1888: Teddy Roosevelt spoke Chinuk Wawa! In the Kootenays!

roosevelt illus

Is that Teddy on the left? “Camp in the forest”, illustration between pages 140 & 141

For real? Yet another US bigwig involved with Jargon?!

I’m just about losing count of them. President US Grant. President William Howard Taft. A host of Civil War generals. Lots of other famous folks of the 1800s.

And now, renowned outdoorsman, President Teddy Roosevelt.

Nobody’s claiming he knew Chinook super well.

But, like virtually all late-frontier visiting wealthy White hunters in the then-fashionable Kootenays region (the Kootenay Lake-Selkirk Mountains to be more precise), T.R. reports that he used Chinuk Wawa with his Indigenous guide.

This took place in September 1888 as the hunters went after the now effectively extinct Selkirk caribou:


Ammál himself was one of the Lower Kootenais; I had hired him for the trip, as the Indians west of the Rockies, unlike their kinsman of the plains, often prove hard and willing workers. His knowledge of English was almost nil; and our very scanty conversation was carried on in the Chinook jargon, universally employed between the [Rocky] mountains and the Pacific. Apparently he had three names: for he assured us that his “Boston” (i.e., American) name was Ammál; his “Siwash” (i.e., Indian) name was Appák; and that the priest called him Abél — for the Lower Kootenais are nominally Catholics.

— from page 143 of “The Wilderness Hunter: An Account of the Big Game of the United States and Its Chase with Horse, Hound, and Rifle (volume 1)” by Theodore Roosevelt (Philadelphia, PA: Gebbie & Co., 1903).

There’s not a whole lot more related in this memoir about what the two men discussed in Jargon, but it rings authentic.

A detail: Roosevelt breathes new life into the old popular misunderstanding of Chinuk Wawa’s speech territory. CW didn’t really reach as far east as the Rockies , except up in BC and maybe north Idaho, areas where that mountain range is much closer to the Columbia River drainage and the coast.

But his claim that Kootenays knew scant English, still relying on Jargon up to & past the turn of the century, is right in line with everything else we know about that area’s cultural contact history.

So, maybe somewhere in T.R.’s papers, there could be one of those tiny “Chinook dictionary” pamphlets that so many thousands of newcomers used while spending time in the Pacific Northwest…

What do you think?