A map of Fraser River gold-rush placenames is illuminating

In 2012, Andrew Nelson and Michael Kennedy published a good article in the highly readable journal, BC Studies, that they titled “Fraser River Gold Mines and Their Place Names”.  (BC Studies 172 (Winter 2011-2012):105-125.)  It comes recommended.

Anybody that reads about, or works with, the post-contact history of the Fraser stands to benefit a good deal from these guys’ assiduous compilation of these “old-time” toponyms.  Obviously we don’t mean ancient traditional names of places — you’ll more readily find that sort of information in a dictionary of any of the tribal languages.  But these ones in N&K’s article are handles that could really help you locate where some important later historical currents, so to speak, flowed, and which in many cases, so to speak, have been eroded by the currents of time.  There are more “bars” and “flats” here than in a symphony in A minor!

I’d like to reference the topnotch map that N&K created to accompany the article (you can order a paper copy of that, or download and print it out), to talk about Chinook Jargon and “The” Gold Rush.

frgm legend

The most important of the many gold rushes of Pacific Northwest frontier times was the cascade of discoveries and stampedes along British Columbia’s Fraser River and its tributaries that we conveniently pin on a timeline at 1858, ongoing to roughly 1900.

In an unpublished study, a colleague of mine convincingly argued that Chinook Jargon was not a fur-trade language of BC.  That’s an important distinction to make; you see, the Hudsons Bay Company types sustained an active presence in BC starting shortly after the beginning of the 19th century.  And in a popular socio-linguistic myth, the HBC was reputed to have concocted Chinook Jargon (which we find in documents starting about that same time) intentionally.  Thus, you’d expect to find CJ in BC from the get-go.

You don’t.

There’s scarcely more than a shred of documented BC Jargon, even at an important entrepot like Fort Langley — let alone any farther north — until the mid-1800s.

A couple of obvious stimuli could help account for CJ’s late and sudden appearance north of the current border.  The HBC moved its headquarters from Fort Vancouver to Victoria in 1849.  (We know for a fact that Jargon was huge at and around Fort Vancouver during its whole existence.)

And soon after, The Gold Rush prompted enormous non-Aboriginal immigration to the Fraser and other promising streams.  Coming into a country where they were much outnumbered by the Native people, would-be miners seem to have brought along what looked like the obvious tool: published Chinook Jargon word lists.  Already in wide circulation in the Oregon Territory and northern California, these newspaper clippings and booklets were quickly repurposed to negotiate labor assistance with BC Indians.  It was to the advantage of the latter to play at that game, learning enough of this easily acquired language to profit nicely from the uninvited influx.

Bringing our focus back to N&K’s article, my first broad realization was a surprise; Sides C and D mapping the more northerly reaches of the Fraser really contain no evidence of 1800s Chinook Jargon.  There is a Jawbone Creek, and “jawbone” was a typical word for Kamloops Chinook Jargon in the 1890s, but I see no reason to conclude that the earlier stream name is CJ.

The reason this contradicts my own suppositions is that we’re talking about the core of “The Cariboo” gold rush region, which in stereotype saw plenty of colorful (“rollicking”?) Jargon-slinging.  Yet, on reconsideration, my searches of old documents and periodicals has turned up remarkably little from the areas of Barkerville, Quesnel and so on.  And so, yes, it may make perfect sense that Jargon hadn’t effectively penetrated that far up the river yet, though I have in my possession Chinook Jargon letters written by Native people with a Barkerville dateline later on, towards 1900.  (What you do find is that a huge majority of Chinese claims were in this northern reach of the river, and this correlates with the Chinese pidgin English I find in documents.  But that’s a separate story.)

frgm kanaka bar siwash creek

As you’ll see, though, from the following images, Chinuk Wawa left its mark in the form of place names in the southern reaches of the Fraser River drainage.

mameloose bar boston flat siwash bar

There were plenty of places called “Siwash Bar”.

two more siwash bars

Five separate ones, in fact!  And two Siwash Creeks, and a Siwash Flat to boot.  I infer that these mining locations were likely so named because they were possessed and worked by Native people, who perhaps didn’t always formally file their claims.  White and Chinese people’s gold spots, for instance, typically carried the filer’s personal name, nickname, or corporate name.  Further research is needed on this whole question.

index siwash

There was also a Mameloose Bar, probably “Dead Man’s” Bar, judging by the frequency of the latter as a place name element in interior BC and Washington.

You’ll also find a Kanaka / Canaka Bar, and a Boston Bar, which are potentially at least half Chinook Jargon in origin.  Kanaka was CJ for Hawaiians, many of whom were still in the Northwest after having served in the fur trade for years.  Boston was CJ for Americans, who numerically dominated the Gold Rush population — just take a look at some of the other place names on the map, like Fifty Four Forty Bar, Texas Bar, Puget Sound Bar, Ohio Bar, and similar.  I’m the first to point out, though, that Kanaka and Boston were pretty much naturalized into regional English by 1858.

Let me be really clear, I’m not claiming that there’s a treasure trove of Chinook Jargon in the place names that N&K have compiled.  There’s only a handful of words involved.  But their distribution and dating help us to understand the role that the Jargon played as it spread upriver into British Columbia during the Gold Rush period.

And a postscript: a number of the place names mapped by N&K went on to be important in Chinook Jargon as used in BC.  For example, I have CJ letters datelined Chapman’s Bar, Tecoulous, Spuzzum, Boston Bar, High Bar, and Lytton.  And when you grasp that the typical BC Gold Rush place name was either X Bar (sorry linguists) or Y Flat, you can understand things like an Aboriginal person datelining a CJ letter “Liluit Flat Ilihi” — an otherwise little-documented place name, “Lillooet Flat Village”.