1848: Allen, “Ten Years in Oregon: Travels and Adventures of Dr. E. White and Lady”

elijah white

Elijah White (image credit: Timetoast)

Here’s a wonderful book to read. Quite the palate cleanser, after slogging through Herbert Beaver’s letters, but that’s another story.

Like so many from its era, it’s now out of copyright and online for free.

I’ve seen few Chinook Jargon scholars using this fun primary source, essentially a memoir of Protestant missionary Elijah White (1806-1879) and wife (why can’t I find her name anywhere?) in the Willamette Valley / lower Columbia River region circa 1838-1848.

That’s a wonderful time to have been on the scene, from our perspective, as it’s smack in the Fort Vancouver-centered “early creolized” stage of the Jargon that I like to highlight.

And, even though the book is in a third-person omniscient narrator’s voice, as the Whites engaged a skilled writer to make their experiences as readable as possible, it is their own eyewitness observations.

And the “Doctor and lady” prove to be among those relatively scarce frontier observers who had a gift for humane, attentive seeing — and for less readily imposing their own prejudices onto new experiences than most newcomers did.

There isn’t a massive amount of Chinuk Wawa in this volume, otherwise I suppose we’d all have heard of it sooner. But what there is here, is pretty fine. And I’m liking how they don’t exoticize CW the way almost all popular writers did; they take it in with the rest of the scenery that they accurately describe.

There’s a concept I mentioned the other day in regard to a Tlingit described as talking “a grotesque admixture” of languages; I want to first note that in this book by the Whites, descriptions of “broken”/”a little” “English”/”French” seem pretty clearly to indicate Chinuk Wawa. So do some unlabeled quotations from locals. Christopher Roth reads things this way, in his study, and I strongly agree with him.

Pages 56-57, discussing the local Native “pilot George”, provide an instance; he is an “able linguist” with a “smattering of French and English” (presumably the parts of Chinuk Wawa that the newcomers have little trouble understanding) “and many of the tongues of his country”.

Many personalities and places well-known to us in lower Columbia River history show up, although you have to be good at spotting them in unusual spellings. There’s Mr. “Birney” (Birnie) who runs Fort George; Dr. “Talmie” (Tolmie) of the HBC; and the “Cowerlitz” (Cowlitz) River. Speaking of familiar names, the new arrivals meet Native people who the missionaries Lee, Frost and company have named after major Protestant theologians and missionary board officials of the day, Nathan Bangs, Elijah Hedding, and so on.

The renowned Chinook Jargon speaker James Douglas makes several appearances, having been left in charge as chief factor of Fort Vancouver by John McLoughlin (here “Gov. McLaughlin”) as the latter vacationed in England. (Page 65, though, has the new arrivals being introduced to McLoughlin prior to his departure.)

Another Jargon speaker we’ve encountered before on this site, who I think appears here, is the early African-American pioneer Solomon or Saul. Page 80 mentions a “negro pilot” assisting the White family, and page 333 tells of two early settlers, either of whom could be him. Unfortunately neither passage mentions these men’s names.

Starting on page 85, we get one of the book’s few direct quotations of Chinook Jargon, nested in a longer stretch of English that’s demonstrably translated from CJ. Dr. White, having failed to get directions from an older Indian woman who surprisingly doesn’t understand him (i.e. he’s talking Jargon), gets lost somewhere in the Willamette Valley. He’s fortuitously found by “one of his neighbors, Mrs. Bilake [Belleque], a youth named Lucia [Lucien], and an Indian crew” (p. 85). The Mrs. is the Native wife of very important early French Prairie settler Pierre Bellec (to choose another of the spellings he’s known by), and here we have the rare privilege of hearing her speak Jargon, both diretly and in translation. The ‘you (plural)’ that she’s quoted as saying is incorrect, surely a mistake for < mica >, the singular.

mrs bilake

page 85

A few moments, and a canoe
rounded a point, and came directly towards him, and to his
joy, he discovered its occupant to be one of his neighbors.
Mrs. Bilake, a youth named Lucia, and an Indian crew. As
they approached to within a very short distance, Mrs. B.
till then scarcely recognizing the stranger, elevated both
hands, and in broken English — for she was a half-breed —
exclaimed “Cah masica charco.[qʰá(x̣) msayka cháku ‘Where are you (plural!) coming from?’] “Is it you, my friend? –
where did you come from? – is it you, toctor?” [tákta] He replied
to the good woman that if she would but give him a bite
of something to eat she should know the whole. She raised
both hands as before, and with a look of consternation, in-
formed him that they had been absent from home a week,
and expecting to reach home that evening, had eaten their
laat remnant of food about half a mile below.

mrs bilake 2

…She laughed merrily at the
oddity of the expression, and said in her own language, “O
that is too bad, but I guess we can fix you something.”…

mrs bilake 3

page 86

…Mrs. Bilake then led him
to the door, and with a tearful eye, and quivering lip, said,
“Mrs. White is not far from frightened to death about you.
I have ordered a good horse for you, do not spare him, re-
turn to your family as fast as he can carry you.”

Little clues like that “not far from frightened to death” indicate a pretty literal translation from Chinuk Wawa (wík-sayá míməlust kʰapa k’wásh or similar).

As an aside, I’m curious about Geneviève St-Martin Bélèque/Bilake/Bellec/Mrs. B’s repeated two-handed gesture; could it be the Coast Indian “I raise my hands to you”? (It turns out to be hard to find images of this in Google, so I hope my words suffice.) Harriet Munnick’s staggeringly awesome “Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest” indicates that she was half “Chinook”.

On pages 259-261 we get independent confirmation of one of our recent discoveries, the phrase “dead house” for a Native burial structure on the Columbia River! (See “Memaloose Illahees & ‘Dead Houses’ “.) Extremely little Chinuk Wawa is directly quoted in this book, as I noted above, but this phrase was clearly current in the area as míməlust-háws. The pages I’m now discussing tell of the dramatic rescue by missionaries of a Native slave boy from such a structure, where he’d been tied to his deceased owner’s corpse.

The direct use of Jargon words on pages 393 and following — such as the “sko-kum” or the “tam-an-a-was” — is actually a quotation from Lee & Frost’s well-known book, also titled “Ten Years in Oregon”. (All of these folks knew each other well, so it’s humorous to me that they didn’t arrange to have differently titled publications!)

As little as the Jargon material in the Whites’ memoir amounts to, it’s observed independently from any other sources we’ve been familiar with. So this book gets my heart recommendation as a really fine source for work on the roots of the Fort Vancouver and Grand Ronde communities.

What do you think?
qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?