“The Chinook and other Indian jargons”

We learn a little something, excerpting from a glowing obituary of then-recently deceased Isaiah Cooper Matheny, Willamette Valley (Oregon) pioneer of the 1843 Applegate wagon train…

…which had the offensive headline “MADE TWO DEAD INDIANS”, about a longtime secret of his: he conducted a vigilante execution of a pair of suspected Native horse thieves early in the California gold rush, in late 1849.

isaiah matheny

That information is not the main idea of today’s post. I want to direct my readers’ attention to the use of the word “jargon”:

chinook and other indian jargons

A native of Edgar County, Illinois, he was in his 80th year at the time of his death. Mr. Matheny fought Indians through the Cayuse war in 1847-8 as a member of the regiment raised in Oregon for that purpose, but his experience with the Indians was not confined to that conflict, and he spoke the Chinook and other Indian jargons readily. 

— from the Portland (OR) Sunday Oregonian of September 9, 1906, page 5, column 2

This isn’t necessarily a reference to multiple pidgin languages, although I’ve shown in this blog that there was some kind of pidgin Spanish used by Indigenous northern Californians in frontier days.

Instead, I take the plural “jargons” here as a normal 19-century vintage use of the word, a value judgment of any unfamiliar or nonstandard type of speech.

The referent is surely the tribal languages of Oregon Territory.

Early on, before demographics began to stabilize in favor of Settlers, non-Native people often learned as much as they could manage of languages like Nimiipuu (Nez Perce Sahaptian), Dxʷləšucid (Lushootseed Salish), and Maqlaqsyals (Klamath) — along with Chinuk Wawa.

The working idea looks to have been that any bit of Native language was valuable in that environment where Whites were a rather helpless minority.

So the newspaper article’s word “jargons” is equivalent to the still (unfortunately) used term “dialects” for the Indigenous languages: an exoticizing and devaluing label that could only safely be applied in retrospect.

You don’t find that metalinguistic snobbery in contemporary accounts such as memoirs and newspapers from the early frontier days:

As long as the early newcomers knew they needed these languages (which they virtually never spoke well, thus paradoxically reflecting the “jargon” evaluation back onto themselves), they were too busy using them for survival to insult them.

[By the way — as an early Willamette Valley pioneer, Matheny can be presumed to have spoken early-creolized (Fort Vancouver-style) Chinuk Wawa, which made its way far and wide before the Grand Ronde Reservation was even founded.]

What do you think?