1847 Sir George Simpson, “An Overland Journey round the World…1841 and 1842”

simpson hieroglyphic

“A hieroglyphic epistle”, page 81

Thanks to my colleague, professor Peter Bakker, for an email pointing out an interesting book that a major fur-trade personality published while on active duty…

…This is “An Overland Journey round the World” by Sir George Simpson (Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Blanchard, 1847).

Simpson is a good writer. Educated, with a sense of humor and deep knowledge of the country, he tells us plenty that’s worth hearing.

You get a sense of the linguistic landscape. In the early frontier days that he’s narrating, not just places but also many Native people were known to the newcomers by Canadian French names, such as Bras Croche and Grande Queue; maybe the guide Peechee is Petit?

Simpson first uses the word < kammas > ‘camas root’ on page 90, in connection with a sizeable encampment of Pend d’Oreilles, and he goes into quite some descriptive detail.

On page 92, Simpson says his party’s “knowledge of their [Pend d’Oreille Salish] language was limited to kammas and patac” — but the former is a famous Chinuk Wawa noun (originally from Nez Perce), and the latter is a Canadian French loan word for ‘potatoes’! I learned it from Spokane tribe elder Pauline Flett as a Salish word, but Father Le Jeune of Kamloops, referring to the turn-of-the-century era, also tells us < patak > was Jargon in that area.

Did Sir George, then, speak Chinuk Wawa? At Fort “Wallawalla” (page 100), the factor Mr. McKinlay provides the party traveling down the Columbia River with an interpreter. Unless this was a Sahaptin speaker

The presence of “Sandwich” Islanders (Hawai’ians) is no surprise, but I find it remarkable to see words of their pidgin English quoted, at least on page 102, where a memory of an 1829 clash with Indians near the Dalles has several Kanakas saying “Me broke him”, clearly a statement of intention, “I’m going to hurt him.”

Page 104 brings the first mention of “Chinook canoes”, in the Dalles region too; this was a widely known term, a fact that presumably reflects Chinook Jargon *chinúk-kəním.

On pages 107-108 is a description of what we know to be a typical working and traveling party for the Pacific Northwest fur-trade period:

simpson 01

simpson 02

Our batteau carried as curious a muster of races and languages as
perhaps had ever been congregated within the same compass in any
part of the world. Our crew of ten men contained Iroquois, who
spoke their own tongue ; a Cree half-bred, of French origin, who ap-
peared to have borrowed his dialect from both his parents [MICHIF!]; a North
Briton, who understood only the Gaelic of his native hills ; Canadi-
ans, who, of course, knew French; and Sandwich Islanders, who
jabbered a medley of Chinook, English, and their own vernacular
jargon. Add to all this that the passengers were natives of England,


Scotland, Russia, Canada, and The Hudson’s Bay Company’s territo-
ries ; and you have the prettiest congress of nations, the nicest con-
fusion of tongues, that has ever taken place since the days of the
Tower of Babel. At the native camp, near which we halted for the
night, we enriched our many clans with one variety more by hiring a
canoe, and its complement of Chinooks, to accompany us.

This was in the vicinity of Cowlitz Farms, and Simpson gives an interesting short description of the mixed-race Settler community there.

Page 109 brings the traditional tale of a large isolated stone in this neighborhood that, like one on Multnomah Island on the Columbia River, is said to have been dropped there by a < skookoom > (skukúm ‘powerful spiritual being’), “a mighty man of old times”.

Some Kwakwaka’wakw folks are referred to several times on page 115 as < Sebassamen >. I recognize the ethnic name Sebassa, but Simpson’s unvarying use of the preceding suggests he may not have recognized a potential Chinuk Wawa expression, < Sebassa >-man. (However, CW isn’t known to have been spoken around north Vancouver Island so early.)

Similarly, on page 116 Simpson refers to a secondhand authority, Washington Irving’s “Astoria”, on how Indians talk, noting that “Vancouver” (the fort) is called < Macubah >.

On the same page, though, Simpson discusses the much-consumed oil of the small < ullachan > fish (eulachon, which we typically consider a Jargon word), and his unique spelling suggests this is a word in his daily vocabulary.

Page 117 brings — after a jocular episode of trying to teach Kwakwaka’waks a few English words — a discussion of < hiaquays >, the dentalium-shell Indian money háykʰwa. The word is from Nuuchahnulth originally, so it’s noteworthy to find it north of that territory.

And on page 118 is a note of going out fishing with a Kwakwaka’wak chief, “and, though we were quite alone, yet we contrived, partly by words of English and Chinook [Jargon], and partly by signs, to carry on an animated conversation.” So still we see that the Jargon wasn’t exactly a current language of north Vancouver Island at the start of the 1840s, but White people’s trading vessels were probably disseminating a pidgin vocabulary drawn from many sources.

Page the 119th at last gives us some answer to this question of whether Simpson really knew Jargon, and whether any individuals so far north spoke it as well. He quotes a Kwakwaka’wakw chief’s speech with what seems veracity, as these words are easy to translate back into Chinuk Wawa:

simpson harangue

Our friend, who was by this time in his canoe, opened against Captain
McNeill with the following harangue in Chinook : -— ” The white men
are very pitiful, since they have stolen my axe. My axe must have
been very good indeed, otherwise the ship would not have stolen it. If
an Indian steals anything, he is ashamed and hides his face ; but the
great ship-chief Ma-ta-hell steals my axe and is not ashamed, but stands
there scolding and laughing at me, whom he has robbed. It is good to
be a white chief, because he can steal and at the same time show his
face. If he was not strong with a large ship and long guns, he would
not be so brave. I am weak now, but I may be strong by and by, and
then perhaps I will take payment for my axe. But it is very good to
be a white chief in a large ship with big guns ; he can steal from a poor
Indian who is here alone in his canoe, with his wife and child, and no
big guns to protect him.”

A Kwakwaka’wakw sub-chief “is appropriately distinguished as Killum” (page 138) — a pidgin English word?

A Cree view of literacy, page 140:

simpson writing

Though not one of his countrymen
would understand a word of what was written, yet the most skeptical
among them would not dare to question the truth of a story which had
a document in its favor. A savage stands nearly as much in awe of
paper, pen and ink as of steam itself; and, if he once puts his cross to
any writing, he has rarely been known to violate the engagement which
such writing is supposed to embody or to sanction. To him the very
look of black and white is a powerful “medicine.”

Were the early Catholic missionaries seen by Native people as berdaches (two-spirits)? Page 141:

simpson demers

Next day we reached the Cowlitz Farm, where, on the following
morning, the Rev. Mr. Demers of the Roman Catholic Church, break-
fasted with us. He had just returned from visiting the country, situ-
ated between Nisqually and Eraser’s River. At Fort Langley he had
seen upwards of three thousand inhabitants of Vancouver’s Island,
who had been fishing during the summer in the stream just mentioned.
Everywhere the natives received him with the greatest respect. They
had, however, been very much puzzled with regard to the sex of their
visitor. From his dress they took him for a woman, but from his
beard for a man ; but, feeling that such inconsistencies could not both
be true, they pursued a middle course by referring him to a distinct

Simpson on page 144 gives good firsthand information on the mixed-race French Prairie settlement that’s so important in the history of creolized Chinuk Wawa.

The remaining 300 or so pages of the book concern Simpson’s travels elsewhere, but what we’ve gleaned above shows it’s well worth a read.

What do you think?