1827-1830: The Fort Langley Journals and BC Métis

We can fairly call these documents an overlooked treasure for understanding BC Chinuk Wawa’s history.

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(Image credit: GoodReads)

Overlooked by me, at least 🙂 

A few years ago, I took part in conversations where I expressed the opinion that I’d seen little evidence of CW use in the Fort Langley journals. 

Then I bought a copy of them: “The Fort Langley Journals, 1827-30”, edited by Morag Maclachlan (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1998). This is a very lovely edition, even including a valuable study by Wayne Suttles of “The Ethnographic Significance of the Fort Langley Journals”. 

And on a more leisurely, closer reading, my mind was changed, to my pleasant surprise.

These journals cover the very first years of this Hudsons Bay Company fort on the lower Fraser River (modern Vancouver, BC metro area), founded to solidify British claims on the Pacific NW, and to enable a supply route to the BC interior (New Caledonia) posts.

That’s parallel to the first years of HBC Fort Vancouver (est. 1825) on the lower Columbia River (modern Portland, Oregon metro area).

We know that Ft Van’s founding led to the solidification of Chinuk Wawa as a family and community language, that is, to its creolization. Could Ft Langley have accumulated a similar interethnic community of employees’ households, with similar implications for the Jargon?

There’s a great deal of Canadian French, usually in the form of isolated words or phrases used in an English matrix, in these journals. 

From page 19, we know that there were (Scottish) Gaelic speakers employed at the Fort, typically in management positions because they could also speak & write English. From page 23, we learn that the founding crew of Fort Langley laborers was majority French-speaking “Canadian” (only one overtly designated a “half breed”, but it’s unlikely he was the only Métis), as well as an Abenaki and 2 Iroquois, 2 Hawai’ians, an Irishman and an Orkneyman. I recognize a number of their names from the slightly earlier Fort Vancouver environment, and in reality all of these men had already worked there and had set out from there to reach the Fraser River. 

What’s barely mentioned, due to the sexism of the times and the focus on business, is the presence of their wives. You might have to turn to a source like the useful Children of Langley website to learn that those ladies were present, and that they were Indigenous, coming from such nations as the Chinook, Cowlitz, Flathead, Cowichan, Saulteaux, etc. (I believe that site’s list is incomplete, compared with what we read in the Ft Langley Journals.) Plus, quite a number of the men took new wives from among the tribes around Fort Langley. 

These folks had kids with them, too. Traveling with your entire family was a common fur-trade-era practice.

(Also with these families, and less mentioned in the journals, were their slaves.)

So from its first day, Fort Langley was a Métis and multilingual community, a direct offshoot from the “hothouse” of Fort Vancouver, as author George Lang’s phrase has it. At a number of points, objects and occurrences are overtly compared to how things are “on the Columbia” or “at Chinook”. 

What languages were in use at early Fort Langley is our main question. Wayne Suttles’ essay includes the following paragraph:

Communication with the Natives must have been limited. The Native languages are all very difficult for Europeans to learn, and it is unlikely that in the early years, if ever, any of the company people became fluent in anything but a simplified version of them. They must have communicated with the Natives mainly if not wholly in Chinook Jargon, the simple “trade language” that had developed on the lower Columbia. The journal does not mention the jargon and only once records a jargon word (17 June 1830), but the jargon was no doubt known to most or all of the party that arrived to establish Fort Langley in 1827. The party included several Native women from the Columbia District, who must have communicated with their husbands and others in Chinook Jargon, and two Native traders who had visited Fort George, where they must have used it. It was probably not known on the Fraser at the time but would have soon spread among the Natives who regularly visited the fort. There is no evidence that any jargon based on a local language developed at Fort Langley, as it surely would have without Chinook Jargon.

I agree with essentially all of what Suttles says there. I might add that French was the likely daily working language in the Fort. 

From the earliest entries, there’s some successful communication with the resident Stó:lō Salish people, despite the fact that (A) the HBC dudes were the first “White” people most locals had seen, and (B) there was no already established language for that communication — the HBC guys wouldn’t have known any Stó:lō by 1827, and neither French nor English nor Chinuk Wawa would have been known as far north as the Fraser River yet. (CW was still limited to the lower Columbia River vicinity, from Fort Vancouver downstream to the ocean.) Some interactions with Native people are characterized by the journal writers as “signifying” (using improvised hand signs). There’s never much indication of extensive conversations with Stó:lō people or other Aboriginal groups. 

