1897: A Klondike version of the “sitkum dollar” joke, with a celebrity

The famous “Poet of the Sierras”, Joaquin Miller, spoke Chinook Jargon.

steamer mexico

On July 17, 1897, the steamer “Portland” arrived in Seattle with a large amount of gold from the Klondike. This set off a stampede of people wanting to go north to the gold fields. The steamer “Mexico” left Seattle on July 25th loaded with people and supplies. This was the ship’s last voyage. It was wrecked in Alaskan waters on August 6th. This photo shows the steamer “Mexico” at the Oregon Improvement Company dock. The huge crowd that watched the sailing stretched for a mile along the waterfront. (Text & image credit: MOHAI)

That much we already knew.

But apparently his CJ didn’t impress real Northwesterners too much…in fact they laughed at it!

Here’s a variant on the “sitkum dollar” joke



One of the amusing events of the voyage from the [Puget] Sound was the purchase of a small skiff at Metlakahtla [essentially Prince Rupert, BC] by two San Francisco Examiner correspondents, Messrs. Joaquin Miller and Livernash. By conversing with other passengers they had come to realize the great difficulty in getting boats at the lakes. They decided to steal a march on their fellow travelers, and at Metlakahtla they wandered off down on the beach where a lot of canoes were lying, and finding a small, light skiff that had been abandoned by the owner, which they thought would be easy to carry across the mountains, they approached an old squaw who was sitting near by and inquired its price. She grinned and said:

“Sitkum dollar.”

“What does she say, Mr. Miller?” Inquired Mr. Livernash, realizing that the poet and old pioneer ought to be well versed in aboriginal dialect.

“Oh, she says it’s $17,” was Mr. Miller’s response as an interpreter.

“Tell her I’ll give her $10,” was the next proposition, and at the same time exhibiting an eagle as a temptation.

Mr. Miller said something or other in jargon and handed her the coin, which she took and hastily shuffled off into her house. Several of the Mexico’s passengers who can talk Chinook witnessed the transaction and saw the two newspaper men take their prize aboard the steamer. As the vessel was leaving the wharf they told the joke. When the woman said she wanted “sitkum dollar” she meant 50 cents.

— from “News from the North”, in the Victoria (BC) Daily Times of August 5, 1897, page 2, column 2

Further bad luck ensued when the steamship Mexico sank in Alaskan waters on August 6!

Maybe that ten-dollar skiff wound up saving Miller & Livernash, though.

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