The Log Schoolhouse on the Columbia

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Based on reminisciences personally collected from Chief Seattle’s daughter Angeline and Puget Sound pioneers, this odd little book has a couple of interesting surprises…

The Log School-House on the Columbia: A Tale of the Pioneers of the Great Northwest” by Hezekiah Butterworth (1839-1905) (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893).

Butterworth was a literary superstar of his age, selling millions of copies of his adventure and travel books in an age when sales so huge were not routine. In western Washington state, besides Angeline he met “Yesler, Denny, and Hon. Elwood Evans, the historian”.

This is the novel equivalent of the Chinook Jargon doggerel poetry I often harp on: it’s meant to be significant but it’s bigtime cornball. It does sport handsome drawings and photos that are worth looking at.

Schoolmaster Marlowe Mann’s name (referencing the Faustian deal-with-the-devil legend) evidently says something about his character, which I’m not the first to notice.

Chinook Jargon is employed more for instant local color than for veracity; on pages 28-29, Mann approaches the chief of the Cascades Indians offering to teach his son English and “Chinook” — the latter making a bizarre contrast with the historical reality that people learned the Jargon as needed in real life, not in a schoolhouse.

On page 31, chief Umatilla shows up asking for his own son Benjamin, said to be a Jargon speaker due to his time spent with Hudsons Bay Company men, to receive a European education. Benjamin defies a racist White lady with token Jargon words plucked from a dictionary and mixed with English, on pages 34-36.

I’m mystified but excited by page 39’s ” ‘Nika atte cepa’ (I like you much)”! It’s chief Umatilla represented as talking Chinuk Wawa, but…hmm…the last two words are a conundrum, maybe taken from an antique Nootka Jargon wordlist? Or can they be compared with < attle > as a variant of ‘glad’ (yútɬiɬ), as I noted a couple of days ago, plus a previously unencountered variant of < sipa > ‘straight’? (That is, could the intended meaning have been ‘I’m straight/right/really glad’, although the syntax would’ve been bad Jargon?) This latter word, known to us from < siʹ-pah > in George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary, has been taken as phonetically [saipa] by Samuel V. Johnson in his 1978 dissertation, but so little is known about it that I can’t as yet judge how well my guess stands up.

By contrast, I’m impressed with the lifelikeness of the end of the same utterance: ” ‘Klahyam klahhye-am!’ (Good-by)”, the novel spelling of which seems to represent some actual pioneer’s demonstration to Butterworth of the conventional draaawing out of stressed vowels for emphatic effect.

There’s plenty more corny reference to, and token examples of, the Jargon to be noted in this novel. At times they’ll give you brief pause as you try to reconstruct which words Butterworth had made handwritten notes of and then miscopied, like knock-sheet — stick on page 48, translated as ‘(to) club’ (i.e. kákshit stík).

You’ll find lots of now-intolerable racist attitudes as well, need I say, like the young White woman telling Benjamin, “You are a better Indian now.” Not to mention that a major plot device is that the Whites dread the upcoming, and ominously capitalized, Indian Potlatch, which we’re to understand as a summoning of the devil!

The reputedly Chinook Jargon telling of the “Wolf Brother” legend on pages 139 and following may have something to do with E. Pauline Johnson’s “Leloo” (CJ for ‘wolf’) story from British Columbia’s St’at’imc people, although the earliest published version of that that I’ve yet found is from 1913’s “The Shagganappi”. Perhaps a term-paper idea for the right college student.

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Do you mind if I pause to question a linguistic myth? Page 142’s “castellated crag” looks a little like the well-known Rooster (i.e. cock) Rock on the Columbia River. Locals may be better able to judge that, from the accompanying image. The name of this landmark has been argued in recent years to come from a Chinuk Wawa or Chinookan word for ‘penis’, though I have doubts.

  • The earliest printed examples of ‘Rooster Rock’ I’ve found are way back, in an Oregon newspaper from 1873 and a tourist guide from 1875
  • Whereas the only ‘Cock Rock’ references from the 19th century seem to relate to Ireland.
  • One guidebook denies that it looks anything like a rooster, it’s true, but I just haven’t found positive evidence for the anatomical-resemblance theory.
    • Its Wikipedia page links to an overt claim that an aboriginal Jargon name ‘Penis’ is involved, but I find Bill Gulick’s 2006 appeal to the authority of Chester Maxey (president of Whitman College from 1948-1959) kind of a weak case, in that the latter would’ve been born pretty late (about 1892) and I don’t know whether he had special knowledge of any relevance.
    • In addition, the earliest I’ve found the (supposedly) Jargon word for ‘penis’ that’s mentioned by Gulick in in J.K. Gill’s late (1909) dictionary edition, and it’s no surprise that there’s no earlier published attestation of any other words for that organ in the language.

That’s what I have to say about that.

An overview:

Butterworth’s book relies transparently on already-published sources for most of its Northwestern color: the journals of Lewis and Clark, Jewett’s captivity narrative, biographical studies of Joe Meek, etc. Which means that what’s most original and interesting here is the small portion that we can discern to have been contributed through personal contacts between the author and a few pioneers.

Beyond its modest contribution to our knowledge of the Jargon, this book is still worth a read if you’re curious about the way the Pacific Northwest was, at one time, an exotic frontier in Americans’ imaginations.

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