1793:”Sail” was a trade item, duh!

In which I dope-slap my forehead…


(Image credit: Sail-World)

I mean, we all know that the Chinuk Wawa word síl ‘cloth, fabric, etc.’ came from English ‘sail’. 

And it’s obvious that it came from nautical English. 

And that that happened in interactions between Native people and the first wave of Euro-Americans on the Pacific NW coast, who showed up in the very late 1700s to trade.

Dunno about you, but it had never consciously occurred to me that those sailors were trading “sail” to Indigenous folks!

Here’s the historical study that made me come to my senses:

A Yankee Trader on the Northwest Coast, 1791-1795” by F.W. Howay (Washington Historical Quarterly 21(2):83-94 (April 1930)).

This article summarizes the diary of Bernard Magee, first officer of the Boston trader Jefferson (commanded by Josiah Roberts).

Pages 87-88: At Bucareli Bay, Alaska, in late July to August 1793, prices have been inflating; the Haidas here are demanding “1 1/2 yards of cloth 1 1/2 yards wide” for a single sea otter pelt, which is just the first indicator here of the high value of European-style fabric at the time.

Now check this out.

A little later, on pages 89-91, we see the crew at Cunneah’s village in Haida Gwaii trading (among other items of course) a tablecloth, sheets,

…worn-out lower studding sails…old sails…more old sails…a mizzen top-mast studding sail, a flying jib, and other sails were transformed into women’s garments…Day by day the tailor cut up any and every worn-out sail to fabricate women’s garments, which sold for a prime skin each, just as fast as he could make them…Old sails being almost exhaus[t]ed, Roberts now hit upon the idea of using some of the ship’s light duck. He made it into a sail for a canoe and disposed of it for three prime skins…the middle stay sail [was] made into women’s garments — being the last of the light sails that we could possibly spair [SIC] — having disposed in the same manner of 3 top-gallant steering sails, one top mast and two lower Ditto, the flying jibb [SIC] & mizzen top mast Stay sail — the whole of which procured about 40 prime skins…

Quite the proof that in the very, very early days of the PNW coast fur trade, “sail” was a trade good that was pretty much worth its weight in furs! 

No wonder this word made its way into the Nootka-tinged trading lingo that the sailors brought to Chinook territory!

Bonus fact:

We know what “toes” of iron were (chisels or spikes); on page 92 we see more coastal fur-trade words:

In the same manner the presents were ushered in and displayed to the view of all present and thrown together in a heap being a profuse collection of Clamons (war garments), raccoons and other cutsarks [fur robes], comstagas both iron and copper and a variety of ornaments.

What were “comstagas“?

What do you think?