1794: The earliest possible date for Chinook Jargon

To provoke your thoughts on the origin of Chinuk Wawa…


Sinew-backed bow, Chinook, probably collected on the Columbia River in 1795 by Captain Charles Bishop of the British ship Ruby – Native American collection – Peabody Museum, Harvard University (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

…I can do no better than to sic you on “Early Followers of Captain Gray” by the admirable F. W. Howay in The Washington Historical Quarterly 18(1):11-20 (January, 1927).

Here Howay does what he’s the best at, digging up the earliest documents of people’s experiences on the Pacific Northwest coast.

In particular, here he looks at the first Euro-Americans to hang around in the lower Columbia River after Captain Robert Gray’s ship Columbia Rediviva had made first contact with the Chinooks in 1792.

Howay explains on page 12 that all of the earliest PNW coast traders had wintered at Hawai’i, but starting in 1791 (misprinted as 1891!) they began to remain here to resupply and so forth.

The result was, to my mind, that the lower Columbia now possessed this key ingredient to form a new pidgin language:

protracted and/or regular contact between ethnic groups that hadn’t had it previously. 

Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island (modern British Columbia, Canada) had already experienced that dynamic around 1785, sparking the formation of a pidgin “Nootka Jargon” language that we know fairly little about —

— except as much of it as is embedded at the oldest roots of Chinook Jargon!

Hitherto, we’ve been limited to observing that the first recorded occurrence of an identifiable CJ is in the journals of the Lewis & Clark expedition, dating from 1805 & 1806.

But I want to suggest today that Howay is showing us an earlier (and the earliest) defensible date that CJ may have existed: 1794.

On page 12 of his paper, Howay identifies the first Euro-American ship ever to make a long stay on the Columbia River, the brig Phoenix of Bengal, India, captained by a Mr. Moore. This vessel remained on the Columbia from some time in 1794 until May of 1795, and its crew are good candidates for having stimulated the birth of Chinuk Wawa. However, as there’s very little further information available about the Phoenix, you’ll have to read further below today to see my reasoning about a similar case.

The second ship to make a protracted stay on the Columbia was the ship Ruby, out of Bristol, England, which made its appearance on this river on May 22, 1795 (page 13). Its sister vessel the Jenny had earlier been there, among the small crowd of ships making first contact in 1792.

This time, the Ruby’s Captain Bishop intended to stick around, so with an eye to staying on the Columbia through the next winter, provisions and ballast were obtained there, and a garden was planted onshore.

From June 7, 1795, until autumn (pages 14-15), a trading visit was made to Haida Gwaii, and a stop at Nootka on the way back south. The Ruby reached the Columbia again on October 18, 1795 (page 15), staying until January 23, 1796 (page 19).

Quite a number of the Chinook personal names recorded by Bishop match people who Lewis & Clark met 10 years later. Thus we have a fairly plausible linguistic connection among them, the Ruby crew, and the Corps of Discovery.

We know that one or more (probably several) of the other ships that had already visited the Columbia River by 1795 had brought attempts at using Nootka Jargon pidgin with the Chinooks, who initially knew nothing of it.

In my understanding, the Nootka Jargon pidgin by 1792 probably had been fleshed out with an English-language component as well. At any rate, we know too that by Lewis & Clark’s arrival, Chinooks were using not only NJ with some consistent grammatical structure, but also a good number of English words and phrases, from simple nouns to cussin’ to “the sturgeon is good”.

There’s a good deal of verbal communication that was accomplished by the Native and Drifter people during the Ruby‘s stay. Many detailed accounts are reported by Bishop (who had no previous experience of “Indians”) from the tribal people, including from a visiting canoe of Quinault Salish from the north.

These folks’ long, convoluted account of a 1787 attack on some Imperial Eagle crewmen interests me particularly, as they wouldn’t traditionally have been speakers of the local Natítanui Lower Chinookan, nor obviously of English. The Quinaults could’ve understood quite a bit of local £əw’ál’məš Lower Chehalis Salish, but that language would be useless with the White guys. I conclude that these “Queenhythe” folks were talking the now-elaborate Nootka Jargon pidgin, or else the rapidly forming Chinuk Wawa pidgin, with the Englishmen.

It’s of real interest that Bishop’s lengthy lists of Euro-American items that he traded on the PNW coast are largely translatable into Chinuk Wawa as we know it — “shot” (shát), “baize” (cloth, síl), “metal” (chíkʰəmin), etc. — and a bunch of these nouns can be inferred to have been the now-complex Nootka Jargon, as they trace back to both the Nuuchahnulth and English languages.

Bonus fact:

Howay’s article, although it’s wonderful, is brief. I’d love to glean every detail possible of the Ruby‘s stay on the Columbia, with all the implications it has for assigning a birthday to Chinuk Wawa.

There’s also a 1928 publication of the “Journal of Captain Charles Bishop of the ‘Ruby’ in 1795“, but it too is minimal, ending with his arrival at the Columbia River.

I understand that a full book exists of the “Journal and Letters of Captain Charles Bishop“, and I’ve saved up enough pennies to buy a copy, so stay tuned for possible further information.

What do you think?