Beresford 1789 [1786-1787] found no northern NWCoast pidgins

Thanks to John Enrico’s phenomenal “Haida Dictionary” (freely searchable here), I found this additional on-the-spot report from earliest times of Native-Newcomer contact on the Northwest Coast.


“A Young Woman of Queen Charlotte’s Islands” (following page 226)

A Voyage (a)round the World: But More Particularly to the North-West Coast of America” (London: Geo. Goulding, 1789) is a collection of the supercargo William Beresford’s shipboard lettters to “Hamlen” while serving on Nathaniel Portlock’s ship. An Introduction accompanies them, from none other than fellow NW Coast exploring captain George Dixon.

The upshot from my reading of this beautifully and cleverly written (and illustrated, and printed) narrative is the same as I’ve previously concluded — there wasn’t any pidgin language along the northern Pacific Northwest Coast in those first years of what Eurocentric culture calls “contact”. There was no such thing as Chinook Jargon, nor of a Haida Jargon, nor was the then-incipient Nootka (Nuučaan’uɬ) Jargon understood anywhere but at Nootka Sound, way down south from where Beresford and crewmates were visiting.

(You can compare the following account with what I’ve found of another publication of Portlock & Dixon’s voyages.) 

There are two sections of this book that we’ll interest ourselves in today, for the purpose of examining the (may I say) ridiculously controversial question of whether there were pidgin languages in the Pacific Northwest prior to the coming of the Drifters, as Indigenous people have long called Euro-Americans.

These are the stretches of material concerning Beresford’s two seasons on the NW Coast, a shorter account of 1786 and a longer report on 1787. The remainder of the book, naturally, tells of sailing from England via Portuguese-owned Atlantic islands, the Falklands, and Hawai’i, and later gradually homeward via southern China, Indonesia, etc.

On page 57 and following, the ship has reached our coasts near “Cook’s River” (Cook Inlet) in south-central Alaska, having originally intended to start this June 1786 visit at “King George’s Sound” (Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, BC). Soon some Russians are met, and some Native people from Kodiak Island (Alutiiqs) who however turn out to be part of the same Russian fur-gathering expedition. On June 28 the ship has proceeded northward to go up the Inlet, into what I take as Dena’ina Athabaskan territory, and one Native man in a canoe visits to trade salmon; no verbal understanding occurs, but this man “gave us to understand that the people (pointing the shore) would bring us plenty of skins by the next day’s sun.” Starting the next day, many Native people show up and trade, with iron “toes” being the prized article that they want to obtain.


“A View of the Volcano, Cook’s River, Taken from Coal Harbour” [on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska] (following page 62) (image credit: AbeBooks)

This trade continues into early August; “our friends kept bringing us skins of various kinds, but gave us to understand, that their own were all sold, and that they were obliged to trade with tribes in distant parts of the country, in order to supply us.” … “…on the 5th…several canoes came along-side, but the people had very few skins, and they gave us to understand, that the country was pretty well drained.” This is pretty much the end of the crew’s contact with PNW Coast Native people for the visit of 1786; there’s no indication given of their having learned any of the Native folks’ language, or vice versa.

On April 23, 1787, the ship has returned to the south-central Alaska coast for its final season, sighting Foot and Montague Islands and bearing for Prince William Sound, which is traditional Alutiiq/Sugpiaq, Ahtna Athabaskan, and Eyak territory (page 144). The next day, Native people in 5 canoes visit, repeating the word Lauleigh, generally laying a great emphasis on the latter syllable” (page 146); they’re not bringing anything to trade. “On our enquiry for Notooneshuck, which is the name they use for sea otter’s skin, they immediately pointed toward Prince William’s Sound, repeating the word “Nootka Notooneshuck,” plenty, very frequently, and in the most earnest manner. Some dogs we had on board, hearing strangers about the ship, ran upon the gun-wale, and began to bark at them, on which the Indians directly called out, “Towzer, Towzer, here, here,” whistling at the same time, after the manner used to coax dogs in England. We were pretty much puzzled to account for these circumstances, though it appeared very evident, from these people speaking English, and having some idea of our manners, that an English vessel either lay in the sound at the present moment, or had been there very recently; but none of us could guess at the meaning of Nootka, though they repeated that word much oftener than any of the rest.” On the 25th, Beresford mentions the crew having been told by the Native visitors “that they would return soon and bring Notooneshuck, plenty.”

