The life & poems of Theo. Winthrop

theodore winthrop

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One of the most popular Chinook Jargon-related books ever published was Theodore Winthrop’s 1863 “The Canoe and the Saddle“. (Read a fine-looking copy of it for free at that link.) Titled in the original manuscript as “Klalam and Klickitat”, that insouciant travelogue of early Washington Territory (1853) has received many reprintings and editions. The latest of them, put together with an modern Pacific Northwesterner’s eye by Paul Lindholdt, opposite whom I have sat on the #66 bus to Eastern Washington University, is the affordable paperback “Canoe and Saddle: A Critical Edition” from University of Nebraska Press.

The reason “The Canoe and the Saddle” is of such big interest to present company is that Winthrop quotes quite a bit of the Jargon, as used by Native people in conversation, and he does it accurately. No token appendix listing a few words, this author makes a virtuoso display of his language abilities by weaving local people’s speech into his narrative. He understood what they were saying — you can tell that from the translations he gives in English — and he documented it down to some very fluent details.

Winthrop’s influence on the cultural scene of the antebellum USA shouldn’t be underestimated. By the time of his death in the Civil War, he had made a significant literary impression on his countrymen, as you can judge by the large number of biographies of him. We need to realize from this that any reasonably well-read American of the mid-19th century was likely to have some fair conception of Chinuk Wawa, even though extremely few of us had visited the Northwest or heard it spoken.

Now you’re up to speed about good ol’ Ted. Let’s move on, then, to some Chinook stuff of his that hardly anyone has seen.

The Life and Poems of Theodore Winthrop: Edited by His Sister” (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1884) may be the least-known installment in Winthrop’s Prose Works (Leisure-Hour Series). The others are novels that he wrote, as well as “The Canoe and the Saddle”. But because this volume contains his letters, here we find the most unfiltered reports from him about the scene in Washington Territory. I want to pass along a few excerpts:


From a letter to his mother, datelined Portland, Oregon, June 13, 1853:

“I left the Dalles on June 4th, in one of the H. B.
Co.’s boats carrying furs, collected during the win-
ter by a fine specimen of a highlander who has
charge of Fort Coleville, followed by a fine tail of
half-breeds and Indians with one picturesque old
whiter headed Canadian, of whom I bought a noble
pair of buckskin pantaloons. The free life that
these men lead in the wilderness has great charms
for me. We had a pleasant trip down the River,
floating almost fast enough, though the Indians
pulled like good fellows. We stopped several times
for them to “muck or muck,”* which they are
ready for forty times a day. Soon after noon we
reached the Cascades, and making the portage,
while the lightened boat shot the Rapids, got
away on the lower river. The rise of the water
had changed the look of things — a house where
we had slept was up to the second story in water.

* To eat in Chinook.
(page 148)

And this flippant evaluation of the language that he relied on for survival and became fluent in:

Fort Nisqually, Puget Sound, July 23d, 1856 [actually 1853?].

Dear Mother, — I am still on the move as you
see. Who knows where I shall stop ? My last was
from [Fort] Vancouver. We went down the river that
morning in a small steamer that deposited us at
Monticello, among the mosquitoes. Next day we
went up the river, thirty miles in a canoe, with
four Indians to paddle; the stream flows through
dense forests, buzzing with mosquitoes; very rapid
current, and slow progress. The Indian lodges of
the better class are entirely above ground, built
of boards, with bunks, mats, blankets, and other
comforts, according to the wealth of the owner.
All understand the Chinook jargon — the most com-
ical of all languages, if it can be called one, — con-
taining words from most languages, and answering
to the Pigeon English of the Chinese.
(page 155)

Nothing of great substance in all this, but it rounds out your impression of the young man. He seems to have taken every opportunity to entertain his reader, whether in private correspondence or published book. The Jargon was a tool in the service of attention-getting, for Theo. Winthrop, and yet he was one of its better documentors!