“By Track and Trail”

trackandtrail mosquito

an original sketch

If you love some “Cannucks” and some Chinook, I have the late-frontier travelogue for you.trackandtrail

Just when it was becoming possible to do so largely by rail, prolific artist Edward Roper (1832-1909) crossed Canada from east to west as most of it was still being settled (the dates are unclear to me, but his biography says he was there in 1883, 1887, and 1890). His book (1891; London: WH Allen & Co Limited) of the experience is “By Track and Trail: A Journey through Canada/With Numerous Original Sketches by the Author”.


“these lovely Canada lilies”

I’m quite taken with his illustrations, as it’s always valuable and fascinating to encounter on-the-scene accounts of life in Chinuk Wawa country. And images are not just informationally dense: they also do without the cavalier racism of this writer’s narration.


Chapter XI “In the Selkirks” is where it gets most interesting for present company. We’re led from Glacier House to Kamloops in these pages.


One detail that I appreciated finding was Roper’s sketch of a railway “snow shed” in the Rocky Mountain passes of the CPR; this is a word that puzzled me when I first found it in Kamloops Wawa Jargon…I had misread it as sno shit at first!


Skipping on to Chapter XIII, titled “A Year-Old City”, we find ourselves at Vancouver, BC. The author foreshadows scenes of interest, with this false alarm at the train station:

Near us, then, was an unearthly shouting and howling. Could it be the Chinook Indians, of whom we had heard so much, broken loose? Oh, no; I recognized it. It was only the hotel touts yelling for customers. (page 181)

I’d like to believe Roper is playing dumb for comic effect there. He would surely have heard of Chinook Jargon, which was a famous feature of the farthest frontier, always associated with Native people. But to think there were Chinook Indians populating Vancouver would be right up there with those “authoritative” whites who pontificated about “the Siwash tribe”. (Siwash/shawash being the generic word of Chinuk Wawa for ‘Indians’.) However…his Chapter XVIII purports to tell us all “About the Chinooks” and “their tribal divisions” such as the Hydahs! Oy! I’m warning you, this is far from the last you’ll hear of Roper’s lack of self-awareness; he doesn’t get that a foreigner looking around England might have some poorly-informed judgments too.

Several pages later, we get an alternate version of the “Clark, how are you?” linguistic urban legend:

Then we moved on again, walking along the rough beach, and by and by we got to the Indian village. It was really much better than we expected. There were fifty or sixty nice little one-storeyed houses, most of them in a row, with the little [Catholic] church in the middle, all whitened. In front of them was a high side-walk, on piles, and very rickety, sadly out of order, not good travelling for a drunken Indian; but there are none such there, they say.

There were quite a number of the inhabitants about, men and women. All, as we passed them, gave us the Indian greeting, “Kla-how-ya?*” which we returned in kind.

Some men were mending nets, or sorting lines for fishing. The women sat staring at us in rather a stupid way, but many of them were busy over domestic matters, or nursing children, who were visible in crowds. These mostly scuttled out of sight as we drew near, though we could see their bright eyes through many a chink and cranny, eyeing the strange pale faces.

These people were not at all unpleasant-looking, some being decidedly the reverse. At first they seemed to take very little interest in us. They were polite enough when spoken to, but neither they nor we could understand what the other said. We were told afterwards that they usually know more English than they show, all conversation with them being carried on by means of the “Chinook jargon,” and that was all the same as gibberish to us.

For some time that day we only came across one klootchman (woman) who could or would utter a word of English, and it was very few she spoke. But the girls made friends with her immediately, and went into her house. They said it was not any more bare of comfort than many a cottage of our own farm-hands at home, and it was clean.

*”Clark, how are you?” “How do you do?” “Good-bye.” It originated from the Indians hearing Mr. (afterwards Sir James) Douglas address his second in command with “Clark, how are you?” (page 205)

There’s a bit more of substance on the following page. Leaving out several of Roper’s pointless racist remarks, the following is pretty amusing for the white people’s failure to understand Jargon or even to recognize that they themselves are speaking Jargon words (in bold):

We could not make friends with the babies, who yelled when we approached them; only by great persuasion could we get one to take a bit (ten cents).

One man, who tried hard to make himself intelligible, said, “He-kwass-t-kope klootchman.”*

Then, clearly asking a question, he said, “You King George?”

We said, “No,” not understanding what he meant.

Then he said, “Boston?”‡

We shook our heads again, and laughed. We gave it up, regretting we had no one with us to interpret.