On May 5th, reconnoitering Montague Island, “I found some Indians on a hunting party, who gave me to understand, that they belonged to Cape Hinchinbrooke.” (Page 152.) At Snug Corner Cove on the 8th, “two Indians came alongside in a canoe, and gave me to understand, that there was a ship at no great distance; at the same time they offered to conduct me to her for a string of beads…I was exceedingly anxious to know, whether…the Indians had been amusing me with a false report.” The sailors find a snow (a type of sailing ship) “called the Nootka, from Bengal, commanded by a Captain Meares, under English colours.” (Page 154.) That ship had wintered from 1786 into 1787 on this stretch of Alaskan coast; it’s now clear why some Natives know some English here, as page 158 overtly points out. On the 9th, “some canoes joined us, and one of the Indians had a few sea-otter skins, which he offered to sell. Happening to cast his eyes on a frying-pan…he requested to have it in barter” (page 156).

On May 12, two canoes visit, but nothing is brought to trade with the sailors; “however, they promised to come next day, with plenty of trade, accompanied by their Chief.” (Page 159.) The next day, several canoes indeed visit, bringing a Chief whose name is understood to be Shanway; he “shewed a letter for Captain Portlock, which came, he said, from the Nootka, on which he was admitted on board, together with a number of his people. It seems the hunting party we saw at our first coming in, on the 24th of April, belonged to old Shanway’s tribe; these people lived near Snug Corner Cove, and on their return had acquainted Captain Meares, that they had seen two ships at anchor a great distance down the channel; on which he immediately wrote the above-mentioned letter…and gave it to the Indians, who promised to return back to us immediately…” (Page 160.)

At a new anchorage on May 23, “several canoes came alongside us. We accosted the people with some of the words in use amongst the natives of Prince William’s Sound, but they had not the least idea of their meaning; indeed it was pretty evident at first sight, that these people were a different nation…”. (Page 167.) The ship moves on to another nearby Native village, but finds that here, as in previous stops along this coast, “we only gleaned after more fortunate traders”. (Page 168.) On page 170, Beresford describes how the Native people “by significant shrugs and gestures, hint at having brought something valuable to dispose of”. It becomes evident that these people are Lingít (Tlingits): “The language here is different from that of Prince William’s Sound, or Cook’s River; it appears barbarous, uncouth, and difficult to pronounce: they frequently used the word Amcou, which signifies a Friend, or Chief, and their numerals reckon to ten; but I was not able to procure any farther specimen of their language, as they are very close and uncommunicative in their dispositions.” (Page 172.)

At yet another harbor, Norfolk Sound a.k.a. Sitka (pages 179-180), a canoe of Native people [likewise Lingít] catches up to the ship; it’s learned that “They had seen our vessel the preceding evening, and on our standing out to sea, had followed us, but lost sight of the ship during the night…they gave us to understand, that we should find a number of inhabitants, and plenty of furs, in the adjacent harbour. This piece of intelligence, though not absolutely to be depended on, elated us not a little.” Page 182: “Among the people who came to trade with us, was an old man, who seemed remarkably intelligent: he gave us to understand, that a good while ago there had been two vessels at anchor near this place, one of which was considerably larger than our’s; that they carried a great number of guns, and that the people resembled us in colour and dress.” The sailors figure out from the style of a white shirt shown by the man that these had been Spanish ships.

I’ll take a moment to highlight the incredibly frequent and really important observation, e.g. on page 187 regarding Sitka, that it was normally the recognized chiefs who directed tribal trading with Euro-Americans, and furthermore, neighbouring tribes would often (have to?) employ the local chief as a middleman for trading with the Newcomers. We find this everywhere in the Pacific Northwest’s early contact era; think of the Lingít who controlled “Stick Indian” (interior Athabaskan) trade, and Lower Chinookans with their comparable hold on commerce in their region. These dynamics help explain why so many of the earliest known Indigenous speakers of “Nootka Jargon” and of Chinuk Wawa were chiefs, sub-chiefs, and elders. And this, by corollary, helps us to understand that we can’t expect there to have existed any pidgin languages in the PNW prior to contact with the Drifters — I mean that we’d find more people than just these select few speaking pidgins in the early historical record, as the knowledge of such languages would’ve disseminated beyond such a narrow stratum as onlookers heard & learned.

