Another fin-de-siecle plutocrat bragging he knows Chinook Jargon

owen humphreys churchill

(Image credit: Abebooks)

G.F. Train may have showed up and “learned Chinook in 15 minutes“, but Owen Humphreys Churchill, 1841-1916, emigrated as a ten-year-old to southwest Oregon’s Umpqua Valley with his family.

Not long after, Churchill was of the right age to also participate in the Okanagan-Similkameen gold rush in 1858.

Either of these facts alone — formative years in Oregon and presence in a hotbed of pidgin talk — would suggest he probably talked Chinuk Wawa. Together, they make it a virtual certainty.

And indeed, the man himself evidently was proud of it, as it shows up in various biographies of him.

The Jargon made you not just an “old settler”, a status that Whites respected enormously, but also a badass. It was one of the well-chosen tools in your lightweight “outfit” for conquering what settlers viewed as the wilderness. To effectively wield this contact language earned you your peers’ respect in a way that was parallel to prowess in hunting or farming.

Have a look, my readers, at Owen Churchill’s long association with Chinook Jargon…

owen churchill chinook1

The Churchill family located in the Umpqua Valley and remained there for six years. Mr Churchill finished his education in the schools of Oregon, also mastering the Chinook Indian jargon, which he can still converse in with fluency. At the age of seventeen, having contracted the gold fever, he started out as a prospector.

— “Being the Portraits and Biographies of the Progressive Men of the West“, volume II, page 434 (New York: International News Service) (page 551 incidentally notes that my fellow Columbia University Lion, mining engineer Christian Henne II, also spoke Chinook Jargon)

One of Humphreys’ daughters later recalled:

owen churchill chinook2

During his prospecting days he learned to speak the Chinook language, and in fact, could even sing Indian songs. More often he used the Indian sign language of the hands. He also was taught the Indian dances.

— “Memories of Owen Humphrey[s] Churchill and Family” by Marion Churchill Raulston (place not identified: publisher not identified, 1950)

It’s quite tantalizing to wonder what Chinuk Wawa songs he knew. There were quite a lot of popular ones in this pidgin-creole language. Or maybe he made some up to entertain his kids, or translated his own versions of English-language songs as some people did for fun…

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…Owen Humphreys Churchill received his education in the district schools of Illinois and at a school in Oregon. There his companions were the youthful redskins, and he exhibited remarkable aptitude in acquiring the Chinook language…

— “The National Cyclopedia of American Biography“, volume 17 (New York: James T. White & Company, 1920), page 340

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