1833-35: Journal of Occurrences at Nisqually House, CW in transition, and a pidgin Interior Salish?

Not to be confused with the later “Nisqually Journals” of 1849-1852 (ed. by Victor J. Farrar, who helped Clarence Bagley with the stuff we’ll be looking at below) that I recently investigated, okay?


No pictures are available of Frank Heron; “Chief Trader Archibald McDonald Descending the Fraser, 1828” (image credit: Wikipedia)

But it’s exactly that contrast (having information from the same exact location but a generation apart) that makes the two sets of Fort Nisqually journals extremely valuable for our historical understanding of language contact at the northern end of CW’s early traditional range. 

Even in these earliest days of Fort Nisqually, we find a good deal of traces of Chinuk Wawa at this outpost, on the southern end of Puget Sound.

There’s also the implicit evidence to be seen in the fact that from its 1833 beginnings onward, the journal keeper (at first the chief trader Archibald McDonald, dad of Métis Ranald McDonald; then Irish-born chief trader Francis Heron, who we’ll see may not have known CW) notes an enormous amount of verbal communication going on between Native people and Euro-Americans.

Some of that occurred in a (version of a) Salish language; some may have been in (a version of) Métis/Canadian French, English, etc. McDonald himself was a native speaker of Scots Gaelic, which is a reason why the Red River Colony had earlier hired him to manage relations with its settlers; he also was educated in English, surely spoke Chinook Jargon, and shows an acquaintance with Canadian French — a fairly typical language repertoire of his time! 

What is reasonably clear is that the language understood by the most ethnic groups in the most situations at early Fort Nisqually was Chinuk Wawa. 

The range of ethnicities present on-site is impressive. Among the workers were significant cohorts of Sandwich Islanders (Hawai’ians), “Frenchmen” (essentially Métis Canadians), and folks of various British extractions, Iroquois men, and more. Visits into the Puget Sound area by competing American ships are often mentioned. People coming to trade at Fort Nisqually included Snohomish, Skagit, Suquamish, and Puyallup Lushootseed speakers from Puget Sound, S’Klallams from the far north end thereof, Lower Chehalis people, Yakamas and/or Klickitats, Twanas from Hood Canal, Makahs from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a Wenatchee Salish…

A goodly number of the individual Native folks whose names are given are also known to us from the Fort Langley journals (modern-day Vancouver, BC area), and it’s noted in the Nisqually journals that some of them willingly traveled between the two forts seeking the best prices for their furs. That’s an amusing analog to the reason for Fort Nisqually’s founding as a resting point between Forts Vancouver and Langley 🙂 

(In a separate post, or mini-series, I’ll show you the many indications of Chinuk Wawa use at Fort Langley, which may have been the northernmost creole CW community!)

Part [1] — Washington Historical Quarterly 6(3):179-197 (July 1915)

Page 186: In June 1833, contact with Sahaptian speakers is implied by the arrival of dozens of horses & riders from the Cascade Mountains in the east, who “seem under the sway of a very fine looking Indian called ‘Aucha‘ ” — which I take to be Chief Owhi of the Yakama people. 

Page 188: A visit from “some of the portage Indians”. This is a term that I can’t track down in the ethnographic literature, but it almost certainly means the fairly nearby Cowlitz Portage. “One of them lately from Chinook says” a good bit of detailed news to the fort personnel. 

Page 190: in July of 1833, there’s note of “another party of Sinnamish a Checheilis chief”, one of the earliest published references to the Lower Chehalis Salish people of Grays Harbor in modern-day Washington State. What’s somewhat unclear is whether the writer means some Snohomish visitors (a common occurrence) PLUS a Chehalis chief, or a Chehalis chief named “Sinnamish”. The footnote (34) is unfortunately absent from the bottom of the page! 

