1908: Reminiscences of Charles A. Splawn

From the “Indian district” of Ellensburg, Washington, mid- to post-frontier times…


The Thorp-Splawn pioneer cemetery (image credit: Yakima Mission)

Charles Armenus Splawn (1831-1908), a member of the regionally well-known Splawn family of early Settlers, was remembered for his Chinuk Wawa skills and some familiarity with the Ichishkíin (Yakama Sahaptin) language, among other accomplishments.

With those skills, he became the ideal local schoolteacher and court interpreter.

Splawn was an Oregon pioneer of 1851, thus a very longtime user of early-creolized Chinook Jargon. Moving north, he married into the influential Thorpe [sic] family of the Ellensburg area. He became the first sheriff of Yakima County (from which Kittitas County was separated in 1883), as well as a judge and a justice of the peace.

Following is a personal remembrance of C.A.:







His Death Refreshes the Mind
of an Old Friend

In the death of Chas. A. Splawn
Kittitas valley loses one of her
oldest pioneers. Since in 1861, he
has been a conspicuous figure in
central Washington; a pioneer of
pioneers. His ancestors were pio-
neers in Kentucky and Missouri,
and he no doubt inherited their
sterling qualities.

In entering upon the discharge
of my duties as County School
Superintendent of Yakima county,
in the spring of 1881, I found that
the Thorp district, then more gen-
erally known as the Indian district,
was about to lapse under the pro-
visions of the school law. Charley
called on me to see what we could
do to preserve its organization.

The district had so little money
in the treasury, to its credit, that
it was impossible to find any one
that would agree to teach the
school. We finally agreed to wa[i]ve
technicalities. I gave him a per-
mit to teach a two months term of
school, and he agreed to open the
school the following Monday.
Thus the present prosperous dis-
trict of Thorp was saved from col-
lapse, through the personal sacri-
fices of Charley.

I shall never forget my visitation
of his school. There was not a
white child in the school, and just
a round dazen [sic] of dusky Indian
urchins. These were seated on
blocks of wood, sawed from a small
log, in different lengths suited to
the size of the children. These
blocks were arranged in a semi-
circle in front of a large old fash-
ioned fire place, one end of the
circle resting against the jam[b] farth-
est from the door. Between the
other end of the circle and the
other jam[b] there was a space which
left room for a passage way be-
tween the door and fire place.
Charley had the school well in
hand, and proved himself to be the
“right man in the right place.”

In some respects he possessed
superior qualifications for teaching
the school. Certainly no one
could have been found who under-
stood the characteristics and sur-
roundings of the children as well
as he did. Added to this he was
master of the Indian language,
and a thorough manipulator of

I have often wished I had a
picture of the school, showing the
children, teacher and superintend-
ent. It would be worthy of pres-
ervation in any of the musiums [sic] of
our country and would certainly
be worthy of a place in the school
building of the present Thorp dis-

No more will see him in the
court room as court interpreter of
the Indian and Chinook language.

No more will he be seen standing
up in democratic county conven-
tions hurling defiance at everything
that failed to measure up to the
standard of Thomas Jefferson.

It is fitting that he should be
laid to rest in the valley which he
loved so well, and in which he had
lived and toiled so long. Requies-
cat ia [sic] Pace.

          W. H. PETERSON,
Ellensburg, April 16.

— from the Ellensburg (WA) Dawn of April 17, 1908, page 1, column 2

Bonus fact:

Charles A. was the older brother of the renowned A.J. “Jack” Splawn, who was an essentially lifelong speaker of early-creolized Jargon. According to an inventory of his papers, A.J. authored a ?poem titled “Ne Sitka Klat-a Wa Nan-lah Til-li-cums (We Go to See Our Friends)”. That’s presumably a misreading of his handwriting, which might actually be Nesieka Klat-a-Wa Nan-ich Til-li-cums (nsayka ɬatwa nanich tilixams), meaning ‘we will go visit friends’ in a recognizably Settler style of Chinuk Wawa. .

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