Samuel Hancock’s “Thirteen Years [give or take] on the Northwest Coast”

samuel hancock grave

(Image credit: Findagrave)

A fella I don’t reckon I knew much about came early to Northern Oregon (pre-Washington Territory) & noted plenty of Chinook Jargon there…

That fella is Samuel Hancock (1818-1883), originally of Virginia and ultimately of Whidbey Island.

His memoir has survived, and it can be read in the form of “Samuel Hancock’s ‘Thirteen Years on the Northwest Coast’ ” by George Verne Blue, a solid 1923 Master’s thesis in History at the University of California [Berkeley].

(A copy of H’s original manuscript can be found in the University of Washington Libraries in Seattle. There’s also a published 1927 version in book form, which, judging from the “snippet view” in Google Books, differs in not preserving the author’s unique spellings and dialect.)

Hancock’s narrative actually covers just the first eight years he was out here, 1845-1853. Which is just great, because the earlier in the frontier era, the more we typically learn about how “the Jargon” was used.

Naturally there’s plenty more to be learned from reading Blue’s thesis, for example that a majority of the 15,000 old pioneers polled by the Oregon Historical Society said their main reason for emigrating out here was to escape the fever-ridden unhealthy environments of the Mississippi River region (page xiv). Hm!

More directly relevant to our usual concerns on this site, Blue points out demographics and economics as a factor that I always feel powerfully explains the presence and persistence of Chinuk Wawa on the frontier. Here he points out how the newcomers were not only outnumbered by but completely depended on the Indigenous people:

hancock snip 01

page xxxv

Who would measure off-hand the extent of the settlers’ economic dependence upon the redmen? Or the importance of social relationships with them? Until the crushing wars of the [eighteen-]fifties the Indians in large measure controlled the conditions of settlement; their hostility was a repelling force matched against the attraction of trading with them.

In Samuel Hancock’s narrative itself, on page 49 (?) he describes an 1845 Christian service for the Oregon Indians “in their own language” — Chinuk Wawa — that he witnessed given by the Rev. Mr. Hamilton Campbell (1812-1863; immigrant of 1840) at the Methodist mission. Hancock recognized the hymns  from their tunes. He had already “learned enough to say good day”. “Through our interpreter” he had a discussion with them.

On page 55 (?) and following, Hancock tells of a trip (in 1846?; Blue keeps pointing out the vagueness of his chronology) to Shoalwater Bay, making this one of the earliest non-Native accounts of that Washington locale. On arriving, he was very ill, and was left behind by his White traveling companions. It seems he was unable to communicate very well with local Native people. The wife of a chief, he claims, had him thrown out of their house and left unsheltered on a beach for the night due to his inability and/or unwillingness to carry on conversation with her. Hancock must not yet have been terribly fluent in the Jargon. However, he says he went on to conduct clear negotiations with the chief in order to get himself taken to get Euro-American help.

Some time later, on page 98 (?), Hancock has come to the Puget Sound region in 1849 (?); here he’s in a standoff with Makah people, and we see a sometimes neglected aspect of linguistic contact, the role of writing:

hancock snip 02

The Indians approached one night, but were warned by the boy that I was armed to the teeth, ready to shoot them whereupon they ran away. The next day I resorted to the ruse of writing in their presence, and intimating that it was a message for the Boston Tyee [bástən táyí, literally ‘American Chief’], the President[,] complaining of their conduct. This alarmed them for they had noticed the effect of written messages to the Hudson Bay Company in former instances. They besought him to burn the mysterious scrawl, and offered potatoes to appease me. I said that I would only take but nine baskets of the potatoes, so wel all agreed to the different propositions. I burnt the paper and they went immediately to work fixing my canoe whilst others of them trotted after the potatoes and soon brought them to me…

The preceding puts us in mind of the ongoing high value of so-called “skookum paper”, ‘powerful letters’ of character reference written by Whites on behalf of Northwest Coast Indigenous people.

Not long after, in the vicinity of “Stickas” (Olympia), Hancock eavesdrops (page 102?) on Indians gathered in their chief’s house, and says he understands enough of “their language”, presumably southern Lushootseed Salish, to gather that they intend to kill him, while some argue for simply enslaving him.

