1858: A California goldrusher on the Fraser speaks CW thru a bottleneck

Here’s one of the cheechakoes who did most of the work of making Chinuk Wawa a nearly universal BC language.


Phillips’s map (between pages 154 and 155); read below

True to form:

  • He was American. 
  • And came via California.
  • And picked up Jargon in a real big hurry — as did so many others with the “yellow fever” — which explains why this language got squeezed through such a bottleneck. 

That’s been the expression I’ve coined to explain how it could’ve been that a language that was already a sophisticated creole in its homeland, around the lower Columbia River, got so simplified so fast.

In particular, lots of the lexicon got left by the wayside, much as you hear of families’ pianos getting jettisoned on the Oregon Trail, or valuable boats being abandoned on the Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon. 

Some supplies are more important than others, no matter how precious they may be to our hearts — and plenty of southern Jargon words got abandoned, scarcely to be heard in BC evermore.

Bye bye, p’ə́qp’əq. So long, súp’na. Adiós, atá! 

Anyhow, I give you page 155 of “To the Fraser River! The Diary and Letters of Cyrus Olin Phillips, 1858-1859” by F. W. Howay and Cyrus Olin Phillips, California Historical Society Quarterly 11(2):150-156 (June, 1932), quoting from C.O.’s letter of November 12, 1858 dateline Port Douglas, BC, addressed to Dr A.D. Merritt, Woodstock, Illinois…

co phillips

a tribe builds a ranch as it is called being a lot of Sheds all togather & they all live togather & wherever you See indians mar[k]ed on the map it is one of those ranches     I can Speak with them very Well in the Chinook Jargon Which the most of the Tribes under Stand Some of.

The “ranches” he mentions are otherwise known as “rancheries” in frontier-era BC English; both are California Spanish words!

Having come from his previous place of residence around Sacramento, California on July 8th, 1858, Phillips reached Victoria on the 19th, leaving on the 31st for the Fraser River.

By no stretch of the imagination should we suppose that he already knew much Chinook. At that time, there was just a little remnant of it in northern California, typically mixed in with California Indigenous Pidgin Spanish and/or West Coast Chinese Pidgin English. 

Nor should we imagine that Phillips became suddenly fluent in Jargon on arrival in Victoria. It was already a language of the heavily Indigenous harbour area there. But the Johnny-come-lately Bostons didn’t linger in Biktoli, nor did they transact nearly as much business with Native people as they did with profiteering Settler merchants who were outfitting them for their prospecting across the Strait of Georgia. 

All of this is to say quite a lot of the Americans flooding in were newcomers to Chinuk Wawa, and because scuttlebutt said you could deal with all “Indians” — most relevantly those living near the mainland riverine gold bars — via CW, these fellas would often pick up a dictionary in Victoria, but not have much occasion to practice speaking it ’til they got to the Fraser River. 

And only on the lowest extent of the Fraser do we know of any Natives who already spoke the Jargon. Around Fort Langley, established 1827, there’s very reasonable evidence that CW was in use by some Stó:lõ Salish. But once you got beyond that zone near the saltwater, knowledge of this lingo fell off steeply.

So, upriver and inland, the majority of CW speakers in BC would’ve been neophytes, regardless of ethnicity. Phillips is 100% accurate in his wording that “the most of the Tribes under Stand Some of” the Jargon. He could say exactly the same of the Whites in the region. 

The folks who’d already had experience of the Oregon Territory were the exception, and they were not a negligible presence. To me it appears that those people, who as a rule would already know excellent Jargon, would’ve played an outsize role as experts in the language — as role models for all other speakers, Aboriginal and Euro-American. Some old Oregon hands had not just praiseworthy CW grammar, but really good pronunciation, we’ve seen from various documentary sources. 

Sure enough, we find quite decent CW grammar in BC, only with lots of what were at first simplifications. Productive reduplication of an entire root, to signal distributive action, was lost. Many, many established inflected forms where southern speakers used chaku-, mamuk-, hayu-, etc., went by the wayside, taking nuanced meanings along with them to the dustbin. 


BC turned out to become such an important, heavily used channel of communication in the province that it re-invented lots of those wheels. New, slightly different constellations of phrases evolved to replace the kind of vanished material I mentioned. LIkewise, many, many new lexemes got enlisted from the readiest widely recognized source in the local linguistic environment — spoken USA English. 

In just a few words in a letter home, Phillips encapsulates these truths about the Chinook Jargon evolutionary “bottleneck” that was the Fraser River (and succeeding) gold rushes. 

Bonus fact:

Cyrus Olin Phillips fell into poor health and returned to California. I believe he’s probably the photographer who’s credited with the following photo of his own little son Charles. Cyrus is said to have died in 1863 in Indian Springs, California, back near Sacramento again.


Charles Reuben Phillips as a boy, photographed by dad Cyrus Olin Phillips (image credit: George Eastman Museum)

What do you think?