In connection with the preceding, here’s a trading-related “peculiar custom I took notice of here, which as yet we had been strangers to. The moment a Chief has concluded a bargain, he repeats the word Coocoo thrice, with quickness, and is immediately answered by all the people in his canoe with the word Whoah, pronounced in a tone of exclamation, but with greater or less energy, in proportion as the bargain he has made is approved of.” (Page 189.)

Pages 189-190, Sitka area, June 1787: “I was one day endeavouring to get the meaning of some words in their language from one of the Chiefs, and on pointing to the Sun, he took great pains to make me understand, that notwithstanding our apparent superiority in possessing various useful articles, which they did not, yet that our origin was the same with their’s, that they came from above as well as we, and that the Sun animated and kept alive every creature in the universe.” Beresford goes on to quote Pope’s “Essay on Man” (“Lo! the poor Indian…”) for perhaps the first time of hundreds in the Pacific Northwest.

mount edgcombe norfolk sound

“A View of Mount Edgcombe, Taken from the Ship at Anchor in Norfolk Sound”, following page 192

Page 191: “In regard to the language here, I have some reason to think it is nearly the same with that at Port Mulgrave; however, as it may perhaps be in my power to obtain some further information respecting this article before we leave the coast, I will resume the subject at a future opportunity.”

July 2nd (page 200) — In Haida Gwaii at Cloak Island, some Native people “made signs for us to in towards the shore, and gave us to understand, that we should find more inhabitants, and plenty of furs.” The local people are at first utterly overcome with curiosity about the ship, as if they have not seen one before; they wind up trading avidly, like every other group so far encountered on this voyage, for iron “toes”. On page 204 (July 5), we’re told “The Indians…gave us to understand, that they would return in the morning with more furs.”


“A View of Hippa Island”, following page 204 (image credit:

Page 206, Hippa(h) Island, so named for the local Haidas’ fortified dwelling resembling structures found among New Zealand’s Māori: “The people, on coming along-side, traded very quietly and strongly importuned us by signs, to come on shore; at the same time giving us to understand (pointing towards the East) that if we visited that part of the coast, the inhabitants there would cut off our heads.” The ship’s crew fear the locals are cannibals.

July 9, nearby “In one of the canoes was an old man, who appeared to have some authority over the rest…he gave us to understand, that in another part of these islands, (pointing to the Eastward) he could procure plenty of furs for us…” On July 12, at yet another location near here, “we had purchased every article the Indians had got to sell; yet they could not be prevailed on to quit the ship, though we made sail, and gave them to understand, that we should return the next day; yet they still kept up with the vessel.”

Page 217, July 29th, apparently on the west side of Haida Gwaii now, with Haidas coming to trade: “Among these traders was the old Chief, whom we had seen on the other side of the islands, and who now appearing to be a person of the first consequence, Captain Dixon permitted him to come on board. The moment he got on the quarter deck he began to tell a long story, the purport of which was, that he had lost in battle the cap which we had given him; and to convince us how true this story was, he shewed us several wounds he had received in defending his property; notwithstanding this, he begged for another cap, intimating at the same time, that he would never lose it but with his life.” Page 218: “On our pointing to the Eastward, and asking the old man whether we should meet with any furs there, he gave us to understand, that it was a different nation from his, and that he did not even understand their language, but was always at war with them; that he had killed great numbers, and had many of their heads in his possession. The old fellow seemed to take particular pleasure in relating these circumstances, and took uncommon pains to make us comprehend his meaning; he closed his relation with advising us not to come near that part of the coast, for that the inhabitants would certainly destroy us. [Was this the start of a trend of Euro-Americans staying away from Tsimshian country, and could this help explain why the later language, Chinuk Wawa, wasn’t much known there?] I endeavoured to learn how they disposed of the bodies of their enemies who were slain in battle; and though I could not understand the Chief clearly enough positively to assert, that they are feasted on by the victors; yet there is too much reason to fear, that this horrid custom is practised on this part of the coast; the heads are always preserved, as standing trophies of victory.”

Page 220, July 30th, apparently still in Haida Gwaii, some Native people come to trade the few skins they have remaining, “giving us to understand, that their stock was nearly exhausted…” Mayhem ensues, unfortunately, and guns are fired to scare away the Native people. On August 1, near Cape St James at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, a canoe of the same people comes alongside the ship; “they gave us to understand, that one of their companions was dead of the wounds he received from our musquets; and at the same time endeavoured to make us sensible, that they were not at variance with us on that account: indeed they came along-side the vessel without the least fear, and it is probable that the design of their visit was to inform us of the above circumstance.”

