A good point about “Boston man”

My critical arguments about the origin of Chinook Jargon’s Boston man / bástən mán for ‘American/white people’ have gotten rehashed lately.

The long-accepted story has been that this expression has to do with the early coastal fur-trading vessels being “out of Boston”. I’ve called that into question, pointing out that at least as many of these late-1700s ships had home ports elsewhere in Massachusetts — at Bedford, Nantucket, etc. — as at Boston. (Some were probably out of other colonies such as Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, I expect.)

I love revisiting a line of reasoning, and refining it, so here is a sketch of my own novel interpretation as so far presented: By the early 1800’s, a well-known word of Canadian French was bostonnais meaning ‘American, Yankee’. Most employees of the young Pacific Northwest overland fur trade were French Canadians. From the earlier, maritime-based, decades of that trade, we have no evidence of Boston man. I suspect this expression could be another data point for francophone influence on early Chinuk Wawa.

Today I want to share another point of view that has been put forth in the past.

ship boston

Ship Boston

(Image credit: Amazon.com)

In a “Northwestern History Syllabus” that the Washington Historical Quarterly printed in 1913 (volume 4), section IV “American Voyages of Discovery”, point 7 is as follows, with the juicy part underlined by me for emphasis:

  • 7. “Boston Men” and “King George Men.”

    a. Many ships from Boston.
    b. Enquiries for crew of “Boston.”
    c. Chinook jargon adopted name for Americans.
    d. Also “King George Men” as name for British.
    e. Both names endure among Indians.

In other words, this product of the best minds in PNW history teaching a century ago suggests the Jargon’s Boston men were generally those associated with that port, and specifically the crew of the eponymous vessel. Their Bibliography appears to back up the latter idea by reference to this:

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. Works of. Vol. XXVII. (North-
west Coast, Vol. I.), pp. 1861 192. 204-206, 258-264, and others, for
which see index in Vol. XXVIII. Not all editions contain Haswell’s
journal, but Vol. XXCII., edition 1886, pp. 703-735, gives this valu-
able document. When consulting the index cited use such words as Gray,
Kendrick, Haswell, Ingraham, “Columbia,” “Lady Washington,” Colum-
bia River, Grays Harbor, Bulfinch, Nootka, Jewitt, “Ship Boston.”

And this:

Jewitt, John R. Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of.
There are several editions of this little book. It is a fine source book on
the tragic fate of the ship “Boston.”

The hypothesis being that there were so many and such widespread inquiries by Europeans along the coast trying to find out what had happened to the “Boston men”, that a permanent linguistic mark was left among Native people. Simple.

It doesn’t pass the smell test, though.

In the several documents we’re fortunate enough to have of that early Nootka-centred phase of the fur trade, nowhere have I noticed either the English word “man”, or phrases involving it, in the Nootka Jargon. (Which was one ancestor of Chinook Jargon.)

And if the origin of Boston man was coastal, we would have a right to expect some trace of it in early Chinook Jargon as well. I pointed out in my previous arguments, linked above, that we don’t find the expression used until well into land-based fur-trade times.

My evaluation: we’ve detected another attractive but evidence-free story about Chinuk Wawa history. At least it didn’t catch on; you don’t see it repeated much.

I’m sticking with the bostonnais theory.

I’ll specify that I can’t disprove the old “people stereotypically associated with Boston-based ships” claim — but there’s less positive proof for that notion than there is to link bostonnais with the PNW fur trade.



(Image credit: Dictionary of Canadian Biography)

Now I can’t resist making my own life harder by having some fun. I’m going to stoke up the conspiracy-minded with this parting factoid: John R. Jewitt was born in Boston…in Lincolnshire, England! Maybe Boston man was Chief Muquinna‘s personal nickname for him!  🙂