Lines to a klootchman
In the 1850s, sententious poems loftily titled “Lines on…” or “Lines to…” this and that were quite the rage in general-circulation newspapers. A random glimpse into archives makes that readily apparent. This one was published in the December 17, 1858, edition of the Steilacoom (W.T.) Puget Sound Herald. Below I reproduce it as republished on pages 28-29 of the 1904 book “Reminiscences of Washington Territory: Scenes, incidents, and reflections of the pioneer period on Puget Sound” by the inimitable Charles Prosch (Seattle, WA: no publisher named).
These “Klootchman” poems in Washington Territory newspapers were parodies of that genre.
They were also, I think you can justify saying, the beginning of a distinctive Pacific Northwest literature, with their in-group (often racist and sexist) references to cultural and natural traits you’d only know from being present here, and their liberal seasoning of Chinook Jargon words and phrases. There’s less of the latter in this poem–only the author’s nom de plume–and more in “Lines by a Klootchman“.
Incidentally, one recent scholarly writer has (I’d say misguidedly and absurdly) translated the pen name “Sitkum Siwash” with great gravitas as “Half-Coastal Aboriginal”. I mean, the whole intention behind that handle is a reference to the then-current term “Halfbreed” for a Métis, so come on!
With that, I’ll introduce “Lines to a Klootchman”, with the promise of at least one more poem to come in this pack of doggerel.
Writing this out in ASCII for the benefit of cut-and-pasters and search engines alike:
“As indicative of the popular taste of the period I cannot do better than copy some original verses from the ‘Puget Sound Herald,’ which were first published in 1858 and republished by request of many readers in 1859, thus showing that the serio-comic muse was highly appreciated. There is a vein of satire and pleasantry running through the verses that renders them irresistible. The descriptive feature of the poem is also good, as all will acknowledge who have closely observed the dusky maidens occasionally seen in our streets:”
Lines to a Klootchman
By Sitkum Siwash, Esq.
Sweet nymph! although of dirtier hue thou art
Than other ladies brought from eastern climes,
To thee I yield the tribute of my love,
To thee I dedicate these humble rhymes;
And if too faint I string my trembling lyre,
Great Pocahontas! thou my verse inspire.
Long time whilom I thought that pallid cheeks,
And blue eyes smiling like the sky at morn,
And auburn curls, and fingers rosy-tipped,
Comprised all beauty that of earth was born;
But other charms exceeding all of these,
I’ve found at last on far Pacific seas.
Where Puget Sound its placid waters spreads,
And Steilacoom uplifts its bosky shore,
Paddling the light canoe, the maid I met,
Whose modest graces did enchant me more
Than all the pictures fair by poets wrought
In golden dreams and raptured moods of thought.
Thy well squeezed head was flat as flounders are,
Thy hair with dog-fish oil resplendent shone,
Thy feet were bare and slightly inward turned,
And e’en I ween of stockings thou hadst none;
But beauty’s presence beamed from every part,
Though unadorned by trickery or art.
A blanket red, that had seen better days,
Around thy shoulders gracefully was twined;
And eke a petticoat, that once was clean,
Thy slender waist and swelling limbs did bind;
A mild but fishy odor round thee clung,
As though dried salmon thou hadst been among.
And thus it was; for in the savage home,
Where Indian wigwams look o’er waters blue,
The custom is to spear the speckled fish
And smoke them when there’s nothing else to do;
For huckleberries are a watery food,
And clams and oysters are not always good.
But though thou smellest strong of salmon dry,
Though innocent of soap thy hands appear;
Although thy toes turn inward with a curl,
And though thy skull is smashed from front to rear;
Though nameless animals thy hair infest,
Still do I love thee of all maidens best.
Then give me but a blanket and a mat;
Dried clams and fish my only food shall be,
My only house a half upturned canoe,
Whiskey my drink and love alone for thee.
Thus fair haired dames for me will vainly shine
In all the charms of hoops and crinoline.*
“At the time these verses were written the hoop and crinoline craze was just beginning to wane.
These verses were written by Horace R. Wirtz, a highly gifted surgeon at Fort Steilacoom, in 1858. A graceful and fluent writer, it was no labor for him, when inspired by the Muses, to write in any measure on any theme.”