically acclaimed, unlike the earlier Blue-Backed Speller books. The Blue-Backed Speller books had sold fifteen million copies by 1837, and sixty million by 1890. The rights to the dictionary were sold to George and Charles Merriam in 1843.


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    Other Notes About Noah Webster


    1774 - Noah Webster was admitted to Yale at sixteen years of age.

    1775 - While a student at Yale and still too young to enlist in the Continental Army, Webster and fellow Yale students witnessed George Washington as he traveled through New Haven on his way to command the army near Boston. Noah Webster played "Yankee Doodle" on his flute as they marched out of town.

    1791 - Webster helped found the Connecticut Society for the Abolition of Slavery, but was not a fervent abolitionist, contending that it was a matter that the north could not legally interfere in against the desires of the Southern states.

    1821 - Helped found Amherst College.

    1831 - Webster lobbied extensively in Washington for the Copyright Act of 1831, the first major statutory revision of U.S. Copyright laws to better protect author's rights.




    Visiting Noah Webster History Today


    The Noah Webster House, his birthplace home, in West Hartford, Connecticut, run by the West Hartford Historical Society, contains a museum and other exhibits about the life of Noah Webster, as well as other topics of the area. It is located at 227 West Main Street, West Hartford, and is usually open daily in the afternoon for visits, a film in the 19th century schoolhouse theater, and tours, except for some winter days and national holidays.

    The home was thought built by Noah's father in 1758, and at one time was part of a ninety acre farm. The house was sold by the Webster family in 1790. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962, and was opened as a museum in 1966. The farm and home were mortgaged to send Noah Webster to college.

    Photo above: Image known as Noah Webster, Schoolmaster of the Republic, 1886, Root and Tinker. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Montage of the Noah Webster House (left) and the Title page of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster, 1806 (right). Webster House image, Historic American Buildings Survey. Both images courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; Oxford English Dictionary; "The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall, 2011; "Noah Webster and the First American Dictionary," Luisanna Fodde Melis, 2005; noahwebsterhouse.org; Wikipedia Commons.


    Noah Webster Dictionary





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