Vintage Chinuk Wawa in the New York Times, 1866

This urbane reporter perceived “German” in Chinuk Wawa near Grand Ronde and Siletz, maybe because of the “ch” sounds!

And as prejudiced as his phrasing is, he’s likewise catching on to something real when he notices it’s the least literate people who use the Jargon the most. We know that it was still very widely used in Oregon in the mid-frontier, early-reservation era.

nyt chinook jargon-page-001.jpg

Chinook Jargon.

A gentleman traveling in Oregon gives the following notice o a barbarous language somewhat in use there: 

“On our way to Oregon, we were often told that after entering the State, we would hear much of the Chinook jargon, a language originally invented by members of the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company, in order to facilitate their trade with the Indians. We therefore procured a pamphlet dictionary of the language, and have made considerable progress in the study. But the language is not in general use. Neither is it understood by the mass. Merchants who trade much with the Indians are obliged to understand it, but it is only the filthiest, lowest and most degraded whites (like the ‘white trash’ in Georgia) who use it in ordinary conversation.

It is composed of about 1,200 words, and is made up from English, French and German, with a sprinkling of Indian. In Oregon and Washington Territory there are over forty tribes of Indians — no two tribes speaking the same language, and yet they are all familiar with the Chinook jargon — a good proof that it is easy to learn and has been of much service to commerce. 

In Harrisburgh we hear it spoken for the first time, and learn something at the same time of the town’s style.

We were told by a military Colonel in Texas, a few years ago, that a clean collar and a pair of spurs constituted “full dress” with him on parade. But the Colonel is fairly matched by a woman of Harrisburgh

While we were examining some dry goods in one of our stores, a handsome-faced woman entered in the simple costume of a dirty low-necked chemise and a calico petticoat. Her hair was carefully rolled on the crown of her head, and held thereon by an old-fashioned, high-backed comb, from which flaunted two bright ribbons, three inches in width by one yard in length. One ribbon was blue, the other yellow.

Walking up to the counter with what is sometimes termed in fashionable society a nip, and shaking alike her gay ribbons and well developed bust, she informed the clerk that she wished to obtain some skoo-kum (strong) cla-pite (thread) mam mook ca-pu ut (to sew) mow-itch-se-ca-lux (deer-skin pants.)

As this was the first person that we had heard speak the chinook, we were not a little amused, and inquired after her departure if it was generally understood in the village. The clerk replied:

“Why, ya-as, we all spik it around yirr.”

— from the New York Times of May 21, 1866, page 8

In modern Grand Ronde spellings, what this lady (who was perhaps Native) said was

  • skúkum ɬipʰáyt
  • mamuk-k’ípʰwat (literally ‘make-needle’) máwich-sik’áluks
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