Strychnine again! “His Wits Saved His Life”

After Alex Code’s recent find of strychnine being discussed in Chinook Jargon (as lamachín ‘medicine!), this frontiersy anecdote sure caught my eye…


(Image credit: Findagrave)

It involves a Satsop Salish man known as Satsop Pete, and Elma, Washington pioneer of 1860 S[idney].H[enry]. Beckwith (1830-1907). 

1860 was quite early days for Settler presence in that part of the Olympic Peninsula, but Chinuk Wawa had already been spoken there for a generation or two. 

So Pete, as well as Beckwith, speak quite good CW in the following…

his wits 1

his wits 2

His Wits Saved His Life.

A good story is told of S.H. Beckwith, of Elma, who located near that place in 1860, on the Chehalis River. The Indians in the early days used to camp near his place and fish in the ripples for salmon. One year they had a most unneccessary number of dogs, which bothered the life out of Beckwith’s sheep and, as the pioneer himself says, “kept a’killin’ th’ lambs.” Among the lot was a big bear dog owned by a burly Indian, called “Satsop Pete.”

To relieve matters, Beckwith made a trip to Olympia and purchased six bits’ worth of strychnine. Upon his return he killed several sheep, took out the livers and loaded them with poison, hung them on the fence and awaited developments. The dogs smelled the meat, got the poison, became sick, but all were cured by the Indians using fish oil, with the exception of Satsop Pete’s famous bear dog, which could not be found and died.

Satsop Pete then, in a rage, made a trip to Beckwith’s cabin and demanded that the pioneer pay him for the canine.

“Konza dollar mika tika kopa (How much do you want for the dog)?” asked Beckwith, in some alarm at the Indian’s attitude. [qʰə́nchi dála mayka tíki kʰapa [kʰámuksh]?] [1]

“Mox dollar percitcum [2] ($2.50),” replied Satsop Pete. [mákwst dála pi sítkum]

“Hias klose, Pete (All right, Pete),” replied Beckwith. [hayas-ɬúsh]

Then Beckwith began a tirade on the dogs, and alleged that he had put out the medicine to kill the birds, which were stealing the cherries and the brutes had eaten it up — especially the bear dog. This began to work up Satsop Pete. When Beckwith found his scheme working he said:

“Mika potlatch mox dollar percitcum, kopa mika spose, mika potlatch pay kopa lumachene (I’ll pay $2.50 for your dog, you pay me for the poison).” [nayka pálach mákwst dála pi sítkum kʰapa mayka, spus mayka pálach pʰéy kʰapa lamachín] [3]

“Hias klose,” quickly grunted Satsop Pete, adding in broken English, “We be good friends.” [hayas-ɬúsh]

Then it is recorded that Beckwith charged the Indian five dollars for the poison and had him splitting rails at ten cents apiece to pay for the extra $2.50.

“It was a Yankee trick, sure enough,” acknowledge Beckwith, “but it had to be that, or lose my scalp.”

— from The Coast (Wilhelm’s Magazine) VI(3):106-107 (September 1903)


qʰə́nchi dála mayka tíki kʰapa [kʰámuksh]? [1] Two points about this.  One is that a preposition (kʰapa) is used to express ‘for’ the dog, making this dialog somewhat more northern-dialect than southern (where you’d use the subordinating conjunction pus in this sentence). The other is that the writer, or editor, left out the actual CW noun for ‘dog’ 🙂

Mox dollar percitcum [2] ($2.50): By sheer serendipity, I was just reading Henry Zenk & Tony Johnson’s good 2003 paper on the Chinuk Wawa of Cowlitz tribal member Joe Peter, who expressed “two and a half” as what sounded like mákwst pus sítkum (‘2 for/if a half’) rather than the original and expected mákwst pi sítkum (2 and a half)! This weird spelling percitcum makes you wonder if Satsop Pete, from the same small geographic area, spoke like that as well, although we have to concede that the written manuscript that today’s piece was typeset from may have actually read …peecitcum. But, if the pus theory applies here, it’s easy to imagine that “2½” was such a common quantity in speech, e.g. for the prices of commodities, that it phonologically eroded from mákwst pi sítkum => mákwst pə sítkum, hard to distinguish from mákwst pus sítkum. Did you follow all of that?! 🙂

nayka pálach mákwst dála pi sítkum kʰapa mayka, spus mayka pálach pʰéy kʰapa lamachín] [3] The underlined stuff needs your attention. The first word should be the pronoun for ‘I’, whereas the published version has mika ‘you’. and the Jargon, as published, includes the word spose ‘if’ (a more northern version of pus). Again, note that the strychnine is referred to as ‘medicine’, a word that wasn’t as inherently positive in its connotations as it is in English. The literal meaning of this whole sentence is ‘I’ll give $2.50 to you, if you give payment for the medicine/poison.’ 

Bonus fact:

Another Pacific NW tie-in with strychnine is this much-loved 60s song

What do you think? qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?