Someone who noticed the signs


William Thomas Hamilton (Image credit: Wikipedia)

We learn some interesting perspectives on southwest Oregon’s history from the memoir “My Sixty Years on the Plains, Trapping, Trading, and Indian Fighting” by William Thomas Hamilton (1822-1908) (New York: Forest and Stream Publishing Co., 1905).

Hamilton (a.k.a. “Wildcat Bill”) was brought from England as a baby, and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He became a renowned expert sign-language user (thus his other nickname “Sign Man”) and, supposedly, a Native-style healer. Because he lived long and surfed the westward surge of US expansion, he also served as a scout for General George Armstrong Custer, was sheriff of Chouteau County, Montana, and otherwise made quite a mark all over the West.

In 1843 Hamilton was part of a company of independent trappers, which included an ex-Hudson Bay Company man named Duranger (page 123) who “could converse with the Umatillas in Chinook” (page 134)

In 1845 this group visited the Hudson Bay Company’s main post to trade (page 139 and following). The author’s geographical memory seems good for names but light on other details, so you have to squint to figure out that this location “about seventy miles north of” John Day River was Fort Vancouver! There, these Americans dealt with the famous Dr. “McLaughlin” (John McLoughlin, 1784-1857), who treated them well but with whom they nonetheless argued vociferously that he was a foreigner on US soil!

That Fall, working their way southward from the Deschutes River in Oregon, the trappers reached Klamath Lake close to modern California’s northern border. On page 143,

my sixty years 1

On the third morning a party of fifteen appeared in camp, somewhat astonished at finding so large a body of whites. They saw at a glance that we were trappers. After they dismounted we invited them into our largest lodge, and feasted and smoked. They were well versed in sign-language, and Duranger could talk with them in Chinook. Lalick, their chief, asked all manner of questions.

On page 144,

my sixty years 2

These Indians sometimes cross the Cascade Mountains to Willamette Valley to trade with the Hudson Bay Company. A few of the Hudson Bay trappers had passed through the country, but no such outfit as ours. They knew that there was another class of white men called “Boston Men” (Americans). The Hudson Bay men were called “King George’s Men,” and are so called to-day when speaking to Indians in Chinook. East of the Rocky Mountains these Hudson Bay men were called “Redcoats” by the Indians.

Continuing onto page 145, the narrator implies that even this early, southwest Oregon Indians were fluent enough in Chinuk Wawa to teach it to trappers — and he repeats the linguistic myth/urban legend that the language was used from coast to Rockies:

my sixty years 3

Lalick had told us that there was another tribe below this lake, on a smaller lake, and they were known as Cultus Siwash bad Indians. These were the Modocs, whom we almost annihilated in 1856.

We passed the winter very profitably, many of the men learning the Chinook jargon, which was easily acquired. About every tribe of Indians west of the Rocky Mountains can converse in this language. 

On page 147, encountering a group of Modoc Indians; we could easily reconstruct their insult in fluent Chinook Jargon:

my sixty years 4

They scornfully refused the profferred pipes, saying, “We do not smoke with white dogs.” This was dangerous talk, for our men understood every word and could have made short work of them.

Their demand for horses was, of course, refused, and the manner in which they left indicated that trouble was ahead. These Indians talked Chinook and were good in sign-language.

The following pages have the Modocs verbally communicating further with the trapping crew, calling them dogs and making demands.

Continuing southward into northern California, they find the Native people there “very indifferent sign-talkers” (page 159). Given the author’s expertise, he’s one of the few contemporary commentators to tell about the use of sign among West Coast tribes, and he does this consistently — as with the Pah-Utes in Nevada, who could also understand the trappers’ use of Shoshoni (pages 161-162), and some Spanish (166). Similarly, the Nez Perces met with at Fort Walla Walla in present-day Washington ask the trappers questions in sign language — before the now-controversial Colonel George Wright engages the fur men as scouts (page 233).

A hint of Métis/Canadian French in Nevada: Hamilton’s group come on a pitiful bunch of Hudsons Bay Company trappers in Thousand Spring(s) Valley and gift each of them with an Indian pony plus “a bill of sale, so that they could show their title to the ‘busware‘ (bourgeois = boss).” Winfred Blevins’s good “Dictionary of the American West” has < booshway > or < bushway > as a loan of this word into American English, glossed as ‘field leader’ of a fur-trapping crew.

The large and influential family of Thomas McKay makes an appearance in Hamilton’s memoir. In Umatilla country (now northeast Oregon), “…I was introduced to a Scotch half-breed named McKay, who was well-acquainted with the country and could speak two or three Indian languages.” (page 236) I’m not sure which of the half-brothers this was, but it’s probably Donald, whose mother was a local Cayuse woman.

Among the Klickitat Indians:

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I had acquired quite a knowledge of Chinook jargon and we conversed in this language. They asked me many questions, all of which I answered, telling them that Hudson Bay men were their friends, and that I had been sent with this ammunition and tobacco to trade with them for a few ponies. It came near choking me to tell such outrageous falsehoods.

— page 239

As a Spokane kid, I should mention that Hamilton goes on to tell (pages 239-242) firsthand about the start of Col. Wright’s campaign into Spokan territory, although he then peels off with McKay on a separate mission into modern Montana, missing out on the infamous horse massacre.

This book was an absorbing read. You’ll not find a more experienced or observant participant in early Western history than this author!

What do you think?