Pioneer Nig Saul
At points offensive, but well worth quoting in full, is this nationally circulated rare biographical remembrance of a very early African-American settler and Jargon speaker on the Lower Columbia.The Jargon quoted at the end of today’s article presumably qualifies as creolized Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa, as it comes from the region whose tribes were removed to the GR reservation. Without that contextual information, it’s not superficially identifiable as GR CW, and that’s not an uncommon situation among short sentences from the 19th century. My sense is that the features we now identify as GR’s special traits became strongest (and as I sometimes think, “re-creolized”) towards the turn of the century.
Saul is known to the locals in terminology that was never complimentary, just common. The following may surprise you, then, with its attention to the man as an individual.
I’ve had little success finding out more about Saul, although there is this specifically dated recollection. Finding today’s article about him may be a neat little addition to the historical record: I find no mention of this Solomon or Saul in Nathaniel Philbrick’s wonderfully researched and written history of the US Exploring Expedition under Capt. Wilkes’ command, “Sea of Glory“, nor in the official publications of the US Ex. Ex., nor in George Colvocoresses’ memoir.
I’ve already shown you eyewitness Indigenous accounts in Chinuk Wawa of the wreck of the Peacock that brought Saul to these shores; see my “A Clatsop Pioneer of 1840 Recalls…“. (Also relevant: “Talk Strange Language“.)
The name mentioned for Saul’s schooner, Callapooza, is likely to be a typesetting error for Callapooya, as in K’alapuya, the Native people of the upper Willamette River. (The treaties negotiated between the US government and those people were sometimes published with mistaken “Z” spellings.) I don’t believe it’s a joke. To be a pun on the jocular word “lollapalooza“, the date of publication — let alone the construction of the vessel — would have to occur when that word became a fad, decades later.
One reference book I consulted echoes the Table of Contents of this article’s publication in saying its author is Captain Charles Melville Scammon (1825-1911;see my “About the Shores of Puget Sound, 1871“, plus more biographical information here).
PIONEER NIG SAUL.
COLUMBIA RIVER, the Mississippi of the farthest West, the great thoroughfare of Oregon, has ever been regarded since the foundation of Astoria as a peculiarly interesting geographical point in American frontier history. Explorers and observers have already made public many incidents and things of a local character, and left the field to be gleaned from somewhat bare. Rich handfuls still remain, however, and looking over an old note-book kept by some odd genius, who was evidently an adventurer in the land over twenty years ago, we find mention made of “Old Nigger Saul and the Callapooza.”
Saul, it appears, was a son of Africa, who held the important position of cook on board the ship Peacock, one of the fleet of the United States Exploring Expedition, wrecked in the mouth of the Columbia, in 1841. The memoranda state that, although the commander of the expedition provided ample means of transportation for his wrecked seamen, Saul preferred to remain among the aborigines and the few White emigrants who had taken up claims along the borders of the river; so that on the day of sailing of the brig Thomas H. Perkins, Saul was missing from among his shipmates. Scarcely, however, had the vessel cleared the land before he made his appearance, accompanied by an Indian bride, decked out in all the gewgaw glories of her tribe. The charms of this swarthy belle, it is said, induced him to abandon sea-life, and abide in the country; and tradition has it, that not only was he the first of the African race to reside in the Territory, but that also, in the fullness of his heart, he took to himself a wife in nearly every Indian
village along the banks of the Columbia, and was always hailed with joyous whoop and yell by his savage friends whenever he chanced to land at an encampment in his frequent aquatic wanderings. In fact, he seems to have been a general favorite among Whites as well as Indians, being possessed of some degree of shrewdness and a genial temper; an expansive grin was ever present on his broad jolly face, and nothing but respectful words ever escaped his lips when addressing his superiors.
