Civil War Chinook Jargon letter mystery

The superb “Civil War Day by Day” blog (“from the Louis Round Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill”) put up a post about 4 years ago that contained a mystery that’s remained unsolved.

Until now.

The post was titled “10 July 1861: Your dear letter of the 7th only reached me this morning, my own dearest Presh…”

It reproduced one of the countless letters written home by soldiers at the front.  The writer was Edward Porter Alexander; “Presh” was the recipient, his spouse Bettie.

Edward Porter Alexander

Dateline: Headquarters, (Confederate) Army of the Potomac [later and better-known as the Army of Northern Virginia], Manassas Junction.

Context: the eve of the daring Confederate attack — the First Battle of Bull Run — that nearly led to their capturing Washington, DC.

The writer was a big cheese as the Wikipedia article linked to his name above shows; he “is also noted for his early use of signals and observation balloons during combat.”  (Do read more of that good article; this fella was clever and illustrious.)  His letter to “Presh” discusses his work at setting up a signaling system of some kind.  It must have been based on semaphore or visual Morse code, since one problem involves a station over the horizon needing an intermediate signaling post to be involved.  (He’s also frustrated with the stupidity of many of the privates assigned to help him.)

From what I noted in the paragraph before this one, I infer that Edward Alexander had risen through the (Union Army) ranks by serving on the Pacific Coast before the Civil War — a not uncommon story, with the twist that he switched to the Confederate side two months before this letter’s date — and that his knowledge of Chinook Jargon was among his qualifications as a purveyor of coded messages from the Confederate command center.  In fact his bio at Wikipedia shows he surely picked up the language while at Fort Steilacoom, Washington Territory, some time between his West Point graduation in 1857 and his 1861 enlistment with the Rebels.


What’s odd is that there is ipsut wawa (a secret message in Jargon) in this letter, intended for his wife to pass along to his brother or “Mr. Founds”.  That’s the nub of the mystery, as nobody involved with the UNC blog could find enough information about Chinuk Wawa to decode Alexander’s meaning.  In particular, you’d have to have a good command of the Jargon to compensate for the handwriting in an unfamiliar language.

We have the knowledge!

Here is an image of the two pages we’ll be focusing on from Alexander’s letter (pages 2 and 3 of a four-page document):

Civil War CJ letter page 1

Civil War CJ letter page 2

(Item citation: From folder 8 of the Edward Porter Alexander Papers, #7, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. – See more at:

And here is the transcription of the section in question, as made by that blog’s editor:

We are perfectly quiet and may remain so for a long time. I feel a little hesitation in committing any information about our plans, forces to paper, but I will tell you a little under oath not to divulge to any one but brother or Mr. Founds. N kah hyas tyee wake clatawah copa nash. Wake sibkum skukum to clatawah. Yaka midlait yagwa, pe mimeloose conoway spose mesately bootons chaco. Wake uk quarter okukum to clatawah coper Washington. Just tell Brother this, and thank him for his letter which came today, and say I’ll write to him as soon as possible.

Those with a grasp of ‘Chinook’ will instantly see that there’s serious garbling here — but we can fix it.

First let’s see what the commenters at the original post came up with at the time:

1. dcbh says:
11 Jul ’11 at 12:06 pm

We have been trying to translate Alexander’s coded message, which appears to be written in “Chinook jargon”. As we understand it, Chinook words often have several meanings that are dependent on the context of the sentence. Using several resources, we have produced the following very very rough translation. Note that each word is presented on a new line and that the first word is the Chinook word followed by the English “options” within brackets.

Can anyone assist us with a translation? Any guesses as to the meaning of the message?

kah [where/when/what/that]
hyas [great/mighty/large/auspicious/powerful/very]
tyee [leader–hyas tyee=king (president?)]
wake [no]
clatawah [to go]
copa [to/in/at/with/by/upon/up from/toward]

Wake [No]
sibkum [half/part of?]
skukum [strong/big/mighty/true/genuine/solid]
clatawah [to go].

