Born in England, William Wadden Turner came to America as a child. As a young man, he began a study of Oriental, Classical, and modern European languages. In this, he received assistance from Isaac Nordheimer, whom Turner helped with the preparation of his Hebrew Grammar, Chrestomathy, and Concordance. He studied formally at Yale University and then assisted in the reorganization of the library at Columbia University. In 1842, he was appointed to the chair of Oriental literature at Union Theological Sminary. In New York, he was active with the American Oriental Society and the American Ethnological Society.
In 1852, Turner was appointed librarian at the United States Patent Office. He had served the Smithsonian prior to this as a linguistic consultant and, in Washington, continued this work and also undertook to reorganize and catalog the Smithsonian's library, employing his sister Jane as an assistant.
Although Turner's early specialty was Hebrew and other Near Eastern languages, his linguistic interests were world wide, and he became an authority on American languages. Little of his learning, however, was directed toward producing original works. Although he published some articles in the Bibliotheca Sacra, Iconographic Encyclopedia, Journal of the American Oriental Society, and Transactions of the American Ethnological Society, his main vocation was as translator and editor. For the Smithsonian, as an example, he imposed form on the materials that went into Stephen Return Rigg's Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language (1851) and T. J. Bowen's Grammar and Dictionary of the Yoruba Language (1858).
The collection is a miscellany obtained from Jane Turner in the 1890s. Much of the material consists of draft, notes, and notebooks on a wide range of subjects including Arabic, Welsh, Russian, Himyaritic inscriptions, the language of Blacks in Guyana, music, and geometry. Also included are vocabularies of Oceanic languages and American Indian languages (Kansa, Oto, Omaha, Pawnee, Yankton Dakota, Gros Ventre, Shoshoni, Crow, Cherokee, Winnebago, Cocopa, Yuma, and Mohave), the latter including lists of southwestern languages recorded by Arthur Schott in 1859. Some of these appear to be original materials; others are from published sources; and still others may be exercises or aides memoirs.
The correspondence consists of both incoming and outgoing letters. It is, however, small in quantity, discontinuous, and often unidentified as to correspondent. There are usually only one or two items from any given person. Correspondents include Elisa De Frondat, Theordore Dwight, Jr., Josiah W. Gibbs, Homan Hallock, Samuel S. Heldeman, William F. Lynch, Isaac Nordheimer, Edward Robinson, Sarony and Major, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and Ephraim George Squier.
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland