The Mission Field and “Chinhook” (Part 1 of 6)

Today let’s start a new mini-series, showing you the important use of Chinook Jargon by certain Church of England missionaries in BC.


There’s genuine reported Chinuk Wawa in today’s installment, but missionary Richard Dowson quite clearly wasn’t very good with this language, nor with Vancouver Island Salish languages.


Image credit: UC Berkeley Library

“The poor workman blames his tools.”

I will say that Dowson shows signs of having been more open to and observant of Native people than most of his Settler peers. He seems to have understood a little more CW than he could speak; some of what follows is good material for “back-translating” into the Jargon.

Anyhow, maybe the poor guy was preoccupied…

Reverend Dowson, according to the University of Victoria’s excellent “Colonial Dispatches” website,

was the first Anglican missionary assigned to the colony of British Columbia in 1858 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Born in Liverpool, England on 20 October 1827, he was educated at Cambridge, becoming a deacon in 1854 and priest in 1855. Sent as the Society’s missionary to the Indians in Vancouver Island, he arrived in Victoria with his wife on 2 February 1859. Leaving his wife behind, Dowson embarked on a tour of the Pacific coast two weeks later, travelling as far north as Fort Simpson. In June 1859, he reported that he was living in a little dilapidated school-house that was some distance from any considerable number of Indians. Dowson and his wife struggled in the colony and returned to England in early 1860 due to her impaired health. He served as Rector of St. John’s in Belize City, British Honduras, from 1861 to 1870 and was 47 years old when he died in 1875.

Now, I present his report from Volume 4, issue of September 1, 1859, #192, pages 193-199:


SEPTEMBER 1 , 1859.


We have no fear that our readers will be tired of missionary reports from this distant outpost of Christianity. Surely nothing can be more interesting than to watch the first steps of the evangelist in a new country, now occupied by a few wandering savages, but hereafter likely to become the home of a numerous and powerful Christian community. The following letter will show in very striking colours both the difficulties by which Mr. Dowson is surrounded, and the manly and cheerful spirit with which he encounters them. The Society, at its last meeting, voted to him a sum of 400l. to build himself a house:–

“Vancouver’s Island , 3d June , 1859.

MY DEAR SIR, — In my last letter, the beginning of April, I told you that I had returned from my expedition to the north, and was anxiously considering how to establish myself near one of the Indian villages. Since then I have been living in a little dilapidated school-house belonging to the colony, which happened to be vacant, and is about four miles from Victoria, but some distance from any considerable number of Indians. It is in a most ruinous state, without ceilings, plenty of holes in the roof and windows, and abundance of ventilation in every way; but still we were very thankful to get any place at all to cover us at present, and with the aid of some calico, green and red baize, a hammer, some nails, and a little ingenuity in the carpentering line, I have managed to make two


rooms somewhat habitable. We live, as you may imagine, in a most primitive way. We have everything to do for ourselves, servants being quite out of the question: any sort of a house-servant would require at least 100l. a year wages, and then would do nothing for you when you had her. I have got an Indian, whom we are teaching to do little things about the place, and through whom, as I will tell you by and by, I hope to learn the language, and get some introduction to the people.

There is a school-room attached to the school-house, and I have service in it twice every Sunday for the few white people who live about: these services take up more of my attention than I could have wished, but still they were the implied condition upon which I got the house to live in for a time, and as there was no other place to live in there was no help for it. I have a congregation of about forty in the morning, some of whom come from a considerable distance: in the evening the number is smaller, as the distance for most of them is too great to admit of their coming more than once. They are, most of them, by training, Scotch Presbyterians, but they come very regularly to our English service, and are very attentive. Another reason why it is right for me to hold service here is, that some Methodists in America have sent some Missionaries here, who had been holding service at this place, and evidently had their eye upon it as a centre of future operations.

I have tried in vain to find any European who was both willing and able to teach me anything of the native languages; indeed  I do not think there is a white man upon the island who knows much of them. There is a language, or rather jargon, called Chinhook, which is spoken by all the tribes in their trading intercourse with the whites; and this is, as a rule, the only means of communication between them, the Indians knowing little or nothing of English, and the white men knowing nothing of real native Indian.

I have made myself pretty well master of Chinhook, but it is a language of very little use except as a trading language: it consists nearly altogether of substantives, and has no words to express thoughts, except the most material and animal wants. 


Of course I soon saw that my only plan was to get at one of the real native languages, and the only question was, how to do it? All the whites I spoke to said it was no use, I could never learn it, and if I did, never do any good. When I spoke to my poor Indian in Chinhook, and said, “Nīka tỉkke wawa Cowitchen,’ — ‘I want to talk Cowitchen;’ he always said in Chinhook, ‘Cowitchen hālo klösh mika,’ — ‘Cowitchen not good for you,’ and turned away. However, I have at last won his confidence so much, that he tells me a few words of Cowitchen every day. The Cowitchens, I must tell you, are a very large powerful tribe, who live about thirty or forty miles from Victoria, up the east coast of the island, but who have branches spreading on every side of them, and their language is spoken, or at any rate understood, all the way from Sake [Sooke], about thirty miles from Victoria, on the west coast of the island, to Point Mudge, about half-way up the east coast.

I have had hard work to get this poor fellow to stay with me. One I tried did very well for a time, but soon went away without a word, and a few days afterwards I met him in all his original dignity of paint and feathers.

Almost every one here laughs at the idea of my teaching Indians, and says that there is no good in them, and no gratitude, but I find it somewhat different: I find that where you trust them they are very honest; and as to gratitude, my Indian has several times brought us little presents of wild fruits he has gathered in the woods; and the other day he washed and boiled, and brought on a dish, the two finest of three crabs which he had got for his own dinner. These things may seem but trifles, but they give me great encouragement, and show that the white colonist’s estimate of Indian character is not altogether a correct one.

A few days since I was walking along the trail with him, when he said in Cowitchen, Heïgh taansu kqualoum tănowä, Heïgh Cowitchen kqualoum tanowa,’ — ‘My heart is very good to you, the Cowitchen’s heart is very good to you.’ I had been trying to make him understand that I had come in a ship, five moons over the sea, to teach the Indians what was good. I had a great deal of bother to get hold of a word for ‘teach,’ as I said ‘Chinhook’ has very


few words to express feelings or thoughts, and where you know nothing of the man’s language, and he knows nothing of yours, it is most difficult to get at such words. It seems somewhat strange that no white people know anything worth speaking of, of the real Indian languages, and that the Indians, without exception, know little or nothing of English; but I suppose it is to be accounted for by the general use of Chinhook, which they find sufficient for all trading purposes.

One of my great difficulties is the utter indifference, if not something worse, of the white settlers towards the welfare of the natives, and accordingly the utter want of sympathy, as regards my particular work, I have met with: personal kindness to myself I have received abundantly, but it has been altogether to the English stranger, and not to the Indian Missionary.

A short time since there was a fight amongst a party of Northern Indians, who were coming down here to trade, and about twenty of them were killed, when I heard one of the principal settlers about here (a gentleman, by the by, from whom we have received the greatest kindness) express the charitable wish that the Indians would be like Kilkenny cats, and fight till there was nothing of them left; and I am frequently hearing such remarks as ‘they ought to be rooted out like tree-stumps,’ &c., though I must say that they oftener come from the mouths of Americans than of Englishmen.

The Governor certainly takes some interest in them, and is one of the very few who have shown me any sympathy. He strongly advises me to pursue the course I propose, viz. build a house near to one of their villages, and indeed it is the only plan to do anything at all. I hope the Society have favourably considered the application I made in my last letter; if not, I do not indeed see what I am to do. There is a schoolmaster appointed now to this school, who, for these few summer months, I am thankful to say, is willing to let me keep a couple of rooms here, but afterwards I shall be obliged to turn out, as there is really not room for us, and there is not another roof anywhere to shelter us except at Victoria; where, as I said, we should be utterly useless as regards Indians, and moreover the greater part of our income would be gone at once for


rent, besides everything being from twice to four times the price it is in England.

I do not think I should be able to get a bill on the Society, for the money to build the house, cashed at Victoria, but there is a branch of the ‘Bank of British North America’ now being established there, and their office in London is 7, St. Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate, so perhaps the best way would be to make a remittance through them.