Though at the period we are writing of there was no legal protection for Blacks in the Territory, Saul had nothing to fear. With his aptness for picking up a language, he very soon spoke the [Chinook] jargon fluently, and many a marvelous tale was related to the listening hordes of natives who at times gathered about him. “Solomon,” or “Nig Saul” as he was sometimes called, led a half-civilized, half-savage life for the first few years after coming on shore; sometimes living with the Indians, at other times with the Whites, when he would turn his attention to piloting vessels on the Columbia, a knowledge of the channels having been acquired in his frequent wanderings with the Indians in their canoes. At other times, when Whites enough for a night’s revel could be assembled at any given point along the river, Saul would manage to be present as fiddler. Thus he whiled away several years of half-vagrant life, sometimes existing for months, as the lawyers would say, “without any visible means of support.”
Whenever playing the part of musician at a frolic, he was the happiest of mortals, and indulged in a generous
supply of the weed, as well as flowing drams of stimulants, evolving charming sounds from his violin, and such a supply of tobacco-juice that the managers of those entertainments always provided a bucket or some receptacle of like capacity for his use during the time of the performance. But what gives the subject of our brief sketch notoriety is, that he commanded the schooner Callapooza, the first vessel built in the country that hoisted the American flag and plied permanently on the Columbia and its tributaries. We recollect him, in 1849, in charge of his craft, filled with all the importance inherent in Negro character. Below the medium height, round shouldered, with a full face, the blackness of which contrasted widely with the Indians about him, he was clothed in a miner’s gray woolen shirt and blue dungaree trousers — evidently a remnant of clothing from the Government ship Peacock — the ample legs of which were much the largest at the bottom and nearly covered his bare feet. On his head, canted to one side, rested a broad brimmed slouched hat, which completed his attire. The Callapooza was a stanch craft, that could boast of more wood in her build than is ordinarily used in constructing a vessel of twice her size. The original design of this piece of naval architecture was for a horse ferry-boat, to accommodate man or beast that might desire to cross the Willamette near Oregon City, at which place, it appears by record, the vessel sprung into existence. Her rig was a cross between that of a Chinese junk and that of a fore-and-aft schooner. Her cabin was airy, if not spacious, and her hold was well ventilated, as the space between the masts was not decked over — a shrewd contrivance of the builder to accommodate bulky freight or numerous passengers. Rope and canvas seemed to be all that had to be procured abroad to put her in efficient sailing trim. Although anchors are usually made of
iron Captain Saul and his enterprising owner supplied the vessel with this indispensable part of her ground-tackle by combining the crotch of a tree, a huge oblong stone, and a crooked root or trunk of some hard tough sapling. The Callapooza, when completed, was, on the whole, bluff-bowed, flat-bottomed, with an abrupt stern, and possessed the safety and fleetness of the ancient ark.
The employment of this floating pioneer was as varied as that of her master had been; sometimes taking a load of household furniture, and families from grandparents down to swaddling infants intent on seeking the “land of promise,” somewhere on the Pacific Coast — somewhere perhaps in Oregon or Washington Territory; “if not, it must have been in California, sure.”
Nor were these voyages without their pleasures. Saul was gifted in Negro sayings was ever ready to accept a “fid” of tobacco, or a cut of the weed sufficient to “load” his pipe, or a glass of “old rye,” or anything else of a stimulating nature. A few presents of this kind would bring out his fiddle whenever the vessel was at anchor or drifting in the calm sunlight down the rapid river. Sometimes the passengers would prevail on him to anchor close to the bank and convey them in the tiny canoe (in lieu of a yawl) to the shore, where they would camp for the night. On these occasions the great anxiety of the party would be to get sufficient covering for Saul and his fiddle to prevent the dew from stretching the strings. The sod served as the floor of a dancing-hall, and by the light of a camp-fire or of a large moon the sports were kept up until a late hour; or if deprived of these, Saul would come out with some of his sea-yarns, which were sure to be full of zest, if urged on by an extra glass.
At other times the produce of the country was transported to the different embryo towns along the river, or to Fort
Vancouver, the principal trading-post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, where the first emigrants from the Eastern States obtained, in a great measure, their necessary supplies, usually giving in return wheat or cattle. Saul often remarked that he liked the trade, “‘cept der cattle business.”
“And what is the matter with that?” asked an inquisitive Rhode Islander, on hearing Saul’s statement.