Now, a Cowlitz Salish tribal man called Scanewa makes many, many appearances in the Journals, and he would certainly have known good Chinuk Wawa from his association with Fort Vancouver in his home territory. He’s also reported as spending a good deal of time among the Fraser River tribal people. 

Similarly, certain Skagits from Puget Sound visit the Fort often, and while they can’t be expected to have known CW, they must have found workable ways to communicate with the fur traders; several Skagits in fact are known by Canadian French names, suggesting that the Métis employees did a lot of the talking in the earliest days of Fort Langley. Also visiting are fellow speakers of Lushootseed Salish from Puget Sound from the Duwamish, Skykomish, Snohomish, and Suquamish nations. These folks may actually have learned their first CW at Fort Langley. 

On page 40: On October 5, 1827, the gathering of < wappatoes > (wáptʰu) is noted: “The Indians here call it Skous [sqéwθ], tho’ I have given it the name by which it is known on the Columbia.” The smattering of Chinuk Wawa words used in the Journals includes < chalaal > (salal) ‘salal’ on page 93 and < Ullachun > (úɬx̣an) ‘eulachon’ on page 60 et al. But these are used in English-language contexts, and often accompanied by remarks that this or that item is called by that word “on the Columbia”. The noun < Boston man > (bástən-mán?) ‘American ship’ (page 149) is not definitely in quoted Jargon, and may just be the common English-language nautical expression where ‘man’ = ‘ship’.

The only terms that are unambiguously CW and presented as being spoken by Native people of the area are the adjective < Boston > (bástən) ‘American’ (of ships because the Langley guys were desperately trying to out-compete US “coasters”, page 104), and the adjective < pichack > (pishak) ‘bad’ (page 150, spoken by a Skagit).  

Page 55: On February 5, 1828, a revealing turn of phrase says that if the Yewkeltas (Lekwiltoks, an aggressively raiding Kwakwaka’wakw tribe) show up to plunder the Fort, “our Iron Interpretters [sic] will have to Settle the dispute”! Thus, guns are the only common language between the HBC and this more remote, non-Salish tribe.

Page 57: March 22, 1828 — “Four Indians from abe [upstream] Called here…They informed me that they killed 10 men on the Spot, took away 10 women & 10 Children along with them. [It may not however be unnecessary to observe that the most implicit Confidence is not to be put in these Stories for by a singular Coincidence we find them make use of the Number Ten — and this with many other Circumstances we are obliged to record here proceed from our imperfect Knowledge of the [Stó:lō] language.]” DDR note: this sounds like ’10’ was a conventional Indigenous metaphor for ‘many’, cf. the Nuučaan’uɬ etymology of Chinuk Wawa’s háyú.

Page 59: April 6, 1828 — “The Indians about here are So much ad[d]icted to telling fals[e]hoods that out of ten words you Can’t believe two.” For me this says more about the HBC crew’s lack of comprehension of local languages, and about local Native people’s still new & limited skill in Chinuk Wawa, than it does about anyone’s propensities. 

All told, my original superficial impression that there’s little obvious Chinook Jargon in these journals is confirmed.

But on rereading, I’m finding that there is every reason to believe CJ was the community, creole, Métis language of Fort Langley, as well. And that community persisted until about 1860, implying a comparative degree of social stability.  

And I do think CW was beginning to catch on among that subset of Indigenous people who regularly traded there, be they e.g. Stó:lō- or Lushootseed-speaking at home.

The Fort Langley-area First Nations, then, would seem to have been the first in BC to speak some Chinuk Wawa.

Bonus fact:

Not until Fort Victoria was founded in 1843 did another definitely CW-using community come into existence in the province. There, the Jargon became less a household language — a creole — and more of an intercultural one — a pidgin. It was no less vibrant for all that; we have ample documentation that Victoria developed its own CW musical culture, for example. 

What do you think?