The state of Chinuk Wawa in interior BC, 1863

jean baptiste lolo st paul

Jean-Baptiste Lolo (Captain Saint Paul) and family (Image credit:

When “British Columbia” was so new that some folks called it “English Columbia”… 

True to form, a pair of upper-class British explorers traipsed across the North American continent in the 1860’s to reach the fashionable wilds of BC.

The account of the journey of Viscount Milton and W.B. Cheadle is a book, “The North-West Passage by Land” (London: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1865). Its French translation is for some reason attributed only to the first author, as William Wentworth Fitzwilliam Milton, “Voyage de l’Atlantique au Pacifique à travers le Canada, les Montagnes Rocheuses et la Colombie anglaise” (Paris: Hachette, 1866).

The handful of events that concern us in the Chinook Jargon community occurred in 1863. The linguistic conditions encountered suggest that even though the Gold Rushes have brought the Jargon to BC, it hasn’t spread terribly far yet, nor become the main language for bridging cultures.

August 23rd, coming off the western slope of the British Columbia Rockies, nobody the travelers find yet can understand them:

These were the first human beings we had seen since leaving the Tete Jaune Cache, and the man was immensely astonished by the greeting we gave him, shaking hands with him violently, laughing, and asking questions he could not understand. He evidently knew the word Kamloops, and we concluded from his signs that we should meet more Indians shortly, and might reach Kamloops that night. We hurried forward again for another ten or twelve miles, but there was not a sign of the Fort, nor did we meet more Indians.

(page 312)

A little way further westward, an encounter that can be read as claiming that it was uncharacteristically only the Native women who knew Chinuk Wawa; on the other hand it’s no surprise that an Assiniboine man from the other side of the Rockies has only sign language at his disposal:

We had just crossed a clear shallow stream, which we named Wentworth River, when we heard Mr. O’B. shouting behind us, and calling loudly for Cheadle. We stopped, and he came up, leading affectionately by the hand a most hideously repulsive-looking Indian…Behind this monster, whom we at once named “Caliban,” followed a younger fellow…The two men made signs to us to follow them, and we went with them to a little open space. Two squaws and some children were seated over a fire, engaged in cooking berries in an iron pot. Directly we mentioned Kamloops, they exclaimed, “Aiyou muck-a-muck, aiyou tea, aiyou tobacco, aiyou salmon, aiyou whisky, Kamloops! [Lots of food, lots of tea, lots of tobacco, lots of salmon/fish, lots of whiskey (at) Kamloops!] from which we inferred there were abundance of good things to be found there. The Assiniboine inquired by signs how long it would take us to reach Fort Kamloops, and the younger man, in reply, imitated fast walking, and then going to sleep four times in succession ; meaning thereby it would take us four days’ hard travelling to get there.

(pages 313-314)

Farther west still, the Secwepemc chief, Captain Saint Paul (Jean-Baptiste Lolo), blends Chinuk Wawa, English, and what I take to be nonstandard / Métis / Michif French (since I find few examples of his phrase in a Google search):

On the afternoon of the 28th [of August] our guide turned back, after showing us a distant range of hills which marked the position of Kamloops, and gave us to understand that we should sleep there that night…At last, after it was quite dark, we caught sight of a house, galloped up to it, jumped off, left our horses to their own devices, and entered a sort of yard, where were several half-breeds and Indians just rising from their seats round a cloth spread on the ground, with the remains of supper. An old Indian came, introduced himself, in a mixed jargon of French, English, and Chinook, as Captain St. Paul, and inquired who we were. We told him we had come across the mountains, and were starving, begging him to give us some food as quickly as possible. He said we should have abundance immediately, but that we must pay “un piastre chaque.”

(pages 319-320)

On the trail from Cook’s Ferry to Lytton, perpetuating the intercultural misunderstanding that the interjection of greeting, klahowya, is a question — and the myth that the HBC consciously “invented” Chinuk Wawa — erroneously said to include Russian words!:

On our way we met many Indians still competing with the mule-trains. Some of the men were loaded with 150 pounds, supporting them by a strap across the forehead ; the women carried 50 or 100 pounds ; and one squaw we met had on her back a fifty-pound sack of flour, on that a box of candles, and on the top of the box a child. They seemed very jolly and happy under their heavy labour, and never failed to salute us with a friendly smile and “Klahowya?” or “How do you do?” The melody of their voices and soft intonation was most pleasing, overcoming all the roughness and uncouthness of the vile Chinook jargon.

[footnote:] Chinook is a jargon which was invented by the Hudson’s Bay Company for the purpose of facilitating communication with the different Indian tribes. These were so numerous, and their languages so various, that the traders found it impossible to learn them all, and adopted the device of a judicious mixture of English, French, Russian, and several Indian tongues, which has a very limited vocabulary ; but which, by the help of signs, is readily understood by all the natives, and serves as a common language.

(pages 343-344)

There you have it. As so often is the case, we find scant but evocative bits of evidence about the history of this pidgin-creole language. Take it together with everything else I’ve been presenting on this website for several years, and you get quite a rich picture indeed.