A sampler of frontier-era California pidgin Spanish/English/Chinuk Wawa

Campoodie California 1920s

Campoodie, California, 1920s (image credit: McGuires Place

My readers are steadily treated to the insight (so I claim) that pidgin languages such as Chinook Jargon don’t exist in a vacuum.

It’s already agreed — as much as anything is agreed on by specialist linguists — that pidgins are, by definition, not people’s first language. So right there, any pidgin language that you speak coexists with your mother tongue.

I go farther. I keep finding that western North America has been a showcase of pidgins. The frontier era shows us a constant interaction among several such. In order to communicate across ethno-linguistic gaps, people blended whatever scraps they knew of how to talk to foreigners.

The result was a very frequent mixing of Chinuk Wawa, West Coast Chinese Pidgin English, California Indigenous Pidgin Spanish, you name it.

Today, to prove that to anyone who’s not yet convinced, I’m going to throw some evocative data from California, and one piece from Nevada, at you. Read and learn.

A California Native leader hearing a Settler preach in English in 1856 bursts into seeming pidgin Spanish; I take his capitán (‘captain’) as something like ‘chief’, maybe referring to the preacher or to ‘the Lord’:

capitan capitan

His interest seemed to increase as the discourse proceeded. At length he showed signs of profound emotion; his bosom heaved, tears streamed down his tawny cheeks, and finally, in a burst of irrepressible admiration, he pointed to the Bishop, and exclaimed, Capitan!” “Capitan! The chief did not understand English. What was it that so stirred his soul?…

— from “California Sketches” by O.P. Fitzgerald (Nashville, TN: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1889) [written in 1879]

An early pioneer recalls being caught stealing from northern California Indians in the Sacramento region in 1852; a blend of pidgin Spanish and pidgin English plays a big role. I’m not sure what to make of blank here [editing to add, 04.25.2021 — see Comments after this article] :

salmon trout 01

salmon trout 02

salmon trout 03

…The following exceedingly amusing and interesting story of a “forty-niner’s” salmon trout recently appeared ln a Boston journal: Away back in 1852, myself, a Bay Stater, and Old Boss, a Yorker, a fresh salt-water man, were running a trading store and mining, too, on one of the branches of the Yuba River. Boss, partner, liked to cook, and was a good cook. I didn’t like to cook; was a bad cook. So we hitched wonderfully for near seven long years. Old Ben — I say “old” because he was three years older than I was — Old Ben one day says: “Why don’t you go a-fishing? Indians get plenty and you don’t get nary one.”

Well, that was a poser; so to solve the fish business I concluded to watch the Indians. Bucks or squaws don’t fish much; they do the dressing and cooking. Well, it was not long before I observed an Indian with his dart; they don’t fish with hooks and lines and such trash, but have a dart about five feet long with a bone toggle on the end that goes tbrough the fish when thrown. I trailed my Indian fisherman. He went down to tbe mouth of the creek where it emptied into the Yuba, walked right into the middle of it and began to walk up stream on the slippery stones. He didn’t have to take off his boots or roll up his trousers, for he had none on.

Well, I didn’t have to go into the creek to do my fishing or watching, but walked up the bank among the bushes, keeping well out of the Indian’s sight, for I was a novice, only learning, and it was not long before I heard an “ugh” grunt, and soon I heard him say: “Winnee mucho grandee,” then saw him throw the fish out on the bank. I had to be careful from being seen, but was ready to pick up the big salmon trout, a regular beauty, three-pounder, and put him on my sharpened crotched live-oak stick. I kept that up until I had a load, then started back to the old store, marched into the cook-house part of the store, told old Pard Ben: “Now for baked salmon trout.”

Ben asked how much I paid.

“Well, just nothing,” was the reply. “I picked them up with my two hands; that is the way I caught them.” 

“Where did you do it?” said he.

“Up the creek.”

“Well, just tell me how you done it, Pard Harry,” says he.

I said: “No, I shall not give away my fisherman’s luck.”

I kept on fishing In that way for a number of weeks until one unfortunate day I got too careless and greedy and followed up Mr. Indian too fast, for I recollect I had caught most all I could carry when I heard a “ugh!” grunt, and, looking up saw a 200-pounder Indian, who yelled at me: “No good Americano, mucho moolo.” I had no time to plan what to do, so I acted on my first impulse and marched direct to him and said: “Blank good Indian, me give you half.” So I sat down on the ground and dividing them, adopting the usual course of the white race, keeping the largest fish for myself. Then rising to my feet, I said: “Blank good Indian” again, and gave him some stunning familiar whacks on the back; he had no shirt on, only a plug hat like any fancy buck; they used to delight in deshabille appearances. Well, the Indian looked at me, then at the two lots of fish, as much as to say: “That is decidedly cool.”

