1872: M. Cowley on Chinuk Wawa in very early Spokane, WA

Irishman Michael Cowley was a very early pioneer in the area of Spokane in far eastern Washington.


(Image credit: Findagrave)

He’s not to be confused with Reverend Henry T. Cowley, missionary to the Spokane Indians, who was a slightly later arrival in the area; Cowley Park & Cowley Street are named for that fella.

Here, from a 2008 post I shared on the old CHINOOK listserv, is Michael Cowley’s reminiscence of arriving at Spokane in 1872 already knowing Chinook Jargon — and about learning the Spokane language enough to “abuse” the Indians. (!)

What follows is the original post…

Cowley, Michael M. (1841-1915), Spokane pioneer
HistoryLink.org Essay 7334

The author of this People’s History, Benjamin H. Kizer, was a Spokane lawyer
acquainted with local pioneer Michael M. Cowley. Cowley worked as a sutler
(an Army storekeeper) and prospector, settled at Spokane Bridge, and finally
became a respected Spokane banker. Kizer prepared this biographical sketch
for The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 1965), pp. 25-31. It
is here edited by David Wilma and reprinted with the permission of the


“… in 1872 [I] returned to Walla Walla, where I was married to Miss Annie
Connolly. This year I came to Spokane Bridge, as it is known now, I set up a
trading store on the north bank. I knew the Chinook jargon then and I talked
to one of the leaders of the Indians. He said, ‘What do you want here?’

“I said, ‘I want a place to settle. I want to start a trading post.’ ‘That
is good,’ he said. ‘My people will be glad to have you here. But you must
learn to speak our language. If not you can do nothing.’ ‘That is what I
will do. How can I learn the language.’ ‘You must get a little boy,” he
said, ‘about so high’ – motioning about the height of a boy five or six
years old.

“So I took his advice. This man got a family to let me have a little boy
about five years old. He talked Indian to me and taught me the simple, easy
words of the language, and I taught him English. There were interpreters
then and later, but they never amounted to much. If a man wanted to
understand the Indians and do business with them he must learn their language.

“The old chief’s advice was good. As soon as I learned to talk to the
Indians in their own language, I began to abuse them. At Bonner’s Ferry
there had been lots of fur. There were plenty of fur bearing animals in the
hills near here, but the Indians brought me none. There was no fur to be had.

” ‘You are lazy and good for nothing,’ I told the Indians. ‘Why don’t you go
out and get fur and buy the goods you want with it?’ ‘We can’t sell the fur.
If we got it, it would be no good to us,’ they answered me. ‘I will give you
ten dollars for every first-class marten fur you bring me,’ I told them. So
they went out and began to trap to get me furs. The first year I bought
$1,500 worth, the next year $6,000 worth, and for several years it increased
in proportion. The supply kept up until the government moved the Coeur
d’Alenes onto the reservation. Then it stopped, and there was no more fur in
this country.

“One of the well-known Indian characters who visited me at the bridge was
Chamiachin [Kamiakin], the only bald-headed Indian I ever saw. He had quite
a history, having figured in General Wright’s campaign in 1858. He was at
that time the leader of a band of about 300 of the Upper Palouses. ”

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