1844: Lee and Frost, “Ten Years in Oregon” — where CW was and wasn’t spoken

Crazily enough, I’ve written here about a different, excellent book having the identical title (and quoting from this one)…

10yrs tp

…but today is the first time that I’m getting around to telling you of an old Oregon literary gem.

That would be the “Ten Years in Oregon” that was authored by the early frontier Methodist missionaries Daniel Lee and Jason H. Frost (New York: J. Collord, 1844). The Chinook Jargon in this book has that hallmark of authenticity that my readers know well — it’s written in a totally chaotic set of spellings! 

Lee & Frost pad (start) their book with several chapters of exploration history from before their time; I’ll ignore those now, as you can read about Cook, Gray, Astor, and so on anywhere. Several more chapters describe Oregon and its inhabitants. Here we start finding Chinuk Wawa-related information. 

Page 101 mentions the “Ta-cópe-ta-cópe” or “Hiaqua“, the valuable dentalium shells. These are kúpkup ‘small-size dentalium shells’ and háykʰwa ‘ “Indian money” ‘. Lee & Frost’s word for the small ones is noteworthy for its unusual shape, seeming to reduplicate a different Chinookan root shape, perhaps tk’úp ‘white’! 

On page 108, Native people are quoted as describing Croatian noble-born Captain “Domanis” (John Dominis) of the Owhyhee (who went on to be the father-in-law of Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i) as ” “hias silix“, that is great angry”, when he realized he’d been outwitted in fur trading by them. That’s hayas-sáliks ‘very angry’, with the usual early-creolized CW intensifier prefix. 

It’s not until Chapter X that the authors get around to telling their own story of coming west in 1834. By page 120 they have reached Chinuk Wawa country, around Fort Hall in modern Idaho. Coming into the Willamette Valley in modern Oregon, they meet the already established French Canadian and Métis settlers. Throughout the book, the missionaries of course meet lots of people known to us as important early Chinuk Wawa speakers. Much of the dialogue between them and Native people is clearly translated from a CW original. (So we can think about “back-translating” it to Jargon, to supply more learning materials…)

Page 132 mentions Thomas Nuttall, “the “grass man,” as the Indians term a botanist”. This neatly corroborates how botanist David Douglas is known to have been called Jargon names including “Grass Man” (as well as “King George’s Chief” and “Fire”), and naturalist JK Townsend was known as “Bird Chief”. 

An incident on page 133 tells of a dying K’alapuya father holding his young daughter and exclaiming “Ni-kah ten-as! Ni-kah ten-as!” through his tears, translated by Lee & Frost as “my little one!” (nayka tənás, nayka tənás! ‘my child, my child!)

On page 153 comes the first overt reference to Chinuk Wawa, with the establishment of another mission, this one upriver at the Dalles, in 1838. The authors say that they preached in Jargon “through an interpreter”, i.e. someone who understood their CW sermons and could put them into the local language, presumably Upper Chinookan and/or Sahaptin. This tells you how limited a region CW was used in as yet, even 13 years into the Fort Vancouver era.

With the missionaries’ party in the vicinity of the Willamette River, but lost in the woods, page 160 has a passing description of horsemeat for dinner; they “roasted it “closh”, good“. (ɬúsh)

Missionary Perkins’s Chinookan helper is quoted on page 162 about Lee’s having been lost for days in the wilderness: 


“Now-it-ka wake si-yah me-me-loosh!”
“Certainly we were near dying!”
[nawítka wík-sayá míməlus! 
‘Really nearly died!’ — no subject expressed] 

“Tot-le-lum cu-tan me-me-loosh!”
“Ten horses died!”
[táɬlam kʰíyutən míməlus!]

“Moxt mux-a-muc!”
“We ate two horses!”
[mákwst mə́kʰmək!
‘Two ate!’ — no subject expressed; quantifier is fronted as usual in CW] 

“Mr. Lee, yok-ah se-ah-has cah-quah mox stone cup-ah skin metlight!”
“Mr. Lee’s face is like two bones with the skin drawn over them!”
[místa* lí* yaka siyáxus kákwa mákwst stún kʰapa skín míɬayt!
‘Mr. Lee’s face (or eyes) was (or were) like two stones (or bones or testicles) in skin were there!’]

“Ate two horses, and yet as poor as a rat!” thought the hearer; “incredible!”

Incredible indeed — stún has variously meant, in Chinuk Wawa, ‘stone’, ‘bone’, and even ‘testicle’. So this last quote I suspect was Native humour that the missionaries didn’t quite grasp, or didn’t want to reveal to their pious audiences back East. The young Chinook man appears to be saying the White guy’s face looked like a scrotum; otherwise, the use of mákwst ‘2’ doesn’t make so much sense to me. (I doubt siyáxus was meant as ‘eyes’ in this context.)  Perhaps he had gotten quite hairy during the many days of being lost. What do you think?

Page 163 refers to the Indigenous “medicine man” at work — “he wakes his tam-an-a-was(t’əmánəwas ‘spirit power’), the definition of which is only implied. The word recurs on pages 179 and 283, and, as a near-synonym of a “sko-kom” (skukúm ‘monster’) removed from a patient’s body, on page 180. “Skokoms” being cured by “doctors” (dakta ‘healer’) come up again on pages 236 and following. 

On page 164 the missionary dares a medicine man to eat fire, as he’s reputedly able to do; “Al-ta nan-ich! — Now see the doctor eat fire!” is the reply in CW. (álta nánich! ‘now watch!’) The White guy exposes the feat: “You deceive the people: “Oh now-it-kah — certainly” is the response. (ó nawítka ‘oh yes’)

Pages 184 & 185 present some of the prayers used at the Dalles (Wascopam) mission, and these are not in Chinuk Wawa, but instead in a pidgin Upper Chinookan: 



I have a recollection from about 20 years ago of linguist Rob Moore providing a close analysis of the above and/or the Upper Chinookan(-ish) material below. I can’t seem to track down the CHINOOK listserv post where he said, I believe, that this was not fluent Kiksht. It should be put on record that it seems there was a missionary pidgin Kiksht, which hasn’t been noted in the contact-linguistics literature. In any event this material is quite different from the Lower Chinookan-based Chinuk Wawa! 

Page 186 discusses “the round-head man, “Boston“, of the Upper Chinookan village of Wishham, who was a longtime interpreter for the missionaries. So this is a Native person known by a CW name, bástən ‘American / White person’. “Round-head” indicates that he was a slave (in local Salish languages that is the literal meaning of the word for ‘slave’) — or at least not a member of the high class. 

On pages 187-188 Mr. Perkins is described as having spent enough time among the Sahaptin-speaking Walla Wallas that he could speak their language “with fluency”. Really, this amazing claim only tells us that his partner Lee didn’t know any Walla Walla. (Robert Boyd has recently observed that nobody connected with Wascopam Mission ever learned good Kiksht.) 

Page 201 quotes a canoeist a little above the Cascades of the Columbia, and it clearly confounded the typesetter: “I-ak! wake Sci-yah, ” (turn water,) … “quick, the falls are near.” (áyáq! wík sáyá təmwáta.)

Page 202 refers to ” “Tal-i-paz,” an imaginary god of various tribes in this country.” (As “Talapus”, this name returns on page 300 in a Clatsop myth told in Chinuk Wawa.) (t’álapas is typically translated as ‘coyote’ in CW.)

More canoeist banter: “Close nan-ich — Look out.” (ɬúsh nánich) … “Wake me-si-kah quos? — Were you not afraid?” (wík msayka k’wás?) “No, we are men.” 

Page 203, referring to the purchase of a big salmon for dinner: “Close o-koke — That is good.” (ɬúsh úkuk.) And more canoeing: “Close nan-ich a-lip! — Look out well ahead!” (ɬúsh nánich íləp! ‘Look out/be careful ahead!’)

Page 204: still more bragging by Indigenous oarsmen! 


“Now-it-kah mah-sach-e chuk
The water was very bad.”
[nawítka masáchi chə́qw
‘Indeed it was evil water.’]

“Weke quos en-si-kah
We were not afraid.”
[wík k’wás nsayka]

“Hi-as en-si-kah tum-tune [sic] — 
Our hearts are large…”
[háyás nsayka tə́mtəm]

And on pages 204-205, saying grace over their dinner — again this speech function happens in a separate, pidginized Upper Chinookan: 



On page 205, a pidgin Upper Chinookan hymn — 


On page 222, Sally, wife of an old Lower Chinook chief, asks for ” “lum,” i.e. rum”. (lám ‘alcohol’) She’s described as knowing “a very few words of English”, which is in fact how a lot of Chinuk Wawa speakers were described in earlier frontier times. 