On page 106 (?), shortly after leaving that village, Hancock narrowly averts a violent conflict with Native pursuers by exhibiting greater armaments:

hancock snip 03

…they would all have been (“Mamaloosed”) [míməlus or míməlust] that is in our language killed…

On page 111(?):

hancock snip 04

page 111

…we discovered that these people were very busy in talking over some matter [in their language] that seemed to interest them much, finally they communicated to us that we wanted the Coal in the neighborhood for the purpose of converting it into powder to shoot them ultimately with, this we denied most emphatically and endeavored to explain to them the uses for which we wanted the Coal, Yet they would not be pacified…at this juncture I thought another effort in explanation of coal and its anti-combustible qualities were necessary. I harangued them upon this subject and told them that my companion was a “high as Tyee[háyás táyí] (that is a great man among whites) and that I had brought him here to see them…

A crew of Snoqualmie Indian paddlers are implicitly associated with Chinook Jargon by Hancock:

hancock snip 05

page 115?

…I left the encampment of my old friend with a good crew in fine spirits, at least they appeared so far they kept up an incessant singing which sounded quite musical as they kept time with the paddles or “Isicks[ísik] as they called them…

Twenty-five miles east of modern Seattle (Snoqualmie Falls it seems), the Jargon is explicitly part of the scene:

hancock snip 06

page 113?

…I…was told by my guide that it was a considerable distance around this elbow by the River to where we parted with the Canoe and that the current of the River [was] “high as skokum” [hayas-skúkum ‘very strong’], that is it was very rapid, and that by dark we would be in sight of the “Lockalie Chuck” [sáx̣ali-chə́qw ‘upper water’] that is the high water…

Same area, more Jargon use:

hancock snip 07

page 111?

…they told me that here was “highas Close Hihi” [hayas-łúsh ílihi] that is, (that here the land was good…We continued on this trail nearly across this prairie when I was satisfied it was leading us into the mountains and so expressed myself to the Indians, they told me that this (Yuacut) [úyx̣ət] or road was an old one…

Same region:

hancock snip 08

page 118?

I laid down and took a rest feasting my fancy as I lay, upon the beautiful scenery all around my camp, after a short time the Indians announced that “Muk a muk” [mə́kʰmək ‘food’] was ready. I got up and regularly pitched into what was before me, being in the enjoyment of excellent appetite…

And this:

hancock snip 09

page 120?

…this party remained for a couple of hours with us and then left in the direction of the country below the Falls where the tribe I understand principally resides, at least this is considered their (Hihi) [ilihi] or land…[later I] found my Indians apparently happy and well satisfied, all sitting around the fire singing one of the songs they usually engage in when feeling in this mood; they said that their “Tum Tums, were highas close,” [tə́mtəm…hayas-łúsh ‘hearts…very good’] that is that they felt in perfect good humor…


hancock snip 11

page 122?

After supper I walked down to take a look at the spring and there discovered that the bottom of this place was perfectly alive with some sort of an animal upon an examination of which they turned out to be leeches, the first I had seen since I came west of the rocky mountains; the Indians said they were Mu-sa-chee [masáchi] that is they were bad.

Public relations/advertising in Jargon:

hancock snip 12

page 120?

…that their impression was that I was a “Mar Kook” man [mákuk-mán ‘selling-man’], a merchant, and that if I concluded to settle among them they might consider themseves fortunate. This my Indians said they were delighted to hear as they would not in the event of my coming among them in that capacity be obliged to go all the way to Fort Nisqually to do their trading or else over to the British side of [sic] Victoria…Appreciating their intentions I assured them that I would play the character of the “Mark Kook” man out to the best of my abilities…

…which is echoed here…

hancock snip 13

page 120?

Here’s still more about the high reputation of traders at that time and place:

hancock snip 14

page 126?

…among these people it would be considered a trespass for the commonality of them to attempt anything familiar with a person whom they considered a “Tyee” and merchant or a man who deal in Iktas [íkta-s ‘(valued) possession-s’], that is, everything that they would be likely to want…

A bit later (1851?), in Makah country:

hancock snip 15

page 137?

