Chinuk Wawa to the Rockies?

rocky mountains

(Image credit: Ducksters)

Everyone says Chinook Jargon was spoken all the way eastward to the Rocky Mountains. Or from the Rockies to the Pacific. 

That’s sorta nonsense. And I’ve helped perpetuate it! I know that I’ve said it, earlier in my time as a student of the Jargon, when I tried to roughly express the enormous reach of this language.

Marginally superior is the wording with a different preposition: “West of the Rocky Mountains.” You tend to find it among those who did some amount of research. (Shaw 1909, Jacobs 1932, Howay 1943.)

But that still leaves you in the clutches of a misperception.

Firstly, this Rocky Mountains business is historical revisionism. As I’ve written, it may have come about quite innocently, from a common perception of the old Oregon Country as being “across the Rockies” from the USA. And “Chinook” was the Oregon Trade Language. Thus, tacit assumptions.

About the earliest instance I’m finding of someone overtly invoking the Rockies as the Jargon’s boundary is from John Kaye Gill in 1887, which is the late- or even post-frontier period in his operational base of Oregon. Meaning, eyewitnesses in the heyday of Chinuk Wawa use that preceded Gill did not express such an expansive evaluation of its terrestrial range.

And Gill’s view didn’t appear to catch on very quickly; I find it next — but only implicitly — in a 1909 article in “The Indian’s Friend” that observes:

The term “Chinook Jargon” is familiar to all residents of Northwestern America, but with the exception of a few tourists, hunters and business men, it conveys no particular meaning to the vast population east of the Rocky Mountains…

Secondly, this Rocky Mountain fever drags you into a kind of deterministic logical fallacy: viewed historically, a language seems to march inexorably toward the biggest geological barrier you can think of. (Granted, languages, like the cultures that they tend to characterize, typically are distributed in geographically sensible ways, but this largely means that they follow sources of fresh water.)

Let me offer my own two-pronged take on why the Rockies have just about nothing to do with Chinook Jargon.


There are plenty other relevant geo-speedbumps, and nearer to the Lower Columbia River/Fort Vancouver homeland, that played actual roles in Jargon history.

Some are more geopolitical in nature: Chinuk Wawa was used pretty early on in southern and southwestern Oregon, right up to the modern California border. But early California settler society differed from Oregon’s, I argue, in its greater hostility toward Native people. So outside of the Sacramento area, which had already been a Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trade outpost before all those Americans showed up, we find little trace of CW in that state. California had a firm conception of its borders–and of an identity as “not Oregon!”–by the early date of September 9, 1850, when it became a US state.

Other obstacles to the spread of the Jargon are strictly due to terrain and climate. Still thinking of Oregon, there’s virtually no evidence of this language having been used between Native and White people in the southeast quadrant of the state. That zone was sparsely populated from time immemorial, having to do with its harsher environmental conditions. It never supported quite the density of people, either aboriginally or post-contact, that the temperate and better-watered west and north of the state did. This was a region that was settled late, and gradually, and by individualists who experienced less need to rely on help from a Native population that outnumbered them.

oregon trail

(Image credit: Legends of America)

These paint two really distinct pictures from the third one that we find, which is in the main zones of Oregon Trail migration. Coming to this state in that era, many people followed portions of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, and the Willamette Valley — all providing natural transit routes. And the Native people of the semiarid section in the northeast corner of Oregon were already accustomed to outsiders who saw the need and usefulness of speaking Chinook Jargon with them, as this too was established fur-trade country. The Jargon had spread with ease from its Fort Vancouver hub gradually up the main rivers, and to some extent inland, with the fur brigades, about as far as the major post of Fort Boise (southeast Idaho, near Oregon). The arrival of new settlers, frequently worn-out and needing assistance from the almost entirely Native population, reinforced the value of the Jargon for interethnic communication here.

Regions peripheral to the combined brigade-trail and Oregon Trail scene saw far less usage of Chinuk Wawa until much later, when settlers and miners began turning to them in search of land not yet claimed or exploited.  Thus, most of eastern Washington and Idaho north of Boise were late to the Jargon game.

And the farther east you went in this “everything else” zone, the less Jargon was known. So usage of the language petered out well before you reached the Rocky Mountain foothills.

This hardly detracts from the fact that this pidgin-creole language expanded to be used throughout a truly enormous expanse of territory. The Jargon really was spoken from (far northern) California to (the farthest north end of southeast) Alaska. In some regions it was used a hundred or two hundred miles inland.

Still, why did the Jargon not wind up being spoken in certain places?


We had better not neglect the basic fact that a language is nothing without its speakers. The spread of Chinuk Wawa in the Northwest has, first and foremost, to do with what humans were up to. If and when they felt moved to pick up stakes and head to a region where the Jargon hadn’t been current yet, they brought this linguistic resource along with their material grubstakes.

If folks happened not to feel called to this or that area within our region while the Jargon was still being commonly spoken, that doesn’t entail that the geography was preventing them from going there. It’s more likely that there just weren’t good agricultural, mineralogical, or economic prospects in that region.

And, because there already were quite substantial populations aboriginally in many of the areas we’re talking about, it’s entirely likely that the Native folks there didn’t uncritically welcome, or helplessly endure, an influx of Whites. Thus Chinuk Wawa would play a diminished role in such places. I have a rough impression, for example, that relatively few Tsimshian or Chilcotin people spoke it although their neighbors often did, and there would have to be some explanation to account for this exception to the Jargon’s huge role along the Coast and in BC’s Plateau region.