The day before yesterday I was pounced down upon by the Sheriff to go and be foreman of a coroner’s jury, upon a man who had been found lying murdered about a mile from here on the trail to Victoria. I claimed exemption as ‘clericus,’ but was told it was no use; and moreover, if I did not come, there was no one else about to make up the number, and so the inquiry would be delayed several hours, and the murderer have so much more time to make his escape: I accordingly thought it my duty to go, and we found the poor fellow, who was a policeman from Victoria, lying hid in the bush by the side of the road, shot through the head. On one side of the trail was a perfect lair where the murderer had been concealed, opposite to which was a splash of blood upon the road where the poor man had fallen, and on the opposite side of the road the track along which the body had been dragged. He must have fallen dead at once.

Knowing how quick Indians are at detecting traces of any sort, I went over to the place quietly in the evening with my Indian, and he at once spied out all we had seen in the day, and also found the murderer had taken himself off through the bush. As well as two small pieces of paper in the place where the body had been hid, which may possibly be the means of filling up some little link in the chain of evidence, he also said he had been a white man in large boots with many nails in them. It is astonishing how quick the eyes of these savages are to find footmarks or any other traces. It was upon our return that evening that he told me of his heart being good, as I have mentioned. I managed to get some little talk with him at the same time in a mixture of Chinhook, Cowitchen, English, and signs; he evidently believed he would go


somewhere after he was dead: if he did not kill, steal, or cheat, he would go to a land where there was plenty of sun, and plenty of water, and no work; but if he did kill, &c., he would go to a land like ‘yawa,’ — ‘there,’ and he pointed to a rough rugged piece of land by the side of the trail. By the by, to crown his description of the good land, after he had done his best to tell me what it was like, he said it was like King George land, i.e. England.

I also understood him to say that the heart of the Great Chief above was good to the Indians, and I tried to tell him that it was so, and that the Great Chief above had made both the Indian and the Englishman, and made the sun to make them warm, and the water for them to drink, and that as I sat at home in England, my heart was sick because there was no man to teach the Indian about the Great Chief above, and so I had come five moons over the great water to teach the savage good, and about the Great Chief above. I do not like applying that word ‘Chief’ to GOD, as I am afraid that their ideas of a chief’s character are not very favourable ones. I want to use ‘Father,’ instead, but have not yet been able to get hold of the Cowitchen word for it, and I do not think there is a Chinhook expression for it. [DDR — !!!!!]

The idea of being a long time trying to get such a simple word may seem strange, but where the means of communication are so small, it is very difficult to get at any words except the names of actual visible things, which you can point out.

I must close my rather rambling letter for the present, as I want to get it off by the next vessel for San Francisco, and it is possible she may sail to-day from Victoria. I do not get as much leisure for writing as one would imagine, for in a new country like this it takes a good deal of time to ‘live,’ where you have to be your own carpenter, your own blacksmith, your own cook, your own everything.

Always recommend a Missionary to a new country to bring out a few tools and a small medicine-chest with him — they are actual necessaries. I have just been doctoring my poor Indian for a bleeding at the nose — by the by, last night, I was sitting looking rather thoughtfully out of the window, when he came into the room; when he saw me he said in Cowitchen, ‘Is your heart sick?’ I


said, ‘Yes, my heart is sick because Indian does not know the Great Chief above; my heart is sick because no man teaches the savage good.’ He said, ‘You teach savage good,’ — ‘Tănowa Heigh taěmit Sowash,‘ — ‘Savage’s heart good to you,’ — ‘Heïgh Sowash kqualoum tănowa.’ After all, this is a hard uphill fight which we have to fight, quite single-handed, but it is in a good cause, and I do not and cannot think that God has created 17,000 human souls without any capacity for being taught to know Him, and to do what is right.

Let us be remembered sometimes in the prayers of our well wishers at home, for indeed we need them. And with very kind remembrances to all friends at Pall Mall, believe me,          My dear Sir,
                                                  Very sincerely yours ,
                                                            RICHARD Dowson.”

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?