Yaka [he/she/him/her/his/hers/they]
midlait [to be?? To remain??]
yagwa [here],
pe [and/if/but/then/than/used for forming teen numbers]
mimeloose [dead/kill?]
conoway [all?]
spose [if/what if]
mesatehy (mesachie?) [bad/evil]
bostons [Yankees??]
chaco [come/to come].

Wake [No]
okukum [this/that?]
clatawah [to go]
coper [form of to??]

2. Jay Conboy says:
13 Jul ’11 at 11:06 am

I am neither a great linguist, nor a Civil War historian. But I followed the same procedure that you describe, and this is what I come up with. I think that Alexander is expressing an opinion, in code to his brother, that might not be seen as altogether patriotic in Virginia in 1861. He is suggesting that Davis would be wise to leave Richmond. The first three sentences:

“Why does the big chief (Davis) not withdraw in the direction of Nashville? It is not cowardly to escape. He remains at the center of things but may lose all if the evil Americans come.”

And a bit closer to the original: [The initial “N” indicates a question] “Whence does the big chief [Hyas tyee] not escape towards Nash[ville]? It does not reduce (halve, quarter) the spirit to escape. [I think that Alexander is using “to” in order to indicate an infinitive form]. He remains in the belly, but may lose all if the the wicked Bostons come.”

The fourth phrase is more difficult. Does “quarter” follow the meaning of “Kwahta”? In context it could be an english word–a reference to what is done to prisoners in wartime. Could “coper” be “Kopet”? And what is the meaning of “Uk”? “Okoke” = “Okukum”? So here is an educated guess:

“No quarter unless far enough away from Washington.”

3. Valerie Moore says:
13 Jul ’11 at 2:52 pm

Thank you so much, Mr. Conboy, for sharing your translation!

Upon closer inspection, I think “nash” is actually “Wash.” as in, Washington. Therefore the first phrase should read, N kah hyas tyee wake clatawah copa Wash.

4. Jay Conboy says:
16 Jul ’11 at 3:13 am

Yes, I agree. Close examination of the cursive supports the idea that “Nash” is really “Wash”. “Copa” (kopa) can mean “towards, in the direction of”, but can also convey “concerning, related to”. So this phase might be interpreted as “Whence the big chief not [withdraw, flee, escape] with regards to Washington?”

Not terrible work,but…

Here’s my reading of the Chinook Jargon in his letter —

Nikah hyas tyee wake clatawah copa Washn [small raised ‘n’]. Wake sitkum [page break] skukum to clatawah. Yaka midtlait [Armstrong started writing a ‘d’ but made it a ‘t’] yaqua, pe mimeloose conoway, spose mesatchy bostons chaco. Wake ick quarter skukum to clatawah coper Washington.

Had anyone at Confederate headquarters checked this outgoing letter, as they should have in the case of a pretty high-ranking guy (a major at the moment) like Alexander, I’d think they would want to know why the code — and why he was giving away sensitive intelligence!

There were certainly enough soldiers on the Union side who could have read the message if it were intercepted; US Grant, General Pickett, James Clark Strong, and a number of other notables all had served in Oregon, pre-War.  (And Royal A. Bensell served at ‘Grand Round’, Oregon, during the war, as his entertaining memoirs of official incompetence vividly recount.)  Here is my translation of his message:

My commander isn’t going to move on Washington.  He’s not half able to go.  He’s staying here, and everyone will die if the damn Yankees come.  [We’re] not one-fourth able to head toward Washington.

That’s fairly exciting stuff, an admission of the precariousness of the Confederate cause as they planned what was to become one of their great victories against the Union.

Mystery solved!  I’ll post the link to this post over to the original blog.

PS, how nice to learn another Chinook swear word, mesatchy bostons ‘damn Yankees’.  There’s a good deal of English-language influence in this short passage: an idiosyncratic use of English to; the plural suffix -s, and skukum to for ‘can; able to’ is pretty nonstandard, although parallels are known from other white people’s Jargon. An example of the latter that I recently posted was from Father Le Jeune at Kamloops:

[…]Hlawt ilihi, klaska wiht skukum pus iskom
[…] Hallout village, can also be counted on [are able to] to take

mokst tatilam pipa; Shushwap tilikom, kopa
twenty copies