We endeavoured to find out where their priest lived, thinking he might be of use to us. One of them understood the French Le Prêt [sic], which he pronounced “La play,” and shook his head, pointing across the Inlet. We supposed the priest lived there, or had gone over there that day.

After staying some time, and looking well about, giving a few coins to those children who would take them, we thought it well to make arrangements for departure. We had been assured we could easily get a boat to take us back to town; so we said to an Indian, “Boat,” and pointed to the wharves upon the other side.

He understood perfectly what we meant by that, but shook his head, and cried out, “Canim, canim!§” several times. Then some of his brethren began to rush about, and very soon we saw what they were after, preparing to launch a large canoe, which was lying on the beach, carefully covered up with mats. The man to whom we had spoken said several times, “Kloshe canim, kloshe hyas kloshe, kula[-]kula.”

I suppose we five white folks felt a little nervous; the girls did, I’m sure, saying they would rather walk than venture to cross the sea in that canoe. Yet we could not see a better way. No doubt it was safe enough; they would not play any tricks on us, for, though we could not understand them, it was quite evident they were very friendly.

* “He, or it, or she, is afraid of a white woman.” [Note the blending of English and Chinuk Wawa, a mix we often find in late frontier times. — DDR]

 “Are you English?”


§ “Canoe, canoe.”

║ “Good canoe, very good canoe; like a bird.”

(page 206)

As little as Roper and friends understood in the moment, this looks like an accurate portrayal of a simple verbal interaction in Chinook Jargon. If anything I would guess that the narrator’s representation of the Native people’s CJ is simpler than what they actually spoke; remember that he perceived these people as more fluent than his party. And working from memory — scouring one of the then-popular Chinook dictionaries — he would’ve reconstructed only certain prominent parts of their discussion that were obvious from context. A couple examples of what I mean by this:

  • In the verbal exchange about the visitors’ nationality, the speaker presumably addressed the whites with the second-person plural pronoun msayka “you folks”. As educated as Roper obviously was, 2.PL pronouns nonetheless would’ve been to him, a mother-tongue anglophone quite the fancy foreign structure: he would know them from the Latin and Greek education that was usual for an 1800s guy of his class, and from French because fashionable British people like him were vacationing on the continent and relying on français as the useful international language. Earlier in the voyage, in Québec and Montréal, the only linguistic point that’s remarkable to Roper is that there are so many who do not speak French.
  • In the last quotation, it’s obvious that a metaphor is being used (CANOE ~ FAST AS A BIRD), so the speaker probably used the usual word kakwa ‘like’ for that purpose.

And so forth. So what I’m saying is that Roper is accurately, but only in part, recalling what was said in Chinuk Wawa.

Let’s test out this idea. Judging by the final paragraph in our next quotation, Roper’s short-term memory would’ve indeed sufficed to piece together the preceding:

We had four paddlers, and got on rapidly and very smoothly. They were very talkative, addressed us often, but only here and there could we make out a word.

Every boat or canoe we passed was greeted with shouts of “Kla-how-ya!” and many laughs and jokes, which were launched, undoubtedly, at our crew in reference to their passengers.

Soon they landed us upon the wharf at Vancouver City, took their three dollars with laughter, and left us, shouting “Kla-how-ya!” which we, girls and all, much to the Indians delight, replied to heartily.

We were all much pleased with the Indians. We were told that those we had seen that day were much better than the majority; they are so well looked after by their priests. Be that as it may, we found that those who know them best spoke most favourably of them.

That evening we had a lesson in “Chinook” from one who knew it; and we felt that, if we came across some red-skinned friends again, we should not be so very much nonplussed. Besides, I bought a little book entitled A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, the Indian Trade Language of the Pacific Coast (page 208)

That dictionary is identifiable as T.N. Hibben’s locally produced, much-reprinted tourist curio:

A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, the Indian Trade Language of the Pacific Coast

(Image credit: Murdoch’s Bookshoppe)

Later, going up Burrard Inlet, we find another, quite typical for the time and place, blended communicative strategy involving (despite Roper’s exaggerated description) Chinese Pidgin English and Chinuk Wawa:

