‘Strychnine’ in Port Coquitlam

Another hat tip to Alex Code, Museum Manager of PoCo Heritage Museum & Archives in Port Coquitlam, BC…


And chocolate-covered strychnine for dessert? (Image credit: Museum of Vancouver)

Alex sent along an interesting find showing a specialized use of Chinuk Wawa’s word lamachín / lamatsín ‘medicine’. I’ll let him take over here: 

I have a somewhat strange story from the early Settlement of Port Coquitlam that I think involves CW. It involves the first settler family in the area, the McLeans, c.1870s and local Indigenous people who took a liking to their potatoes. Quoting from a book called “The History of Port Coquitlam” by Edith D. Chambers:

…Come fall the potatoes were dug up and potatoes put in large pits from which they could use in the winter months. The Indians also liked these potatoes. They used to saunter through the yard and help themselves. There seemed nothing the frustrated family could do.

One day Captain McLean handled the situation. Knowing the natives had a horror for strychnine or “Lum-ber-chin” as they called it, and knowing the white poweder resembled white flour, he took a basin of flour. Carefully and meticulously he scattered it over an open pit of potatoes. At first the natives regarded this action with some interest; this interest grew into curiosity, which became more acute as they drew closer. Finally they asked the question “what was the Captain doing?” “Killing rats!” came the terse reply. They did not touch those potatoes for a whole year.

The settlers here were really not friendly with the locals. Another early settler named Atkins’ fights with them are mentioned in letters to James Douglas included in the “Papers Connected to the Indian Land Question”.

There’s also a May 8, 1912 Coquitlam Star newspaper reminiscing about the same incident where they spell it “lermechin“.

Do you think this is the CW “lamedsin“? Seems like it to me so I figured the narrative of CW used in such an adversarial context might interest you.

Dave here again — my guess might be that calling strychnine lamachin is the typical North American, Native-associated sense of ‘a powerful treatment, whether positive or negative’. Thus, ‘bad medicine’. In this connection, northern California Native people’s English comes to mind, with historical occurrences of their talking about a medicine person’s (shaman’s) power as their “poison”. Here’s a quotation from page 303 of Alexander Ross’s 1849 “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River” that’s relevant, too; he’s talking about Washington Salish practitioners — 

All classes stand in awe of the tla-quill-aughs’ power or ill will, and their opinions have much influence in most matters. They are consulted in all cases of sickness. All classes avoid, as much as possible, giving them offence, from a belief that they have the power of throwing, as they express it, their bad medicine at them, whether far or near, present or absent.

What do you think?