On page 224, the 1839 reinforcements for the Oregon mission have just arrived, and are learning some basic Chinuk Wawa: 


“Tht [sic], mauxt, clone, lacket, qunum, tuhum, sunamauxt, stochtakane, quiust, tat-le-lam!!”
(íxt, mákwst, ɬún, lákit, qwínəm, táx̣am, sínamakwst, stúxtkin, k’wayts, táɬlam)

On the same page, we meet one-eyed Chinook-area pilot, old “King” George. (kʰinchóch ‘British’) Is this George Ramsey / Lamazee, son of a British sailor and a Lower Chehalis Salish woman?


(Image credit: “The Identity of the Tonquin’s Interpreter“)

He may have simply been calling himself ethnically ‘British’ in Jargon. He, too, is said to “speak a very few words of English” — but again, to some degree that may be a green newcomer’s small comprehension of George’s Chinuk Wawa. Here’s a sample from page 225 of George’s English, though, which is interestingly pidginized (George Washington is an African-American from Fort Vancouver) — 


Pages 228-229 bring us a culture clash over what to do with body lice. An elder who has been eating those that he finds on himself (as Europeans likewise traditionally did) observes in beautiful early-creolized Jargon:


Cultus, cultus shicks, cahqua salmon claska
Nothing, nothing friend; they are all the same as salmon.”
[kʰə́ltəs, kʰə́ltəs, shíks, kákwa sámən ɬaska
‘It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, friend, they’re like fish.’]

Here I find it culturally instructive that even these tiny animals are considered animate, so that they’re referred to as ɬaska rather than the inanimate “silent it/they” of Chinuk Wawa. English would refer to a louse as ‘it’; Pacific NW Coast cultures have stories of “Lady Louse”. Another strand of Indigenous heritage in CW…

Canadian/Métis French speech is noted on page 231, where one of the two guides for a missionary family commands the horses, ” “Marche-dan”, that is, Go there”. In standard spelling, that would be marche-t’en, which is how you say ‘walk away!’ to a single addressee. A usage such as this one, where the meaning is one of ‘leaving’, helps us understand how Chinuk Wawa got its másh ‘leave’, which also took on the extended meaning ‘throw (away)’. 

I greatly appreciate that on page 232, the missionaries recognize that the Native community that they approach across from Astoria are “Chenook and Checalish” (Lower Chinook and Lower Chehalis). It was quite rare in early frontier times for newcomers to discern the ethnic and lingustic differences between these inhabitants of Chinook town and environs. Later in the book, the authors tell of “getting” (writing down) some Lower Chehalis in that area, which they present in a valuable vocabulary. 

On page 284 a sick but still-living Clatsop Lower Chinookan man is declared officially ” “nowitka mamaluste,” (nawítka míməlust) that is, certainly dead” by his tribe; I might guess that by their standards they had evidence that his soul had already left him. 

Another too-rare acknowledgment of the PNW’s great ethnic diversity comes with page 293’s mention of a Black man named Wallace, “who had deserted from the [ship] Maryland” to stay in the Clatsop area. 

Newly arrived missionaries speak on page 294 of not yet knowing the Clatsop Indians’ language, therefore employing a Mr. Smith and his wife as interpreters — which tells us that that language is Chinuk Wawa! (No outsiders are known to have ever learned a Chinookan language, either Kiksht as above, or Lower Chinookan as here.) On page 298 the missionary returns to the subject, saying a little later that “we could speak very well” to the Clatsops, who didn’t understand English, in “their own language”, again CW. 

An implicit proof that few PNW Native people knew much English around 1840, and that their tribal languages were still thriving, is found in page 311’s recollection that the missionaries never met an Indigenous person who could pronounce Mr. Frost’s name in any way other than “Plost”.

A generic sentence is quoted as typical from Indigenous speakers of CW on page 317 — regarding White people’s demonstrated bad behavior and hypocrisy about religion, ” “Hias peshock mika tilacum shicks“, that is, Your people are very bad, friend.” That’s some highly fluent early-creolized Jargon there!  (hayas-pishák mayka tílixam, shíks ‘Very bad are your people, friend.’)

I’ll summarize Lee & Frost’s memoir as showing a surprising degree of clear perception of Native people’s behavior and of Chinuk Wawa. We’ve discovered a few quite valuable bits of CW and other linguistic information here.

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?