Then there was Charlie the cook, so called because his Chinese name was unpronounceable. He was a capital cook, indeed, and a most attentive servant; as clean a Chinaman as I ever met. His bed, as I have mentioned, was in the cook-house. We used to go and look at it. He always kept it in perfect order; had a feather pillow with him, and a looking-glass [mirror], and much more toilet apparatus than any of us considered necessary for ourselves. He was particularly nice in dress and person, and he always came up to the mark with a smile, though his language was mysterious; for he had thrown over “pigeon English” as low, and now spoke what he called “ploppa Inglis.” It was a mixture of certain words of our tongue, mispronounced, and “Chinook Jargon.” But he well understood what we said to him, rarely made a mistake, and was a favourite with all of us. (page 218)

Exposure to Charlie and Hibben must have been salutary. Going upland to fish some lakes, Roper’s party encounter “some Indians”, presumably from one of the Salish bands who lived nearby, with whom they could now communicate more successfully:

Up there we met some Indians, who, after “Kla-how-ya” and certain Chinook mysteries had been gone through, explained that fishing that day was useless; they had caught none. (page 220)

In short order, voici l’anglais correcting other people’s Chinuk Wawa:

A dip into the sea put all to rights and ready for Charlie’s cry of “Muck-a-muck!” which he supposed meant supper; but it really is the Chinook word for food of any kind. (page 221)

At this point in the trip I definitely want to slap Mr. Roper with my kid gloves. Anyhow, on pages 273 and following, he takes a stroll along Granville Street and False Creek in Vancouver, a locale that we touched in a couple of days ago here in connection with August Jack Khatsahlano. The two could have crossed paths. Huh.

granville street

Relaxing over a picnic with some relative oldtimers, Roper is regaled with a recollection of an 1877 trip to what turned out to be a deserted Sechelt Salish village:

“We looked at one another anxiously. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘let us walk across and take our ikta-hs (things) with us; if we don’t find Indians across the isthmus, we may find a canoe, and so be able to go on.’ This we did, but neither Indian nor canoe could we find for a very long time. At last an old, old siwash appeared on the scene, who was very distrustful at first; but when we told him our needs, and mentioned Peterson, he offered to find us a canoe. Peterson, we found, was well known to and trusted by the Indians. We were curious to know where the promised canoe was to come from — we thought we had searched every place; but the old siwash took us back to the village, and there, most carefully hidden, he found a very small canoe, barely large enough to carry two. But we were very thankful to have it; so putting it on our shoulders, we carried it across to the head of the Inlet.” (pages 277-278)

A detail from a fishing trip to Pitt Lake confirms that Roper, for all his urgency to get wise to the ways of BC, is still kind of shaky as a Chinook Jargon speaker, leaving the Jargoning to a more experienced hand:

On the way an Indian passed us in his canoe, muffled up as if it was the depth of winter, with big gloves on. Our friend talked Chinook to him. Tom and I were very glad to hear “He had been driven in from fishing by mosquitoes.” So then it was no wonder we had suffered as we had. If an Indian was beaten by them, we need not be laughed at as greenhorns. (page 314)

Roper takes a train up the Fraser to North Bend, a place that plays an important role in Chinook Jargon history; it was a hotbed of Chinuk pipa literacy in the 1890s, and I’ve found letters written by local people in the language. The narrator strolls to the nearby Native village, witnessing their impressive salmon fishing:

north bend indian salmon fishing

There were half a dozen at this work within sight of us. Unfortunately, there was no Indian who could speak a word of English; but, thanks to our Chinook jargon book, we made out that they came here every year, caught and dried what they required, and retired somewhere inland, or where there were no salmon. They had camps and booths of boughs about, and again reminded us of the hop-pickers in Kent. These people were, however, very much quieter than our English Indians are, and, we thought, would be preferable to deal with. Probably, if we could have understood all they said, we should have thought differently. (page 323)

That’s a nice bit of historical attestation there, I’d like to point out, as it’s a rare explicit description of exactly how the zillions of “Chinook dictionaries” were used by those who purchased them.

