1904 [1858+]: Prosch “Reminiscences of Washington Territory”, and the growth of Northern CW

Charles Prosch was a New Yorker who came to San Francisco on purpose, then more accidentally to Puget Sound in Washington Territory in February 1858.

prosch album

“One of Seattle’s first houses, The Denny house at Alki Point, built in 1851.” (Image source: Prosch Albums, University of Washington Libraries)

He was better qualified than practically anyone else to write the excellent book, “Reminiscences of Washington Territory: Scenes, Incidents and Reflections of the Pioneer Period on Puget Sound” (Seattle, WA: [apparently self-published], 1904).

I’ve written a couple posts before that drew on this book, but I want to return to it and give it its due as a treasure of solid data on the frontier era out here.

On the trip to settle at Steilacoom, the ship passed by both Seattle and “New York/Alki“, both of which were so tiny and unpopulated as to be scarcely visible. (Pages 9-10.) Prosch confirms that the town was derisively called “New York” for a generation, because no one really expected it to amount to much! Steilacoom was much larger — whereas in 2022 it’s got only 6,727 people, whereas Seattle is moving towards a million residents.

Page 11 informs us that “a large proportion” of Pierce County, Washington’s people at that time were US Army veterans and Hudsons Bay Company retirees; especially the latter tended to be illiterate Scottish and (French-)Canadians (surely including lots of Métis) married to Native women (thus having Métis families). Around Puget Sound, “there were many more Indians than whites dwelling on its shores” (page 26).

The 1858 Fraser River (BC) gold rush was Prosch’s opportunity to “boom” Steilacoom (promote its growth) far and wide, attracting enormous numbers of newcomers. Captain Lafayette Balch, the steamship owner who was also the sole proprietor of the town, rashly refused to sell any lots of land in the town to them, thinking he could wait and profit even more hugely — but the frustrated crowds moved on to other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Something similar happened in Olympia, we’re told.

Page 15 reports that in BC prior to 1858 there were virtually no White people, only Natives and HBC-affiliated workers who were mostly Métis.

(Ergo, I’ll comment, the predominance of Métis “French of the Mountains” as the province’s intercultural trade language until after the gold rush.)

Prosch says his newspaper, the Puget Sound Herald, was the first to send news of the Fraser rush to the outside world, i.e. to San Francisco.

Page 17: The Native people around Whatcom were amazed at how many Bostons (Americans) started arriving at this time, having been told by the HBC that the Americans were numerically puny, and that there existed uncountable numbers of the mighty King George Men! Prosch claims the tribal people’s attitude toward Americans instantly changed from resistant and condescending to compliant and respectful.

The now unremembered Whatcom, Washington (essentially part of today’s Bellingham) was an instant boomtown due to miners arriving to reach the Fraser, but Prosch says more than once that it collapsed within months (pages 17 & 116). The main traffic shifted to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, BC; “Victoria succeeded Whatcom as the city of gold miners” (116). That shift had linguistic consequences that are of real interest for us Chinookers. HBC Fort Victoria was already Chinook Jargon-oriented, due to its recent foundation as a sort of transplanting of old Fort Vancouver, Washington. If the flow of gold prospectors had continued to be routed via Whatcom, interior BC might not ever have become CJ-speaking, or at least less heavily so!

Easily 100,000 cheechakos flooded into the Fraser country in about 6 months (page 18). Prosch takes pains to say they couldn’t all have come from California, as the only major town, San Francisco, would’ve been devastated by such a depopulation. Remarkably, it took just 2 months from the announcement of the gold discovery for folks to start arriving from (eastern) “Canada” and the US Atlantic states.

(Here’s me interjecting again — note also that the Oregon & especially Washington Territories still had few Settlers. These facts back up the idea that most Fraser gold rushers would’ve had little to no prior acquaintance with Chinook Jargon. These Eastern newcomers would’ve been suceptible to the claims of entrepreneurial Pacific Northwest pioneers that you ought to buy a CJ dictionary in order to deal with the numerically dominant Native people. Here we have a simple explanation for why it was that such simplified (re-pidginized) CJ was introduced and propagated into British Columbia, when the language had already been a full creole around the Columbia River for a couple of generations!) 

So many details of PNW life preserved in Prosch’s book will open your eyes about how much things have changed since Euro-Americans came along. We forbade “wilful destruction of timber” (page 23), i.e. the forest burning traditionally done by Natives to, among other things, guarantee a large berry crop. (A result is our massive uncontrollable wildfires nowadays.) From Prosch we also learn that e.g. moose were never numerous or easy to hunt (page 25).

Page 42 gives us food for thought. The Settler population around Puget Sound in 1858 was 4,000 to 5,000 people, says Prosch. (A surprisingly large number to me!) But the major point of note is when he says “Everybody [Was] Known” to everyone else in that population. This was a highly coherent community, albeit dispersed along hundreds of miles of shoreline, and one linguistic implication for me is this — Virtually all of these earliest Settlers knew Chinuk Wawa, needing to routinely speak it with Native people, and they probably helped each other learn it, as well as definitely joking and playing around with it. In the presence of this sort of social dynamic, there developed a fairly coherent separate kind of CW from the original southern/early-creolized variety. This, along with the Fraser River gold rush, gave us the distinction between a southern and a northern dialect of the Jargon. Moreover, as page 43 intimates, a Settler would also personally know a good many Native folks around the region; Prosch recalls one occasion when he was arriving at Seattle when he heard an “Indian” acquaintance from Steilacoom call out to him, ” ‘Cla-ha-yu, tillicum!’ equivalent to ‘How are you friend?’ ”

You can see that even though there’s not much Chinook Jargon in this book, I’ve found a great deal of historical information in it to chew on and refine my understanding of this language’s course of development.

It’s a really readable volume, not very long, with quite short and coherent chapters.

Highly recommended, and free to read online!

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