Similkameen, 1860 – – Indians don’t know Jargon

similkameen map

(Image credit: Wikivoyage)

How far had Chinuk Wawa spread, two years after the gold rushes brought it to southern interior BC?

Once you deal with the casual settler racism of backhanded compliments in it, the following newspaper clipping provides you with some a useful gauge.

It’s an on-the-ground report from “the Similkameen“, traditional territory of the Syəlx (northern Okanagan) people, having to do with assessing the mineral prospects of that still little-known region.

Similkameen article-page-001

the evidence

I found this in the Victoria (Vancouver Island Colony) Daily British Colonist, Tuesday, October 2, 1860 (Vol. 4 No. 67), page 1, column 3:

From Our Special Correspondent at Rock Creek

[A letter datelined “From the Forks of the Similkameen, September 13, 1860”]


The Indians here are a great improvement
on their brethren at Victoria. They are a
fine race of men, and ride about a la ran-
chero, with their rifles slung behind them.
They have plenty of cattle and potatoes at
the lower end of the river, and one of them
gave S30 to a white man for a horse the
other day. If is, however, rather hard to
communicate with them, as they are by no
means au fait at the Chinook jargon.

This is easy to take in. As you could expect from the long establishment of the Hudsons Bay Company et al. both near them (at Fort Colvile from 1825 and Fort Kamloops from 1812) and among them (passing along the fur brigade trail), these bands possessed plenty of traits acquired from other cultures — horses, rifles, cattle, potatoes, and cold hard cash.  Note that the Okanagan Mission had only just been launched a year before by Father Pandosy, so we wouldn’t expect much linguistic or cultural impact from that yet.

My sense has been that intercultural communication in the Similkameen, as in much of the HBC’s area of operations, had long been accomplished by a combined strategy of (A) certain lingua francas such as Cree and Métis French and (B) “chains of interpreters” such as Lewis and Clark’s expedition had also famously used — a modus operandi that served the fur trade well for a couple of centuries (because lots of traders married into tribes that they did business with), and which mimicked aboriginal trade and communicative strategies.

But that fur-trade pattern was still the main extent of Syəlx contact with non-Natives; the gold rushes that began inundating southern interior BC with mostly American newcomers by the thousand in 1858 focused initially on the course of the Fraser River, which was a ways to the west of the Similkameen. The intervening mountainous terrain militated against rapid expansion of newcomers into this area.

Thus, the northern Okanagan people aren’t quite represented as totally ignorant of Chinook Jargon in 1860…but it’s represented as a tool that’s not quite as useful among them as it already was in earlier gold-rush regions.

We know that the Jargon did come into use in the Similkameen within a generation. Mining and settlement came in, and by the 1890s the Kamloops Wawa newspaper carries evidence of Chinook use in locales like Otter Lake.

Just across the border, this pattern corresponds with what went on Stateside. where what became for a while the “north half” of the Colville Indian Reservation was among the last areas of Washington to be exploited and settled. As we have seen from U.E. Fries’s wonderful memoir, Chinuk Wawa became a very important language there for precisely that reason — Native people remained a majority and English took quite a while to catch on — but it came in rather late.

Sometimes you can get an awful lot out of a single paragraph 🙂 … if you can put it together with some background information.