1854: The Chenook Navy

pike posey

(Image credit: Hudl)

Time was when Chinuk Wawa got your fairly far in Northern California…

…a fun example being a big humorous article in a 4-year-old boomtown on a slow news day of 1854, early in Golden State-hood and smack in the frontier era.

Mighty fanciful in tone, this dialect-heavy most-of-a-pager may have been grounded in a real event, but it references two stereotypical old homes of Western pioneers, Pike County (Missouri) and Posey County (Indiana).

(Surely you’ve heard the American folksong “Sweet Betsy from Pike” — Duane Pasco sings a catchy Chinook Jargon version of it, “Klootzman Kopa Wayhut“, with his accordion.)

I’m always really fascinated when I find how the Jargon in early northern California newspapers — not a place most of us associate with the lingo — was often left untranslated, my favorite evidence that local readers understood it perfectly well.

Granted, this reunion of “suckers”* and “Hoosiers”, as the article nicknames them respectively, is reprinted from a Salem, Oregon paper (i.e. in the Grand Ronde area), but still…! On that incidental point, I want readers to be aware that we often find old newspaper articles, containing Chinuk Wawa information, preserved only as reprints in other papers than the original.

*(My research indicates that “Suckers” is actually the traditional term for Illinoisans. It was already well-established by the time of the article we’re looking at today. So I’m guessing the Oregon newspaper writer misinterpreted “Suckers” as a reference to gullible “Show-Me State” folks. Extra fun fact — Missourians were commonly known as Pukes, thought to be perhaps a vulgar pun on Pike County.) 

Columbia, California is in Miwok Indian territory; I’ll want to go back and remind myself how much Jargon wound up in their language(s). From previous research I think at most the names of one or two introduced animal species meet that description.

Here’s the first of two snippings from today’s article. A speaker is indirectly quoted as saying the Oregon Trail pioneers, not New Englanders, are the “only [real] pilgrims”:

chenook navy 01

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…This reasoning was received with shouts of applause and of close, close! hias, hias close! [good, good! very, very good!] when the speaker took a drink and squatted

Our second selection is a jokey list of the toasts drunk at the gathering, with the last one being of special interest for us:

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10th. T[o t]he Chenook [SIC] navy. Response by a peert [SIC] little man, with har [SIC] on his upper lip — descendant of one of the “fust [SIC] families of Virginia.”  

— all from the Columbia (Tuolumne County, CA) Gazette of February 11, 1854, page 1, column 4

What the “Chenook navy” refers to, with its older spelling of the name, remains a tantalizing puzzle.

  • Is it comparable to the “Cajun navy” of private boat owners who help in disaster relief?
  • Or could it refer to the steamboats that were the backbone of travel in Oregon Territory?
  • If this 1854 phrase is too early for that to be likely, is it a reference to the still-numerous “Chinook canoes” valued by both Native and Settler?

What do you think?