Just down the same page is another example of Roper catching some but not all of the words that someone says to him:

In one spot, to which an old Indian took us, there was a most wonderful sight. It was a sort of creek, or narrow passage of clearer water, and the fish were visible there in countless thousands. … It seemed to us that one haul of a seine net would catch thousands, or a gill net hung across from rock to rock would be a capital means of taking them. We tried to get from the man who escorted us a reason for their not catching any there, but he shook his head and said “Pishock, pishock,” i.e. “Bad, bad.” He speared one for us easily, and pointed out something about its head; but none of us were up in piscatorial lore, so could not make out what was wrong. The fish he got weighed fifteen pounds at least. He just left it on the bank. They are really of no money value thereabouts. We could buy one, as heavy as you could easily lift, up at the station, for 20 cents — or two bits. (page 323)

In fairness to Roper, I want to specify that he does notice plenty of truthful and, from a contemporary white perspective, admirable details of Native life — for example the Indians having taxed themselves to build their Catholic church at North Bend, their flag- and cross-bedecked Indian cemetery, and the presence of a richly furnished family tent that put white people’s homes to shame. He exclaims:

The white inhabitants of those parts laughed at these people; they always do so — why? (page 324)

A conversation between a local Native family and Roper’s group including younger white men and women, as well as Roper’s reflections on the Jargon, are engaging to read:

A siwash with his klootchman and child came down the trail, one time, with packs and bundles, and signalled to the tents across the river for a canoe. They sat some time beside us whilst their friends brought one. The siwash could speak a little English, so the girls and Mr. Selby had some amusement with them, for with his little English and our “Jargon book,” they made out famously. This man’s name was Charles, his klootchman‘s was Eliza, the baby’s was Maggie; so our Maggie gave that baby two bits which her mother called “pot-latch” (gift). The siwash said they lived on the other side, “mamook pil chickamin,” which we found meant “washing for gold.” They had been to the “mahkook house” (store) for “muckamuck” (food). He told us, too, that times were not so good with Indians as when the C.P.R. (he called it so) was building, when he sometimes earned “Klone dolla la sun” (three dollars a day); now he could make more at washing gold than at railroad work.

“How much a day?”

“Oh, sometimes ‘ikt dolla’ (one dollar), sometimes ‘mokst’ (two) sometimes ‘weght’ (more), but ‘tikegh’ (he liked) to work on track ‘elipkloshe’ (best).

“And your wife?” we asked. “What does she do?”

“Eh! Eliza? ‘Mamook elan wash pil chickamin’ (helps to wash for gold).”

The girls found out a number of their words were French. For instance, a plate was “la siet,” a nail was “lecloo,” a cock or hen “lapool,” silk was “laswoy,” sugar “lesook,” mountain “lemonti,” language “lalang,” head “letet,” devil “diaub” or “lejaub.” Some words they used were of English root. For instance, “Boston” meant an American, “King George” meant an Englishman or English. Bark was, in Chinook, “stick skin,” bell was “tintin,” broom is “bloom,” Christmas-day is “Hyas (big) Sunday,” cloth is “sail,” day is “sun,” fat is “glease,” father “papa,” mother “na-ah,” fever “waum sick,” fever and ague is “waum sick, cole sick,” heart, mind, inside, will, opinion — all are expressed by the word “tum-tum.” Indeed, most of the words used in this, the trade language of the coast, are corruptions of English and French. (page 325)

I almost wonder if Roper misheard or misremembered the wife’s name here; if it was actually Louisa, this couple could be Mr. and Mrs. Charley Frye, who became extremely active Chinuk pipa writers and teachers; from Charley, who eventually became a chief, I have found a number of letters in Jargon.

As to Roper’s Jargon in the preceding quotation:

  • Mamook pil chickamin and wash pil chickamin are both new discoveries (as Roper himself suggests). that I don’t know from any previous sources. The only other occurrence of the latter is when Roper recycles it in his 1896 novel “A Claim on Klondyke: A Romance of the Arctic El Dorado“!
  • I think the la in la sun “(per) day” is spurious — either a mistaken writing of ikt ‘one’, or an overgeneralization of the frequent identifiable French articles that Roper points out.
  • CPR can be seen as a local Jargon word; it would’ve been in daily use, and we have it documented as ṣipiʔá(ʕ) in the dictionary of the Thompson Salish language of the North Bend area.
  • Sometimes is a definite Chinook Jargon word, known in frequent Chinuk pipa use in the southern interior of BC at the time, despite its absence from published dictionaries.
  • The rest is identifiable as coming from Hibben, but with most of the latter’s hyphens removed. (Laswoy here reflects Hibben’s la-sway, hand-copied and then set into type by someone without knowledge of Jargon or French. Old story.)

To sum up, Roper’s book is a surprisingly decent document of the scene in southern British Columbia at a time when Chinuk Wawa was still widely used. It’s also an unusually transparent account of how a dictionary of the language was used. On both counts it’s a worthy read, but it’s also a fairly well-written book, and the zillions of unique illustrations make it positively fun.