…to go in pursuit of the whale…it required a man with a (Skokum Turn Turn) [skúkum tə́mtəm], a strong heart, to engage in this business.

Incidentally, Hancock makes overt remarks in his document that his customers included visitors from tribes as far south as the Quinault Salish on the mid-Washington coast. Among the items that Native people traded to him for Western goods were sea-otter pelts; I take special notice of this fact, since I’ve recently speculated that Chinuk Wawa ilaki* is ultimately from Quinault.

Something I won’t reproduce here because it doesn’t involve quoted Chinook Jargon, but is really interesting, is when Hancock hears a firsthand account of the 1807 Tonquin disaster from an older man who had been present as an interpreter. (Which almost certainly means this elder was a user of the older Nootka Jargon. See his observation at the end of today’s article that old Indians he met didn’t know Chinuk Wawa.)

On page 169(?), on a sort of exploratory trading voyage to far northwest Vancouver Island in 1852(?), at a location that may be Quatsino in Kwakwaka’wakw land, he says he tried “three or four different Indian languages” (it’s virtually certain one of them was Chinuk Wawa) with the local people — but to no avail.

On page 171(?) and following, however, in the same area, a Native man approaches Hancock asking in “the Chenook language” who he is; they have a negotiation in the same idiom. It turns out the man knows very little Jargon, but is favorably influenced by Hancock’s claim of being a “King George man” (kʰinchóch-mán, ‘British person’) like the Hudsons Bay Company traders.

On page 181(?), now prisoner among the Ahousaht Nuučaan̓uł, Hancock hits upon a truly novel use for what was evidently Chinook Jargon plus perhaps some “Nootka” words, improvising an “Indian song” arguing his own case:

hancock snip 16

page 181?

…before reaching the house I struck up an Indian song, interspersed with words that I knew these people understood, to the purport that I were [sic; this verb is typical of Hancock’s Virginia English] just going to visit my friendsbut were coming back again. They seemed pleased with this song and halted to give me a fair opportunity to continue my singing, which I found had a tendency to produce a little better feeling toward us.

On page 184, it seems this success has emboldened Hancock to an encore, asking his captors to let him visit their women, to whom he sings but to a less positive reception, whereupon this resourceful character switches to physical comedy:

hancock snip 17

page 184?

…upon entering the house I began singing a song, having some words embraced that I knew they understood. They seemed amazed either at my familiarity or else my singing or perhaps both, and finding that my singing were not likely to produce a very favorable reception, I then commenced a species of buffoonery by making ugly faces etc., when soon the whole of them began laughing, undoubtedly this seemed to please them.

Soon after that scene, Hancock conducts a long negotiation with the local chief, pretending to want to buy a large quantity of traditionally hewn (without European axes) house planks, which would involve Hancock’s being released to fetch a ship and payment. On page 194(?) Hancock is being transported to freedom by a Native canoe crew when one of them shouts, using at least a couple of Chinuk Wawa terms, that the prisoner actually intends to return with a “fire (i.e. steam) ship [páya-shíp ‘steamboat’] or else a man of war [mə́nuwa*, to judge from local languages that it’s loaned into] and kill all of them”.

The last page of the thesis, 202(?), is a separately titled section giving Hancock’s understanding of the origin of Chinook Jargon. I show it in full, because it strikes me as a remarkably well-informed early argument for a “post-contact” origin of this creole-pidgin language. (Albeit he repeats the old saw that it must’ve been invented by the Hudsons Bay Company.) In short:

  1. Chinuk Wawa is only an interethnic language and not the language of any single entire community.
  2. In Hancock’s experiences north of the Columbia River, old Indians in the mid-19th century don’t know Chinuk Wawa (remember the elder above?)…
Hancock snip 18

page 202?

Personally, I feel that Hancock’s memoir is an overlooked treasure for the student of Chinook Jargon. He doesn’t quote terribly much of it directly, but he’s wonderful at giving details of places and situations where it was and (this is important!) wasn’t used in frontier-era Northern Oregon.

What have you learned?
What are your thoughts?