Part [2] — WHQ 6(4):264-278 (October 1915)

Page 272: Starting from late December of 1833, journal keeper Heron tells of the Lushootseed-speaking Salish families of the Nisqually area routinely coming to the traders on Sundays for religious instruction, which he provided. This is really, really interesting. Entries later in the journals, as you’ll see, show that the trader did not conduct these sessions in Jargon (which I bet he didn’t speak, having previously been assigned only to inland posts). Now, we already know CW came late to Puget Sound, even this southernmost reach thereof, but it’s still really wild to see Heron saying he taught these folks in “Flathead”, i.e. some southeast Interior Salish language such as Colville-Okanagan — which is spoken hundreds of miles away! (“Flathead” was a generic word for all Salish languages at the time, especially the Interior ones that the fur traders had encountered before expanding operations to the coast.) It’s quite rare to find a Euro-American having learned an Indigenous language well, but Heron in fact later married a Colville Salish Métis woman, and their son went on to be a US government Indian interpreter. I do wonder if it isn’t most likely that he was speaking a pidginized Salish that we haven’t heard about. At any rate, the existence of classes on Christianity here so early may help explain why it is that Whidbey Island Skagit tribes (who often visited Fort Nisqually) sought out Fathers Blanchet and Demers at Fort Vancouver a few years later, inspiring those men’s invention of the sáx̣ali-stík, the Catholic Ladder! 

Part [3] — WHQ 7(1):59-75 (January 1916)

Pages 66-67: Chehalis (Grays Harbor) Indians coming to Nisqually in preference to “the Chinooks”, communicating in detail, which with virtual certainly means they spoke  in CW.

Page 71 — Religious teaching again: Heron reports, “I made them a speech in the Flat Head language, which was understood by the Chief(,) Frenchmen who was the linguist for the rest of the tribes present”. This thread in the Journals fascinates me exceedingly; it really sounds like the trader was talking a non-local, or a pidgin, Salish, which not all the Native people understood. However, the Lushootseed-speaking chief Frenchman (Le Français, see below), who is also known as a visitor at Fort Langley, BC, was for some reason able to comprehend it. It sounds to me as if this were a trading- and fort-associated lingo, distinct from both Chinuk Wawa and from regular folks’ Lushootseed. No pidginized Salish has previously been documented by linguists. Too bad we only have the trader’s report of having spoken it, but no examples of it! Compare this with my consistent documentation of early settlers (i.e. about a generation later) in more northerly Puget Sound speaking as much of local Lushootseed as they could manage, and blending it with Chinook Jargon. 

Throughout these pages, we see that various northern Lushootseed speakers have French names: Le Français ‘Frenchman’, Bavillard ‘Babbler’, “La Grande Bish” ‘The Big Elk’, etc. (This is a woman’s name, but McDermott’s 1941 “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French” leads us to understand that biche ‘doe’ is usually ‘elk’ in North America.) There is a real chance that these folks knew at least some Canadian French due to their time spent at Forts Langley and Nisqually before CW became current in their native Puget Sound country. 

Page 75 is one of many mentions of hyouquois, i.e. “Indian money”, háykʰwa. It’s often measured in “fm.”, fathoms (the span of your outstretched arms), in these pages. 

Part [4] — WHQ 7(2):144-167 (April 1916)

Page 150 — More Lower “Chehalis” people, and the personal name of one of them, Ats-say-lun. A “Capot” (coat) is mentioned among the items traded, one of many occurrences of this word (kapú in CW). 

Page 154 — Interesting to see the phrase “roots and berries” noted in the itemized tally of the month’s trade at the fort. Perhaps this expression (now famous for having been used in the Stevens Treaties to guarantee perpetual harvesting rights to tribes) was already a standard concept among the Euro-Americans. 

Page 155 — A visit by a “pis caw house” (Pesquose, the Wenatchee Interior Salish) chief in the company of The Frenchman, and I’m getting the notion that certain Coast Salish tribes attempted to control interior tribes’ access to Euro-American trade goods, just as the Lower Chinookans and Tlingits did to neighboring tribes. 

