WF Tolmie tells his role in early Jargon

No less formidable a figure than Dr William Fraser Tolmie once wrote to his local newspaper urging (as I understand him) that Indian reservations be Christian missions. To establish his credentials in that argument, he gave some mighty juicy details about Chinuk Wawa’s history.

I refer you to his reminiscences of circa 1836-1840 Fort Vancouver, in The Victoria (BC) Daily Colonist of January 18, 1884, page 3, columns 1-2:

[column 1:]

Indian Reservations: their Pro-
per Uses.

     TO THE EDITOR.– In the daily of Tues-
day, January 15th, is reported a debate in
the legislative assembly on Indian reser-
vations, and having had rather more than
half a century’s intimate experience of
him, I take deep interest in whatever con-
cerns the Indian.

More than forty-five years ago, when in
the service of the Hudson Bay Co. as sur-
geon and clerk at their chief post in the
west, Fort Vancouver on Columbia river,
I did some missionary work, acting as in-

My willing coadjutor in this self im-
posed duty, was the late Sir James Doug-
las, then in his early prime, afterwards
our first and very able governor here, and
whose memory is held in grateful and
kindly remembrance by British Colum-

Our teachings did not got much beyond

[column 2:]

God, immortality and the ten command-
ments, and by a clever device of my
shrewd and already experienced associate
a large congregation was generally secur-
ed. After teaching and singing were over,
a white man in attendance distributed
biscuit and molasses to young and old of
the assembly of different tribes. In after
years the “bread and molasses institution,”
as at the time it was jocularly
termed, formed an occasional subject of
pleasant discourse between Sir James and
myself. We had proof as regards the poor
Kliketats, our most numerous and stead-
fast pupils, the words spoken had not been
altogether wasted on “the desert air.”

     To the early missionaries on the Col-
umbia Presbyterian, Methodist and Ro-
man Catholic herein named in the order
of their advent I gave aid in writing for
them Chinook jargon vocabularies and
officially in hiring for them Indian crews
and canoes, etc., etc. In due time a
worthy Methodist missionary at the
Columbia Dalles, H. K. W. Perkins, re-
ciprocated by sending me the
Lord’s Prayer and a hymn In the Klike-
tat dialect of Shahaplani [Shahaptani] or Nezperies [Nez Perces].
This I could speak well enough for trad-
ing purposes.

By reference to an old journal it ap-
pears that in 1839 seventeen vocabularies
of different Indian dialects were sent home
by me. These went to the late Dr. John
Scouler, an industrious and able naturalist,
then of the Andersonian University, Glas-
gow, but latterly a professor in Dublin.
In 1828 in a company’s ship the doctor
had been at Vancouver and up the coast.

By recent reference to “Bancroft’s Na-
tive races of the Pacific States” I observe
that the vocabularies in question were
printed in the journals of the Royal Geo-
graphical Society of the day.

These preliminaries are given to show
to new comers and to those in distant
places reached by The Colonist that on In-
dian matters I have some justification in
going into print.

On my young friends of the legislative
assembly I would urge the advisability of
their looking over ere next debate on In-
dian reservations, “B.C. papers connect-
ed with the Indian Land Question, 1850-
1875,” as well as the B.C. portion of the
“Dominion Annual Report of the De-
partment of Indian Affairs for the year
ending 3lst December, 1882.”

Hoping very soon to conclude this com-
munication, I am, Mr. Editor,
Your Obedient Servant,
Wm Fraser TOLMIE.
CLOVERDALE, V.D., Jan. 17th, 1884.

There’s no question that WF Tolmie knew Chinook Jargon and had some unusual skill with several indigenous languages. The sheer accomplishment of collecting 17 vocabularies from different languages, showing how each expressed the same list of concepts, is impressive.

Tolmie’s documentation of the Jargon can be hard to track down, though. I’m not going to go into much more depth today than to observe that the “Cheenook” vocabulary that he provided to Scouler was actually Lower Chehalis Salish! 🙂 If you want to see what he wrote down of Chinuk Wawa, take a look in “The Journals of William Fraser Tolmie, Physician and Fur Trader”, lightly edited by Howard Mitchell (Vancouver, 1963).

Today’s letter to the editor shows that this pious man was the original source of (written) information on the Jargon for the early missionaries of several denominations. As we have so often seen, here again one speaker of a pidgin language privately coached several others, and must have influenced how they spoke it.

This is really interesting as one of the two developmental strands in Chinuk Wawa’s history, and it goes to show you why “word lists” of it were endlessly recopied and reprinted by non-Natives. Strand #2 of course was people — predominantly Natives as well as the illiterate majority of European newcomers — learning the Jargon by immersion in real life.

Tolmie family

The Tolmie family at Cloverdale, Victoria, BC, 1878

(Image credit: Victoria Times-Colonist)