A. Delano & why Chinuk Wawa was thought to extend to the Rocky Mts.

Not too long ago, I read the Forty-Niner A[lonzo] Delano’s 1854 book:

“Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings; being Scenes and Adventures of an Overland Journey to California: with Particular Incidents of the Route, Mistakes and Sufferings of the Emigrants, the Indian Tribes, the Present and the Future of the Great West”

(Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan.)

Life on the Plains

“Life on the Plains…”

(Image credit: Biblio.com)

Although there’s some of that Northern California Pidgin Spanish/English in it that I’ve commented on time and again — and there’s really no Chinook Jargon! — language is not directly the use of this volume, for me.

Indirectly, it is.

Because this writer got me thinking about why there’s been such a longstanding notion — demonstrably untrue, but that doesn’t mean scholars and journalists will suddenly start verifying what their sources claim — that Chinook Jargon was spoken all the way eastward to the Rockies.

On page 116, Delano comments:

We were now in Oregon–the ridge of the Rocky Mountains being its eastern boundary–and fifteen hundred miles from our homes.

He says this in a tone that suggests to me that “everybody knows” the Oregon Country starts at the Rockies. Which was the geopolitical fact in 1849. I’m led to imagine that that same nugget of trivia persisted in the popular mind well after it ceased to be the case.

And for settlers and back-Easters alike, Chinuk Wawa certainly became a shibboleth, a cliché, of Oregon-ness before the Oregon Trail emigration was a generation old.

So maybe this was part of the reason why “Rocky Mts.” + “Oregon” + “Chinook” got to be so unquestionably bound up together.

I hasten to add that there’s one other potent reinforcement of that viral mental equation:

The Chinuk Wawa literature itself.

Look at some of the earliest book titles to bring the Jargon to America’s awareness!

  • “Adventures on the Columbia River, Including the Narrative of a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains” a.k.a. “The Columbia River; or, Scenes and Adventures during a Residence of Six Years on the Western Side of the Rocky Mountains“, by Ross Cox, 1831 and 1832.
  • “Journal of an Exploring Tour beyond the Rocky Mountains” by Samuel Parker, 1838.
  • “Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains” by Joel Palmer, 1847.
  • “Ten Years in Oregon: Travels and Adventures…West of the Rocky Mountains“, by Miss A.J. Allen, 1848.

Some of these were veritable bestsellers, going through many reprinted editions.

My conclusion is that it’s no great wonder people have equated Chinuk Wawa with the vague, broad western frontier.

But to paraphrase the Irish Rovers’ song, “There’s cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born, past Idaho & Oregon you’ll find no Jargon” 🙂

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