I said “Come on, good Indian, me give you a fancy shirtee down at the store.” I picked up my half, which was a big load, and started down the trail. I could hear tbe bare feet following. I took them to old Ben, in our cook-house, and said: “There, make a good spread of this lot.” Then I got a fancy shirt and pair of trousers and handed them to Mr. Indian, laughing. That laugh spoiled all my good kindnesses, for the Indian said “mucho moolo” again, and then old Ben came in and said, “What’s up!”

Well, if that Indian didn’t blurt out the whole story, how I had got his fish, and had been getting them, too, for four moons. That ended my trout fishing, for every Indian within fifty miles knew of it very soon, and I have not been trout fishing since.

— from the San Francisco (CA) Call of September 14, 1890, page 10, column 1

I’ve talked about how cussin’ and pidgins went together like a shot & a beer; was “guts” a swear word in the Civil War era? The following patchwork of perhaps Chinese-influenced pidgin English and Indigenous pidgin Spanish occurred in Calaveras County, also fairly near to Sacramento; “Wallas” or “Wallies” were apparently the Miwok people:


A WALLA DUCKS A CHINAMAN. — On Thursday, Murray creek being still quite full, an Indian man and his squaw came to cross the ford near John Dowling’s. The squaw, turning herself into an inverted umbrella, took the lead and made the trip without accident or damage to crinoline; but just as the buck was entering the stream, a cowardly, well dressed Chinaman came along and insisted that the Digger should carry him over. “Two bit, John,” said the Walla, extending his palm for the coin. Down went the change, and up went John on the Indian’s back, who straightway entered the stream. About midway, where the water was deepest and the current strongest, the Digger, with a sardonic grin, feigned to make a misstep and fell flat. But the joke was too practical. The Chinaman, fearful of drowning, clung with inextricable grip to the Indian’s hair, forcing his head under the water until he was nearly drowned. At length the squaw came to the rescue. When the Digger had reached the shore, his first speech was: “Darn Chinaman! no bueno? [punctuation sic] too muchee g—ts!” — San Andreas Independent, March 30th.

— from the Sacramento (CA) Daily Union of April 8, 1861, page 1, column 5

In the Chico area, we at least get a Chinook Jargon word and a plausible 1865 pidgin quotation from an Indigenous person, despite the energetic racism of this article’s narration. “Diggers” was a California Settler word for Native people; hogadie was a local Native-language word for food, perhaps from Paiute; campoodah was local Indigenous pidgin Spanish/English for ‘a Native village’; both were regularly used in English…

flood chico

THE FLOOD was a god-send to the Diggers, says the Chico Courant, furnishing them with “hogadie,” or “muck-a-muck,” for the winter. All day Wednesday they were going through town loaded with ground squirrels that the flood had driven from their burrows. Diggers and squirrels were alike wet as drowned rats — Lo! having the best of it, however. We met an ancient representative of the aboriginal race, who said: “Too muchee water in campoodah!” The fact was, he had been drowned out of his hole, like unto the squirrels.

— from the San Francisco (CA) Daily Alta California of November 30, 1865, page 1, column 3

Somewhat later on, an eastern Nevada Indigenous man makes an effective expression in pidgin English of his feelings about the mass-murdering White man he’s just killed:

shooting of doc clay


The Shooting of “Doc.” Clay.

EUREKA, October 12th.— News was received from White Pine county last night of the murder of “Doc.” Clay by an Indian. The killing occurred sixty miles south of Taylor last Tuesday. It will be remembered that a year ago “Doc.” Clay, Bill Thomas and Dan Cornell went to Lincoln county to jump a ranch belonging to some Indians. They had a fight, and Cornell was shot and killed. Bill Thomas was killed in a saloon brawl at Bristol last January. Last Tuesday “Doc.” Clay was on his way to Osceola, and while walking beside his wagon up a hill an Indian shot and killed him from behind a tree. Deputy Sheriff Lyons, of Taylor, arrested the Indian, and he is now in the County Jail at Hamilton. When arrested the Indian said: “Me shoot ‘Doc.’ Clay and horse; may be sometime me shoot him wagon, too.

— from the Sacramento (CA) Daily Union of October 13, 1884, page 2, column 3

What have you learned?