Page 157 — January 21, 1835: Some Suquamish folks from the area of modern Seattle on Puget Sound arrive ,and a young man among them is their leader. He is starting a new religion. He tells the trader a vision he has had of receiving 18 invisible blankets and “a written paper”, which the Indians say he actually has in his possession. (This occurrence is decades before any of these Lushootseed-speaking people is known, to me, to have been literate.) This phrasing, “a written paper” suggests that this man, or whatever interpreter may have been with him, was speaking Chinuk Wawa, as I consistently find all dialects of CW speakers saying exactly this (t’sə́m-pípa) to mean any document. Maybe he was using a local Nisqually Salish interpreter, as knowledge of CW was rare among northern Puget Sound Native people for another generation. This young man is referred to again on February 10 as a “juggler”, a common word for a medicine man, said to have “a coat covered with dollars” and to be giving away blankets as an intended yearly ceremony. On February 19, this same man is reported as having robbed graves, and is being banished from his tribe. On the whole, I wonder if he may indeed have been (exceptionally for a Suquamish of his time) a Jargon speaker, and if that and his Euro-American-tinged religion might have been outcomes of his having previously spent time in the Fort Vancouver region. 

Page 158 — February 1, 1835: A number of chiefs from among a large visiting Native crowd visit; “as there was a young man who understood the Flat Head language among the party” (see above and below), chief trader Heron gave them religious instruction in it. It’s really interesting to try deducing just what language variety this was, as local people and most Puget Sound tribes spoke Lushootseed, into which we have seen that the trader’s words had to be translated. Again my guess would be that he was using some non-local and/or pidginized Salish, perhaps a version (see page 164) of Colville Salish, which is natively spoken in earlier-established Interior fur trading regions. (Heron had been chief trader at Fort Colvile from 1830-1833.) A possible clue may be that when most of these visitors leave on the next day, the journal notes that there are “about a dozen Yackamaws among us” — that is, Yakama Sahaptians, people from the Interior. 

Page 162 — Among the items the fort has obtained in trade from Native people is a black bear Appichiman (lapʰusmu, saddle blanket). 

Page 164 — The supposed Pend Oreille slave is explained to be a “Yackamaw Chief formerly a prisoner of war at the Pendent Oreilles”. As a consequence of that experience, Heron notes that he “speaks the language I understand and with him I can convey all what I wish to say to the tribes hereabouts”. Here we learn for sure that the trader is a speaker of an Interior Salish language, or at least some approximation of it. The case for supposing it was a pidgin version thereof is strengthened, somewhat, by the fact that he’s mostly speaking it with folks who, like him, were not native speakers of it — a Coast Salish and a Yakama. 

That’s all of the early “Journal of Occurrences” that the WHQ published, but the above installment notes that there are many more volumes of it in the archives. Sounds like quite a treasure trove waiting to be investigated in depth. 

We’ve certainly found enough above to show that the Jargon was already known by some who spent their time at Fort Nisqually in the early 1830s. We’ve also seen, though, that not everyone understood it yet, and surprisingly that a possibly pidginized foreign language, “Flathead” Salish, was very useful. That’s news to me.

There’s also a later publication by WHQ, of the “Journal of Occurrences at Nisqually in 1870“, well into the frontier period and after the fort had been sold to a private owner. I find much less of interest to Chinuk Wawa studies there.

Bonus fact: 

I feel pretty confident that Mr. Heron didn’t speak or understand Chinook Jargon. His biography and work experience wouldn’t suggest he’d know it. So it’s pretty interesting that we can still infer from his writings that CW was an important presence in early Fort Nisqually!

I want to add that over my years of research, I’ve concluded that a fair number of Euro-American traders and settlers spoke pidgin versions of various Pacific NW languages, especially in the earlier days of contact, and especially in the interior regions. We have pretty good evidence of this in Nez Perce and Kootenai country, for example. In each case that I’ve come across, though, these lingos did not catch on to be widely used by very many people or in a range of situations. And Chinook Jargon wound up superseding them. 

What do you think?