1824: Journal of John Work, limited CW, and lack of pre-contact trade language

This journey from Baker Bay (Chinook territory on the far lower Columbia River) via Shoalwater Bay and the “Chihalis” (Chehalis) River, to the lower Fraser and back, took place a year before the hugely historic event (for Chinook Jargon) of Fort Vancouver’s founding.


Fort Victoria, 1860 by Sarah Crease (image source: Wikipedia)

That’s a really interesting time for us to be looking into.

I have claimed that CJ wasn’t known by most people outside the vicinity of Fort Astoria (a.k.a. Fort George), until Fort Vancouver times, when knowledge of the language was carried ever farther and wider.

We will see below that speakers of the Jargon were indeed rarities outside the lower Columbia River, especially outside of modern southwest Washington (and northwest Oregon).

The document I’m examining today is “Journal of John Work, November and December, 1824“, edited by T.C. Elliott, from the Washington Historical Quarterly of July 1912.

Page 200 — November 1824 — By my count, “the people” of the expedition number 42 (this tally is after the Iroquois hunter sends most of his slaves back). Here’s a breakdown by ethnic composition:

  • Presumably New France métis (18 men); of these, the expedition’s “interpreter” is Michel Laframbois[e], who like the great majority of the personnel was a francophone
  • “Ir.” (Iroquois, 8 men), presumably francophones as they’re mostly named Pierre & Louis
  • “Islander” (Hawai’ian, 6 men)
  • British Isles background, apparently (6): One man is noted as “Englishman”, and one as “American”; another four have British-style names. John Work himself (circa 1792-1861) was Irish.
  • One is the Iroquois hunter’s slave, of unspecified ethnicity but certainly Indigenous (note, there were more of the same man’s slaves present at the start of the journey)
  • “Abanaker” (Abenaki, 1 man), also with a francophone name

I’m not sure whether Mr. “Annamour” is of French or British background. I guess he’s actually Francis Noel Annance (1792-1869), a Dartmouth College graduate (!) and former Fort Okanogan interpreter of Abenaki and French background.

Just from this list, you can see why métis French was the normal working language of fur-trade crews. We know that the anglophones learned it well. The only open question is whether the Hawai’ians did, or whether they were more comfortable with English, seeing as how large numbers of American and British ships constantly called in at their home islands by this date.

Note that we don’t have much evidence of Chinuk Wawa having been used among the members of such teams, especially at this early a date. In fact we’ll see that the one team member described as “interpreter” was apparently hired for having the then-unusual skill of speaking CW with Indigenous people! (The other reason you might be engaged as interpreter in the fur trade could be that you were married to an Indigenous woman and were considered to have picked up some of her language.)

Page 202 — November 20, 1824 — at the southern end of Shoalwater Bay there is a small village of “Chenooks”.

Pages 204-205 — November 25, 1824 — at “Chihalis Bay” (Grays Harbor), Work’s people can’t clearly see the layout of the place, and can only estimate its extent, which shows you that Euro-Americans had no experience of overland travel on the coast here. This, in turn, shows that they had previously had no direct contact with the local Lower Chehalis Salish people except in the trading context of Fort Astoria on the Columbia RIver. Note in this connection “a canoe with 10 Chihalis Indians passed us on their way to the Chenooks.”

Page 205 — November 26, 1824 — At the various Lower Chehalis villages on the route, the Native people “are well accustomed with the Whites and have been still on friendly terms with them”, but now are surprisingly hostile. The reason turns out to be that Chinook Chief “Cumcumilus” (Comcomly’s) son Cassica has spread a rumor that Euro-Americans were coming to attack them. (FN Annance’s journal has it that the Chehalis were expecting to be attacked by the Chinooks.) This sounds like one of the Chinooks’ moves to maintain control of post-contact trade with the tribes more distant from the Columbia, but it’s resolved with some gifts of tobacco to the chiefs. What’s left implicit is that some fairly sophisticated verbal communication must have occurred in so doing, and all signs indicate that the Lower Chehalis spoke Chinook Jargon already. In subsequent entries, Work surmises that word of his good intentions has now preceded him upriver, which I suspect is more likely than that Cassica’s rumor failed to be shared that far.

Page 208 — November 29, 1824 — Having arrived at the Black River, the party sends Mr. Annamour “to the principal Holloweena village a few miles off, for the trader Pierre Charles [presumably métis] who has been with the Indians for some time.” These are Upper Chehalis Salish people, who have apparently had some dealings with Euro-Americans previously, as they are near or on the much used inland Cowlitz-Nisqually travel route, with easy access to the Columbia. Some of them are even noted as having horses, a still notable exception, as have the Nisquallies below; both had ties with Sahaptian speakers east of the Cascades Mountains, who got horses fairly early. Mr Charles at first can’t be found, a shame because he’s thought to be a potentially useful “acquisition to our party”, given his cultural knowledge of, and existing personal relationship with, the local people. On the same page, a deal is struck with a local chief to take the ailing crewmember Patvin, in the care of the Hawai’ian Eawinia, by canoe back to “the Fort” (Astoria) via the coast, again implying pretty detailed verbal communication in Chinook Jargon; an alternate and quicker horseback route winds up being decided on with another local guide, via the “Cowlitch” (Cowlitz) River. On page 209 we learn that it’s interpreter Laframbois[e] who had to make all these arrangements, so I suspect that in this pre-creole time, it wasn’t yet the rule that almost everyone spoke CJ! (It’s highly doubtful that Laframboise spoke Upper Chehalis Salish, as we know from overt commentary and circumstantial evidence that extremely few outsiders ever learned PNW Indigenous languages.)

