1912 [circa 1892]: RL Stevenson, Chinuk Wawa, & Eyaks: A tall tale or true?

Evaluate for yourself how substantial the connection between the famous adventure-story writer and our Jargon is…


A 1910 postcard of Cordova, Alaska (image credit: Wikipedia)

First off, the connection between the language and the celebrity resides in a schooner, the Casco, that Robert Louis Stevenson once owned. 

The present owner of the Casco, the rather deaf “Captain F—” (!) in Victoria, BC, shouts an Alaskan sealing reminiscence of 20 years previous, giving us the Chinook angle.

The disaster he tells of started “near the Aleutian Islands”, but because he tells of drifting hundreds of miles eastward and encountering mainland Indians who could talk Chinuk Wawa, he could’ve wound up in or near Eyak or (just maybe) far northwest Tlingit territory.

Those are the farthest north coastal ethnic groups that we know to have used CW.

Since the captain was told there was a steamer nearby headed south to Victoria, I’m inferring this was a fairly sizeable settlement such as Cordova, Alaska, nowadays the center of the Eyak tribe.


Indigenous ethno-linguistic groups of Alaska (image credit: PBS.org)

The captain’s odyssey took place in a rowboat at sea (the Casco played no role!), so you can imagine how arduous the effort was over several days to get to a safe shore. 

Here’s how the Victoria news reporter quotes his description of finally reaching an Indian village:


“There was no visible sign of life in any direction, and things began to take on a serious aspect, as we had eaten the last of our provisions; so we started on an exploring expedition in dead earnest. Fortunately after traveling about a couple of miles, we discovered a faint wreath of smoke ascending out of a ravine, a most welcome sight to all of the weary castaways and the ‘near drowneds’ on this dreary coast. In a few minutes one of our number who could talk Chinook was busy arranging for meals and accomodations for the night, which was freely given. The Indians informed us that a few miles south a ship was loading for Victoria — good news, indeed.[“]

— from “Treasure Island and the Schooner Casco” by E. Barrett Jones, in the Victoria (BC) Daily Colonist of October 20, 1912, page 5

My take on the above is that by sheer coincidence, Stevenson’s vessel went on to be owned by someone who had had real-life experiences of kind that Stevenson got famous writing about.

And those adventures involved Chinuk Wawa!

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?