“The New El Dorado, or, British Columbia”

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frontispiece: “Noon on the Frazer: Our Bivouac beyond the ‘Forks’ ” (which is the title of Chapter XIX)

Here’s a fortuitously — even questionably — timed curiosity for you: “The New El Dorado, or, British Columbia” by Kinahan Cornwallis (London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1858). It purports to tell of the author’s time kicking around BC in 1858 or earlier, possibly as early as 1855 — so, precisely at the start or just before the big Gold Rushes on the Fraser River and such.

That would place this colonial character in absolutely the right place at the right time to enlighten a world whose breath was bated for any BC info.

The only problem — Cornwallis may have been fabricating much or all of what he wrote. It seems he may never have set foot in Canada.


That means “dang!”, because he mentions Chinuk Wawa. I had my hopes up.

But then again, how wonderful! Don’t forget, negative evidence is very useful stuff, and I find we researchers (being human) often forget to check for it.

Because the best scholarship has suggested that mainland BC hardly knew Chinook Jargon until the 1858 gold rush(es), it’s quite nice to be told that Cornwallis’s CJ info is fool’s gold.

Huh — his anachronistically elaborate and obsequious dedication to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton starts to look like a clue.

As does his putting the greeting “Hillo, mate!” into the mouth of a guy from California…

And for a supposed memoir, this book is outrageously padded.

The first many dozen pages are essentially lists of facts and quotations, pretty much devoid of the first person until page 182. That’s halfway through.

Cornwallis would’ve been about 19 years old when this volume came out, and his work reminds me of nothing so much as a desperate undergrad cranking out a college term paper the night before it’s due!

Could this have been a rush job, to try and make money off people’s insatiable interest in all that newfound gold in them there hills?

All of this makes you take a second look at his Jargon — which turns out to be smoke and mirrors.

Cornwallis doesn’t quote anyone speaking it; instead, he alludes to it! To cover his tracks, he keeps saying folks were talking too fast and fluently for him to follow.

So here we have a new entry to add to our “fictional Chinuk Wawa” file.


Supposedly sixty miles above Fort Yale, BC:


page 200

And said to be in the same area:

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pages 219-220

I won’t go very much into Cornwallis’s woefully misinformed claims about BC Indigenous languages, which would be hard for him to make if he had been present there.

He says that the province’s tribes speak mostly “Carrier” (Athabaskan languages) on the east (!) side of the Rocky Mountains, while on the west is “Atna” (an antique name for the Salish language group) “which extends along the Columbia” (!!) “as far down as the Chinooks, who inhabit the coast” (page 124).

There, you see, he’s mixing BC’s Fraser River with facts about Washington State…

The verdict on this dramatically titled “New El Dorado” book is that it shows the marketing savvy of a young man on the make.

As a read, it’s at best a surprisingly flat enumeration of facts larded with unbelievably lackluster gold-frontier anecdotes.

It’s got essentially zero Chinuk Wawa value, so don’t use it as a reference — but we had to check on that to prove its place in the research literature.

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The author’s kindest regards might’ve been to confess he was a liar!

What do you think?
“He asked us in the most expressive and elaborate Chinook just what our opinion thereof might prove to be.” 🙂