“So Far from Home: An Army Bride on the Western Frontier 1865-1869”

The letters of Julia Gilliss have been collected into a nicely edited book, giving a woman’s firsthand view of the Pacific Northwest frontier right after the Civil War.

Julia Gilliss wrote plenty to her family back East, so we get to hear plenty of her thoughts; some of them provide nice insights into Chinook Jargon.

One that you might not recognize if I didn’t flag it is her use of the phrase “steam cars” on p. 21 for a railroad train. This is one of the first confirmations I’ve found of an English-language source for the common Kamloops Chinuk Wawa expression stim kar. (On page 61 she also uses a synonym “steam wagon train”.)

Julia explains the term “cayuse” as meaning an “Indian pony”, on page 31, for her citified family’s benefit.

Telling about Indian fish peddlers around Fort Dalles, Oregon in 1866, she tells on page 75 how she interacts with them: “Six Siwash nika ticky mika choco tomollo, ipscum tenas salmon.” (‘Friend Indian, I want you to come tomorrow, [I’ll] get a bit of salmon.’) Note that my translation of her sentence differs somewhat from the pretty decent one given by the book’s editor Priscilla Knuth, who didn’t catch or clarify that the last three words are a “purpose” clause.

Page 89 sports more of that unsung Pacific Northwest genre of literature, the Chinuk Wawa-laced doggerel poem. Julia tells her parents,

I will quote the usual sentiments of those leaving this place. 

Knowest thou that land that was formed for the savage, 
That land so prolific in ponderous rocks, 
Where soil was discovered that once grew a cabbage, 
The land of the otter, the marten and fox? 
‘Tis the land of the mist and the home of the drizzle, 
The Ultima Thule, half peopled with Scots! 
The finest of countries from which one can mizzle
Provided at least you can sell your town lots!
Where the food is a mixture of seaweed and salmon
Alternately changing with bacon and beans
Beans and bacon repeated without any gammon
With occasional tastes of inferior greens!
Farewell! Oh Town Council without any function,
Adieu! Great Assembly without any brain.
I leave thee, Great Humbug, with “halo” compunction,
To thy mists, to thy pork, to thy beans and thy rain!

< Halo > of course is Chinuk Wawa hilu ‘no(ne)’. It’s unclear to me so far whether Julia herself composed this verse; it’s definitely modeled on a popular “template”, as there were many published poems and hymns with sentiments like “Knowest thou that land…”

Stationed at Fort Stevens near Astoria, Oregon, Julia tells on pages 124-125:

“We have living near us an old Indian named Toastern, who with his really pretty daughter often brings fish and berries for sale. We were always glad to hear the musical call “Olallies” [berries] at our door, but we have now set out a large strawberry patch…The Indians bring us the Sal-lal and the Buffalo berries…”

Her use of the term “buffaloberry” is interesting, as that’s a red-berried plant of the northern Plains and scattered Great Basin locales that doesn’t grow in coastal Oregon. The fruit looks a bit like salmonberries…


Buffaloberry (image credit: Wikipedia)

On page 173 Julia uses a phrase that I don’t know how to understand. She says, “Tell Papa his Chinook bundle arrived safely with both letters inside…” Any thoughts?

A last note. Page 177, written from Camp Warner, south-central Oregon, in 1868, tells how the local Indigenous people are fascinated with Julia’s infant:

All day they are coming to our doors and windows to see “pale papoose” and want me to “make sing” which means cry

That scrap of speech makes it sound like local Native people, evidently Paiutes, communicated with Whites in a pidgin English possibly blended with some Chinuk Wawa. “Papoose” is an East-Coast Algonquian word long used in English, but also well-documented in the Jargon. Further research awaits…

For an enjoyable change of pace from the predominantly male viewpoints of our region’s historical documents, I highly recommend this book to you. There’s lots more in it than these few samples of “Chinook” interest.

What have you learned?