1792: Captain Vancouver’s journals — evidence against a pre-Contact trade language

Nootka Sound, in Nuuchahnulth Wakashan traditional territory on Vancouver Island’s west coast, was the centre of a late-1700s trade in sea-otter furs.


14,000 years and no Indigenous trade language (image credit: CBC.ca)

Thus, that locale became the scene where we some sort of new pidgin language sprang into being, what gets called the “Nootka Jargon”. 

Let’s be mindful here, plenty of things have been said by linguists about that pidgin — but its existence is approximately 2 parts inference to 1 part direct evidence. 

That direct evidence has mostly to do with word lists, the sort of on-the-fly documents taken down in a mad rush to facilitate trading at an advantageous rate of exchange.

Inflation was a serious problem in this part of the Northwest Coast; I read in John Boit’s journals that in the less than a handful of years it took him to return to Nuuchahnulth country for a second round of bartering, the Indigenous people had developed quite different ideas of which Euro-American items were desirable, and of how many of each was worth an otter pelt.

I’m telling you, although it took a year or more to reach these coasts from the (eastern) USA or Europe, you’d better hurry up and make deals quick.

Picking up enough Nuuchahnulth, a radically different language from European ones, to trade with was a major concern, so the “Drifters” jotted down and used jumbles of Native words in new, simplified ways.

We can tell this:

  • from some of the meanings attributed to Nuuchahnulth words in their word lists,
  • from the structure of some phrases therein,
  • from their foreignized pronunciations,
  • and from the fact that the Drifters promptly tried using this new Nootka Jargon in each coastal locale that they visited for the first time. 

Having said that, let’s do a reality check: 

  • It’s doubtful that all Nuuchahnulth nations spoke or understood “Nootka Jargon”; many of them were distant from the main trading action.
  • We’ve seen on my website that Lower Chehalis Salish people didn’t understand it in 1792.
  • Nor did the Natítanui Chinookans of the lower Columbia River, in the same year. 
  • And neither did Heiltsuk Wakashans just north of Vancouver Island, in the vicinity of modern Namu, British Columbia. 

Not, at least, when visited by Captain George Vancouver’s ship Discovery in 1792, roughly one generation into the Nootka trade era: 


51°56’30”N, 127°51’W in modern notation: Heiltsuk territory, Burke Channel, spring of 1792, Vancouver 1802:72

Many of the inhabitants visited them in a friendly manner, and appeared to be of a different race from those they had seen to the southward, used a different language, and were totally unacquainted with that of Nootka…

Ignoring Russian America’s rather insular operations to the north, I’m provisionally dating the start of the “maritime fur trade” era to the 1778 month-long stay of Captain Cook‘s vessels at Nootka on his third voyage, because it was that crew which discovered that the sea otter furs they’d gotten at Nootka sold for an 1,800% profit in China. News of this discovery ignited a race by mostly British and American merchants to get to the NW Coast as fast as possible. 

As regards the Heiltsuks’ not knowing Nootka Jargon, that’s worthy of comment, not just in terms of the state of the maritime fur trade in 1792, but from two more time perspectives

  1. It tends to show that there was no existing pre-Contact trade language among Indigenous people who have lived on the coast for 14,000 years; otherwise the Drifters would’ve quickly picked one up, used it enthusiastically, and been understood at many ports of call.
  2. It helps to explain why, as I’ve shown, a pidginized Heiltsuk Jargon later emerged, by around 1833. (I will share my evidence here in a separate article.) It likewise helps to explain why a pidginized Haida Jargon also developed in the same era. (I should invite Dr. Anthony Grant to write a guest post here about it.) 

All of the NW Coast peoples eventually used Chinook Jargon, as we know. In the case of British Columbia, that apparently happened only after the founding of (Fort) Victoria in 1843. That’s when the CW-centred “fur trade” (by that point diversified to handle many kinds of products) expanded northward and, perhaps most importantly, attracted northern visitors to the multiethnic metropolitan waterfront of Victoria.  

What do you think?