1854: We can’t let creole Chinuk Wawa monolinguals vote

Buried main point: Everybody knew there was a big population of monolingual creole Chinuk Wawa speakers in 1854!

The language had big political importance in the first year of Washington’s territoryhood.

Importing the values of the states they had emigrated from, the members of the newborn Washington Territorial Assembly spent a good deal of their very first session arguing over which races were the “scum of creation”, and which ones should be allowed to vote…

The deeply fascinating session of March 17, 1854 illustrates this; the legislators all agreed, it seems, that Indians and Blacks should be disenfranchised to maintain White supremacy.

They also seem to have accepted that folks who were ¼ or one-eighth nonwhite were no threat.

But in between those extremes, they wrangled over which kinds of half-breeds (part Indians? part “Negroes”? others?) were “deserving”.

The first legislative session is reported in extensive detail in the local press.

You see, the territory had been organized through “North Oregon” popular activism, so the average Joe was keenly interested in how its operation would affect him.

This is why we have good documentation that folks were highly conscious of a certain mixed-race population — the daughters and sons of the venerated first pioneers.

Those folks notoriously spoke Chinuk Wawa as a first language, though, which represented a problem for the calculations of the lawmakers writing the rules of the territorial club they’d just founded.

Read this:

cant vote 01

cant vote 02

Just to highlight that last bit:

Mr. Biles…said three fourths of the halfbreeds did not know for whom or for what they voted — that many could not either read or speak the English language, or understand it when spoken. Many of them understood no language but the Jargon.

— from the Olympia (Washington Territory) Pioneer and Democrat of March 25, 1854, page 1, column 5

For the record, this is not necessarily the earliest publication to mention that Chinuk Wawa had become people’s native language. That fact was mentioned by any number of observers of the culture centred on Fort Vancouver.

It’s just taken us 150 years or so to wrap our heads around it!

What have you learned?