Crusoe’s Island

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Squarely in the frontier period (1857), a sharp-tongued Irish immigrant of high artistic and literary talent landed in the Pacific Northwest for a time as a government worker of various titles.

John Ross Browne (1821-1875) was one writer I’d be afraid to have describing me. This fella had a gift for satirical dismemberment, making his writing impossible to tear yourself away from.

By great force of willpower, I’m going to limit myself to his Chinook Jargon-related wit.

From Browne’s hilarious and outraged “Crusoe’s Island: A Ramble in the Footsteps of Alexander Selkirk” (read the whole thing at that link!), look at this description of the ambitious town of Port Townsend, Washington Territory:

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page 271

The principal luxuries afforded by the market of this delightful sea-port are clams, and the carcasses of dead whales that drift ashore, by reason of eating which the inhabitants have clammy skins, and are given to much spouting at public meetings. The prevailing languages spoken are the Clallam, Chenook, and Skookum-Chuck, or Strong Water, with a mixture of broken English; and all the public notices are written on shingles with burnt sticks, and nailed up over the door of the town-hall.

Browne is calling the Port Townsenders a bunch of lushes, in their own language(s)! “Skookum Chuck” is one of the several ways to express “booze”.

The author also meets the S’klallam chief known to the Whites as The Duke of York. Chinuk Wawa and pidgin English make their appearance in the interview, as they do in Theodore Winthrop’s unfairly better-known book (“The Canoe and the Saddle”):

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pages 272-273

In the course of my tour I visited this unique city for the purpose of having a “wa-wa[‘talk’] with the Duke of York, chief of the Clallam tribe.

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— page 273

The Duke was lying on a rough wooden bedstead, with a bullock’s hide stretched over it, enjoying his ease with the ladies of his household. When the agent informed him that a Hyas Tyee, or Big Chief, had called to see him with a message from the Great Chief of all the Indians, the Duke grunted significantly, as much as to say “that’s all right.” … He shook me by the hand in a friendly manner, and, patting his stomach, remarked, “Duke York belly good man!”

So the testimony of this writer adds to the picture that in S’klallam (Clallam; Klallam) Salish territory opposite Victoria, BC, in frontier days, not just Chinook Jargon but also pidgin-looking English were used for interethnic communication.

Which reinforces one of my ongoing messages on this website: pidgins don’t occur in a vacuum. Wherever people are in a hurry to figure out how to communicate with each other, it’s likely you’ll find that they come up with more than one solution.

Aside from that point: I can’t recommend Browne’s book highly enough for its huge, huge entertainment value…

…and for his fearlessness in speaking truth. From Chile’s Juan Fernandez Island to the monstrous treatment of California Indians, Browne is relentless in pointing out the unselfconscious brutality of Americans. Just as I find it reassuring when I learn that folks actually did cuss in the Good Old Days, it does my heart good to find that people were not blind to the injustices they were committing in the name of Young America.

That’s my two cents.

What have you learned?