1893-1897: Sweet “BetseyAnnSpikes” :) (Part 1 of 7)

American newspapers in the late 1800s loved to publish letters from people living at the fringes of their circulation area, as a way of getting news for free.


Theoretically this could’ve been Betseyannspikes! (Image credit: FamilySearch.org)

The papers also knew readers enjoyed “dialect humor”, often framed as the speech of ignorant, half-literate yokels. Thus you find intentionally deformed expressions like “sitty jude” (city dude), “higolick” (hydraulic), and “rootany” (botany), as well as still-recognizable dialect pronunciations such as “trazure” (Treasurer) and “onst” (‘onced’ = once, which we recently discussed here).

In post-frontier Oregon, this country flavor meant a fair bit of Chinuk Wawa was involved — the “Jargon” was so quickly becoming a thing of the backwoods and of the past!

These correspondents from “out in the sticks” often used colorful pseudonyms. One that I recall was regionally famous under the CW handle “Cumtux” (kə́mtəks ‘know; understand’).

The example we’re seeing today went so far as to conceal his gender identity; well, he made a purposefully half-hearted effort to do so. Thanks to the truly wonderful regional history website of Ben Truwe, we have access to a transcribed collection of letters to the editor by “Betseyannspikes” from the 1890s.

That pen name evokes the popular pioneer-era American lewd/comical ballad “Sweet Betsy from Pike(here’s Johnny Cash singing it), as well as sounding like “Betsey in spikes”, i.e. a woman in (male) loggers’ boots! As we’ll learn in this series, Betsey was indeed a man.

(Bonus fact — you’ll hear the tune of “Sweet Betsy from Pike” in Duane Pasco’s great CW song “Klootzman kopa Wayhut“.)

Today, let’s start a mini-series of Betseyannspikes’s greatest hits that involve Chinook Jargon…I’m tempted to translate not just that but also the thick eye-dialect into standard English! A general observation is that Betsey invents fictional friends based on locally famous people including an Oregon botanist and Modoc warriors; I add links to those names. I’ll extract Ben Truwe’s parenthetical comments to footnotes, along with my own.

Student of the Old School.

Huckleberry Patch

My deer Ed: — I arived hear all rite side up with kare. Plenty uv berries, but tha hint ripe az yet, plenty uv Injuns hear enjoying thar summer’s exkavashun. The seanery in Bear Holler iz very fine. The medasine man is hear gatherin rutes and erbs tu make medasine fur winter pracktice. I do wish Perfessor Skot Morris wood kum up hear and teach us a fu lessens in rootany. I seed him onst, and think him a nice gentleman, and wuz settin mi cap fur him, but Prof Schackmasty Schonshin sed tu me, sez he: Betsey, sez he: you ort tu be ashamed uv yer self. Sez I, why? Sez he, bekaze Prof. Morris haz got quite a smart chance uv a family uv hiz own. Now deer Ed, yer ort tu seed my feathers drap. I never wuz nown tu interfear betwixt a man and his wife. My deer Ed, Salabuckleberry [1] sends her kindest regards tu yer az follers: Nika tika, mika wawa kopa mika mowish Ed. Charco six, nika tika wawa copa mika. [2] If her kant rede this get Bill Nye’s brother or Manafraidofabear [3] ter interprit it fur ye. Give Mackdugal my regards. Thar wuz a terable split up among the wimmen up hear tuther day, but I spect yer have hearn all about it afore this time. Yours az ever,


— Medford Mail, supplement, August 25, 1893, page 1


Salabuckleberry [1] is an “Indian name” joke involving salal berries.– DDR.

Nika tika, mika wawa kopa mika mowish Ed. Charco six, nika tika wawa copa mika. [2] “You me to talk with you, deer [sic] editor. Come, friemd, I want to talk with you.” — Ben Truwe. DDR addendum: Ben brilliantly catches Betsey’s Chinook-English pun ‘dear’ – < mowish >; a more exact translation of the Jargon here is ‘I want you to talk to me ‘deer’ editor. Come friend, I want to talk with you.’ We might expect the first two words to be followed by < spose > / pus / etc., a fluent Jargon ‘subjunctive’ marker, but Betsey is writing totally understandable pioneer Chinuk Wawa.

Bill Nye’s brother or Manafraidofabear [3]: pen names of two other Mail correspondents–the former may have been George L. Hays; the latter was John B. Griffin — Ben Truwe.

What do you think?