Page 210 — December 4, 1824 — One of the earliest occurrences in writing of a now-common PNW English word: in the Nisqually (southern Puget Sound) area, there’s lots of undergrowth, “particularly an evergreen shrub called by the Chenooks Lallall” (salal).

Page 212 — December 7, 1824 — Still in the Nisqually area, two “Sanahomis” (Snohomish Salish from farther north on Puget Sound) men and the wife of one of them are encountered; she “speaks and understands the Chenook language pretty well and is to interpret to the men”, i.e. she is speaking Jargon with Laframboise. Being the wife of a Snohomish, she can be inferred to have been from a different tribe, due to traditional marriage rules, and likely she’s from closer to the Columbia River. Eight Native people visiting “from the Interior” visit the Euro-American party. The local “Nisqual[l]y Indians speak a language different from any we have seen yet”, i.e. the furtraders have no previous experience with Lushootseed Salish, which indeed is quite distinct from the Upper and Lower Chehalis spoken by the tribes so far met with on this trip. The Nisquallies have some horses already, as well.

Page 213 — December 8, 1824 — In the Suquamish area near modern-day Seattle, which is also Lushootseed land, the traders “understand several of the inhabitants were off fishing”, and we can gather that this comes from gestural communication more than from any language shared with the Euro-American party. The latter had hoped to get the local chief to join them as a Lushootseed interpreter, and I wonder if he already spoke some Chinook Jargon or Canadian French due to experience trading on the Columbia River. I can’t imagine what other language he could share with Laframboise or the other furtraders.

Page 214 — December 9, 1824 — In Skagit (Lushootseed-speaking) territory — “All the country hereabouts is represented by the Indians to abound with elk and deer.” This basic information, too, probably came via signs more than by verbal communication; a similar note comes on page 216. All strangers here are considered probable enemies on first sight, by the Skagits, just as we’ve seen Captain Charles Bishop say of the Chinooks in 1795, a political dynamic that would work against the existence of any trading/pidgin language. In this day’s entry, we see the two Snohomish men who were mentioned above, now referred to as “interpreters” — solely due to their association with the one guy’s wife!

Page 215 — December 10, 1824 — A son of a Skagit chief is “engaged to accompany the party as a guide and interpreter, and principally for the purpose of introducing us to strangers whom we may pass.” This once again implies the traditional village intermarriage system of communication, the “strangers” being communities unknown to the furtraders but not to this young nobleman and his family. A few guns are already owned by local Salish people here, showing that they have had trading contact with coasting vessels despite their unfamiliarity with these overland traders.

Page 217 — December 13, 1824 — In the vicinity of the modern-day US/Canada border (Nooksack and Lummi country I take it), the young Lushootseed nobleman is able to understand two young boys who the party meets, “but our interpreter [apparently referring to him] so imperfectly understood the Indians who accompanied us [i.e. the Chinuk Wawa-speaking woman] that the information required on the most important points is very unsatisfactorily obtained.” This picture meshes with our understanding that CW wasn’t yet known so far north, whereas by the 1827 founding of Fort Langley nearby, it would come rapidly to be a much-used language.

Page 218 — December 15, 1824 — Close to the lower Fraser River, some Indigenous people of the “Cahoutetts Nation” (or Cahantitt) appear, and “their language differs from that of our Indians but they understand each other” to some extent, i.e. it’s also Coast Salish, I suppose Kwantlen Musqeam Hun’q’umi’num. In fact extremely little information is gotten from them in this encounter. These people have bows and arrows but no Euro-American technology.

Page 220 — December 17, 1824 — A similar situation, with local Salish people said to understand the party’s guides, but in actuality very little information can be obtained verbally.

Page 221 — December 18, 1824 — A little farther up the Fraser, local people have some Euro-American trade goods and good knowledge of people inland on the Thompson River, being able to name the Secwépemc (Shuswaps) “and some other tribes whose names we know”, so they may have already established contact with Fort Kamloops. John Work, having failed to recognize the use of a 71-foot-long fishing spear, says he knows nothing of how these people got the sturgeon that they’re offering for sale! “Our Indian guide [the Skagit?] understood them and was understood also. The language they speak has some little resemblance to the Okanagan.” And this is interesting, as we’ve seen in the Nisqually Journals, somewhat later on, the use of an Interior Salish language on the coast as a lingua franca.

Page 222 — December 19, 1824 — “Some conversation” is had with several “Cahotitt” people (Kwantlen again I believe) “by the help of our interpreters”. Extremely few European goods are seen here.

Page 224 — December 20, 1824 — Having begun their return trip, the furtraders meet several “Coweechin” people (Cowichan, Hul’q’umi’num Salish speakers) from Vancouver Island in the Birch Bay area of modern Washington, and have a little bit of very basic conversation with them via “our Indian”. We get a consistent idea that the Skagit man was improvising an intra-Salish lingo in these unaccustomed inter-tribal contacts outside the normal kin networks.

Quickly summarizing, there’s no indication of Chinook Jargon being in use in 1824 any farther north than Upper Chehalis country, and fluency in it was rare enough to get you a full-time job as a translator. Beyond there, all along Puget Sound and into the Fraser, at best Salish people could make themselves partially understood to each other, which may have been the case for millennia. (I recall Spokane elder Pauline Flett saying mother-tongue Spokane let her understand a good deal of what people say in Okanagan and Coeur d’Alene, for instance.)

Bonus fact:

John Work kept valuable journals for years during his furtrade employment; several are published. He went on to form one of Victoria’s founding families with his Spokane métisse wife Josette Legace, and he became the father-in-law of Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, who was one of the first good documentors of PNW Coast languages.

What do you think?