Important: 1792 Chehalis, Chinook, and Shoalwater evidence *against* Chinuk Wawa

Today’s post began as a parenthetical note, but is important enough to be its own article.


(Image credit: FamilySearch)

In my recent discussion of linguist Barbara P. Harris’s 1994 article about possible pre-contact origins of Chinuk Wawa, I mentioned that she speaks of Captain George Vancouver’s crew visiting “Gray’s Harbour” in 1792, where supposedly the locals understood some Nootka Jargon.

I’m skeptical about the language use under discussion there — could it be that the locals simply *managed* to *learn* a few words that the sailors were using, just as White sailors are known to have done at Nootka Sound?

Read on.

I’d like to point out that the coastal “Gray’s Harbour” that Harris refers to is actually Gray’s Bay upstream on the Columbia River — in Lower Chinookan territory. I have not found evidence that they visited Gray’s Harbor, only that Vancouver renamed it in honor of the American Captain Gray.

And we can note a just slightly earlier point of information, the comment by 5th mate John Boit of Captain Gray’s crew, upon the “discovery” of Gray’s Harbor on May 7, 1792. Boit wrote that, there, the Chehalis people’s Salish “language was different from any we have yet heard”. He makes clear that there was no successful verbal communication between them and the Drifters then, in Nootka Jargon or any other form, and we know that Gray had already spent time in the Nootka area for trading purposes.

And this was just 4 days before Gray’s 1792 “discovery” of and entrance into the Columbia River, apparently making his crew the first Euro-Americans in Chinookan land; they’re the first to record the name “Chinook“, when they visit the Native town of that name. Boit says on May 12, “These Natives talk’d the same language as those farther South, but we cou’d not learn it.” That would describe the complexity of Chinookan (including the more southerly Clatsop) or Chehalis, not the streamlined nature of Chinook Jargon or another pidgin. And here we can see that any Nootka Jargon (etc.) words that the Chinookans “knew” when Vancouver’s folks arrived some days later could be easily explained by their prior exposure to Gray’s bunch!

We can also note Boit’s reference to a coastal Native group at 46° 39′ north and 122° 50′ west — evidently just offshore from the Long Beach Peninsula / Shoalwater Bay, Washington! — that they had contacted on April 22, 1792: “Their language to us was unintelligible.” Which would fit either Lower Chehalis Salish or Lower Chinookan, or both, but again not Chinuk Wawa. Explanatory aside: accurate measurement of longitude was more difficult than that of latitude, in Gray’s time. Boit also gives a goofy longitude for the Chinook town.

I am really skeptical that Nootka Jargon, let alone Chinook Jargon, was in use in SW Washington by 1792. But within 13 years, it surely was, as Lewis and Clark found.

What do you think?