1788: “John Meares’ Approach to Oregon” and lack of any pidgin language at Shoalwater Bay/Grays Harbor

If Chinook Jargon had existed yet, it probably would’ve been spoken at Shoalwater Bay in 1788.


Frontispiece of Meares’s book.

This bay is traditional Lower Chinookan territory, as well as ɬew’ál’məš Lower Chehalis Salish.

But when John Meares’s ship Felice (or Felice Adventurero, etc.) visited on July 5 of that year, the two local guys who paddled out to trade didn’t understand his crew, even though:

We endeavoured to make ourselves intelligible, by addressing them in the language of King George’s Sound, which we had found to prevail from thence to the district of Tatootche; but they did not comprehend a word we uttered, and replied to us in a language which bore not the least resemblance or affinity, as far as we could form judgment, to any tongue that we had heard on the coast of America.

— from page 165 of “Voyages made in the years 1788 and 1789 from China to the north west coast of America: To which are prefixed an introductory narrative of a voyage performed in 1786 from Bengal in the ship Nootka, observations on the probable existence of a north west passage, and some account of the trade between the north west coast of America and China, and the latter country and Great Britain” by John Meares (1756?-1809) (London: Logographic Press, 1790)

“King George’s Sound” is another name for Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada — so its language is Nuučaan’uɬ (Southern Wakashan).

From that place to “the district of Tatootche” accurately describes the chain of Southern Wakashan dialects/languages extending to the northwestern tip of present-day Washington state; Tatootche was a Makah chief.

It’s easily 100+ sea miles from Makah country southward to Shoalwater Bay, WA, with Quileute and Quinault ethno-linguistic territories intervening.

T.C. Elliott, on page 279 of his analysis of Meares’s journal, concludes from long personal acquaintance with Shoalwater Bay and adjoining areas that the Felice was actually at Gray’s Harbor just northward (and then drifted down to Shoalwater). Thus its Native visitors would’ve been c’x̣íl’s Lower Chehalis Salish.

If so, this only slightly modifies my conclusion. The c’x̣íl’s Lower Chehalis would’ve had close consanguineal and/or affinal (blood and/or in-law) relatives, and fellow speakers of their language, in Lower Chinookan country.

We can expect they’d have some awareness of any pidgin language that might have been in use among Lower Chinookans — a pidgin that we know was Nootka Jargon-based. (I’ll repeat my recent findings that “Nootka Jargon” was a pretty amorphous amalgam of Nuučaan’uɬ, English, Haida, and other languages that the maritime fur ships came into contact with.)

There’s also an excellent probability that Grays Harbor folks would’ve been aware of Nootka Jargon if they had been already accustomed to Euro-American ships visiting their waters.

The Grays Harbor folks’ awareness that they could trade with the people on the ship is easily explained, because Pacific Northwest tribes were interrelated by marriage and easily shared information about current events. The information that you could swap a sea otter skin for tremendously rare commodities such as metal must have spread like wildfire.

I take away the conclusion that, just as other documents show us, there was not yet any pidgin or trading language in use in southwest Washington prior to 1794.

The idea that Chinook Jargon existed long before contact with Whites has always been theoretical, and that theory isn’t finding corroboration when we examine documents of the earliest years of contact.

What do you think?
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