“Der fac’ is,” said Saul, “you takes your wessel ‘longside der bank, an’ you lays a flatform from der shore to der craf; den you drive dem bullocks down, but dey won’t come ‘board nohow, and all der way you kin ‘swade de critters to come is to twist dere tails up till dey roar, an’ den, dog me, ef dey won’t go fur a darky quicker nur a White man, ebery time. O! you can’t tell me; I’m been trabbeled a good deal in my time.”
Now and then the Callapooza transported Indians and half-breeds, together with wood, lumber, and salmon; or, mayhap, some strolling adventurer, with a wagonful of family — never happy except when on the move — employed Saul and his craft to ferry them across some water-course, too deep for fording. Thus our sable character of posthumous note passed a portion of his life, after abandoning the more adventurous career of an ocean sailor; and his unwieldy vessel, which, in his own eyes, was nearly faultless, after years of constant employment at last “laid her bones” on the pebbly shore near the water-front of Astoria, that oldest American settlement in Oregon, which is so near the Columbia’s mouth that the dismal note of the waves is distinctly heard when a storm is brewing, and long after the winds are lulled at the close of a hard gale.
Poor old Saul, like a faithful adherent to the object he loved so well — his floating home for years — vowed in his mind never to tempt the perilous deep again, or ply a craft on the turbulent waters of
the river. And not far distant from the site of the wreck, in a dark glen shut out from the busy town by the dense forest, he built himself a rude cabin, of humble proportions, and cleared a small patch of ground, where some hardy vegetables were grown, that needed but little of the sun’s warming rays to bring them to maturity. Here he lived in seclusion, much of the time with a cat and a worthless cur as his only companions. His numerous wives cared but little about him in the days of his adversity; occasionally one would join him with all the manifestations of her former affection, but as Saul had a great love for drink and never liked to drink alone, his willing squaw frequently joined with him in his potations; then an extra dose of the “strong water” imbibed by either was very sure to cause a quarrel and a separation. To change the scene, he would manage to get up and down the Columbia, either by ship, boat, or canoe, as a kind of pastime to while away the grief caused by his domestic troubles. In this manner he passed the last years of his life.
On making inquiries of several of the early settlers if they knew what became of old Saul, an indefinite reply was always given. One would say: “Old Saul? Ah! I remember — old Saul of the Callapooza. He got thrashed once down to Clatsop; but I don’t know where he died. I guess, though, somewhere between the mouth of the river and Kathalamet Bay.” Another said: “I knowed Saul in ’47. He undertook to pilot a ship an’ got her aground, an’ they was gwine to throw him overboard.” A third affirmed he knew old Saul well: “A good old darky Saul was, you bet. He could jest play a good tune on his fiddle, an’ keep number-one time with his big feet, an’ he’d drink all the chain-lightnin’ he could git; but I don’t know jestly where he died, though I reckon somewhere ‘tween here an’ the mouth o’ the Willamette.” An old Indian chief
was then resorted to, who replied: “Nar-wit-ka, nika cumtux Saul. Yaka halo, halo; yaka memiluce Kathalamet illihe“[*] — meaning that “Saul was gone, gone; he had died and was buried somewhere about the shores of Kathalamet Bay” — a wide place in the Columbia, about twenty miles from its mouth, denominated a bay by the early explorers.
Hic jacet Nig Saul [Latin: “Here lies Nig Saul”].
* A little more about that Chinuk Wawa:
Nar-wit-ka, nika cumtux Saul. Yaka halo, halo; yaka memiluce Kathalamet illihe.
Nawítka náyka kə́mtəks Saul. Yáka hílu, hílu. Yáka míməlus Ø Kałámat-ílihi.
indeed I know Saul. he gone, gone. he did at Kathlamet area.
‘Saul was gone, gone; he had died and was buried somewhere about the shores of Kathalamet Bay.’
The speaker is using the fluent Chinuk Wawa “null” preposition Ø, that is, not pronouncing any word for “at”. This is a usage that’s not listed in any of the old dictionaries (how would you make an entry for it?), but is well-documented quite far back in time. It characterizes the CW speech of Native people more than settlers’.