Seward’s second folly

…trying to use Chinook Jargon in Alaska in July of 1902!


Alaska purchase

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Reminiscences of a War-Time Statesman and Diplomat” is a family memoir by Frederick William Seward (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916). Read it for free at the link.

Frederick was the son of William H. Seward, Abe Lincoln’s Secretary of State who oversaw the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire. This book is his elaboration on what his dad wrote down about his influential life.

Buying Alaska seemed such a dumb idea at the time that this was popularly labeled “Seward’s Folly”.

In present company, though, I think we can give W.H. some praise for trying to use Chinuk Wawa with the locals when his family visited southeast Alaska for fun in 1869; there are several mentions of the “Great Tyee” (president) of the “Boston Men” (Americans) in this book’s account of his meetings with Tlingit leaders (pages 369ff).

His son F.W. returned 33 years later. It’s admirable that he tried to emulate his dad’s linguistic gesture, but it turns out to be Folly Part 2:

We could spend hours in this
Museum, if we had them, but our time is limited in Sitka

On our way back, we come across the school children,
of whom there seem to be several hundred. They are
neatly dressed, and for the most part with air and com-
plexion like other school children in the northern States,
though occasionally the darker hue of some of them de-
notes their Esquimau or Indian parentage.

We stopped to converse with some of them, and to recall
some of the phrases of the Chinook jargon, which we took
some pains to learn several years ago, as it was then the
only mode of communication in vogue in the Territory.
The youngsters look at us with open eyes and shake their
heads. One of the missionary teachers laughingly says:
”They know good English, and do not know the Chinook
jargon, — some have not heard of it, and those who have,
consider it ‘low down talk.’ “ (pages 458-459)

Ugh! You try to show some class, and everyone thinks you’re lowdown. Can’t win ’em all…

The useful information for me in the above quotation is that the Jargon had already faded from use in Sitka by 1902. Keep in mind that Sitka was still the capital city until 1906, so it was the hub of U.S. influence. Not just government but missionary efforts were centered here, the latter under the leadership of Sheldon Jackson, known for “his efforts to suppress Native American languages“–and Whites typically saw the pidgin Chinook Jargon as an Indian language.

The Jargon hung on longer outside the limited sphere of Sitka’s direct influence. Because southeast Alaska remained less a settler society and more a frontier resource-extraction economy where newly arrived Whites experienced an urgent need to communicate with Native people who they shared no other language with, we find the pidgin in use throughout southeast Alaska into the 20th century. Typically Yakutat was named as the farthest northern limit of both Tlingit territory and CJ use, and of course the latter extended seamlessly southward down the British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon coasts.

Gilbert Said

(Image credit:

If you’re looking for an excellent firsthand telling of life on the lingering SE AK frontier, you’re going to be happy with the book “Gilbert Said“. Gil McLeod was a character and pretty fine speaker of Jargon, and some Haida, who passed on about 25 years ago; we’re lucky to have his colorful words in print.