Beresford concludes (page 224) from all of his crew’s experiences in Haida Gwaii that they are the first Euro-American visitors to the archipelago.

Recalling the 24th of July, Beresford tells (pages 226-227) of a chief’s wife who came aboard and “gave us to understand that she was only come to see the vessel, and with a modest diffidence in her looks endeavoured to bespeak our indulgence and permission for that purpose…the Chief held up his child, and endeavoured to make us sensible that it was equally dear to him as his wife; intimating at the same time, that though he had received no present, yet he hoped we should remember his little one; on this Captain Dixon gave the child a couple of toes…”

Pages 227-228: “I often endeavoured to gain some knowledge of their language, but I never could so much as learn the numerals: every attempt I made of the kind either caused a sarcastic laugh amongst the Indians, or was treated by them with silent contempt…” Beresford explains that the crew was pretty continuously busy managing trade whenever Native people were on board — “…I trust thou wilt not accuse me of inattention, though it is not in my power to give thee any specimen of the language spoken by these people; however, from what observations I was able to make, it seems something similiar to that of the inhabitants in Norfolk Sound.” [Lingít a.k.a. Tlingit.]

Various English vessels are met with throughout the journey, from which Beresford learns plenty of news about their experiences on the Northwest Coast, including (pages 232-233) the story of “John McKey”, who was left behind by the ship Captain Cook at “King George’s Sound” / “Nootka” to learn the language (Nuučaan’uɬ). “Mr. Etches (from whom I had this intelligence) assured me that no great dependance could be placed on McKey’s story, he being a very ignorant young fellow, and frequently contradicting himself…His knowledge of the language was greatly short of what he boasted…”

Pages 240-241: “There is at least two or three different languages spoken on the coast, and yet probably they are all pretty generally understood; though if we may credit the old Chief at Queen Charlotte’s Islands, his people were totally ignorant of that spoke by the inhabitants to the Eastward, and which we judged to be the continent: they all appear uncouth and difficult to pronounced; yet though they abound in consonants, the words have rather a labial and dental, than a guttural pronunciation: however, I shall subjoin the numerals used by the natives of Prince William’s Sound, Norfolk Sound, and King George’s Sound, which will give thee a better idea of these different languages than any description of mine can possibly do; at the same time let me observe, that those used at King George’s Sound were furnished me by a friend whom I met with on board the Prince of Wales, otherwise thou mightest wonder at my presumption in sending thee the language of a place I never saw.

Prince William’s Sound          Norfolk Sound.          King George’s Sound.

     and Cook’s River. 

One          Asthlenach          Tlaasch         Sorwock

Two          Malchnach         Taasch         Athlac

Three         Pinglulin         Noosch         Catsa

Four         Staachman         Tackoon         Moo

Five         Talchman         Keichin         Soutcha

Six         Inglulin         Ctletuschush         Noctpoo

Seven         }         Takatuschush         Athlapoo

Eight          } could not          Nooschatuschush          Athlaquell
be ascertained.

Nine         }         Kooschush         Sarvacquell

Ten         Coolin.         Chincart.         Highhoo.

These numerals are spelt as near the mode of pronunciation as I possibly can, and yet it is not in my power to speak them any thing like the natives. In regard to pronunciation, the inhabitants of Cook’s River are the most perfect I ever met with or heard of; they will repeat the most difficult English words with great ease, and particularly those that begin or end with th, though Europeans in general are unable to do it.”

Page 245: Somehow Beresford has the understanding that among PNW Coast Indigenous people, “Time is calculated by moons, and remarkable events are remembered with ease for one generation, but whether for any longer period is very doubtful.”

Bonus fact:

One pidgin that Beresford seems to have encountered is Chinese Pidgin English, while the ship was in Canton and Macao selling NW Coast furs. He doesn’t quote anyone speaking it, but it’s not hard to find words here like: 

  • choppe [“chop”] (page 288)
  • Comprador, cumshau [“cumshaw”], and hoppo (page 292)
  • samshu (page 296)
  • pagodas (page 306)
  • sampan (page 309)
  • cash and jos [“joss”] (page 312)
  • caddies [“catty”] and pekels [“picul”] (page 314)

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?