1909, “The Chrysalis”: earliest known “Seattle Illahee” song?

Harold Morton Kramer (1873-1930) published a novel, “The Chrysalis“, in 1909 (Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co.).

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Page 202, according to the Table of Contents

It’s got an introduction from the author that’s titled “Tenas Wauwau” in Chinook Jargon (‘a word’). From that fact, we know to expect some Pacific Northwest color. In fact, Kramer explains on page vi that he makes a point of using Chinuk Wawa in this story’s dialogue. I won’t be quoting much of that here, because I take a linguist’s view that most fictional examples of a language are of less use in research & learning than real-world data.

Kramer, aware that his East Coast readers will be unfamiliar with the language, also notes that he’s included a little vocabulary of the Jargon words he uses. I’ll reproduce that from page 419, with a comment or two.

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First off, the spellings and the definitions here are lifted from George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary. For example, < mowitsh >, < memaloost >, < klahowyum >, ‘deep; sunken’, and ‘they, thine, them’. That last definition, for the 3rd person plural pronoun klaska, reproduces a typesetting mistake from the 1863 source; it ought to have read ‘their’!

Secondly, this word list wouldn’t cue you in to the actual fact that the following song is indecent! Kramer’s has the deficiency of virtually all published Chinook Jargon vocabularies prior to the Grand Ronde Tribes’ excellent 2012 dictionary: it treats the language as what you might call a “collection of words”, when it’s really a living arrangement of expressive phrases.

So now to the more surprising discovery in Kramer’s novel. The “Chinook” that his characters talk includes a version of a famously off-color song, Seattle Illahee“. (That link takes you to the various posts discussing it on my site.) This may be the earliest published occurrence of our great Pacific Northwest folk song. This happens in a fictional scene set in a Spokane, Washington barroom:

Page 50

I’m here on important business to-day.”

He leaned toward Layton, put one hand on his shoulder familiarly, and grinned knowingly.

“All right; come up and see me any time.” Seb thrust a card into the man’s hand, but, thinking he was too brusque, he paused and asked: “What’s the important business, Dan?”


Klootchman? Oh, yes, that means woman, doesn’t it? What about it? Not getting married, are you?”

Dan looked about, and seeing that no was listening, he patted his foot in the sawdust, and began to sing in a low tone:

“Oh, I’m going to quit my tramping
And carrying blankets around;
I’ll build me a little cabin
On the banks of Puget Sound,
Where there’s hyu clams and mowitsh
And klootchmen by the way,
Nika iskum tenas moosum
When the daylight fades away.”

He ended with another noisy laugh, and hammered Layton on the shoulder.


“I can’t follow you, Dan. I’ve forgotten much of that Chinook jargon.”

“Oh, I said I’d build me a cabin and settle down with a woman, and ‘nika iskum tenas moosum’ —  I’ll get a little sleep — when the daylight fades away. Won’t be ramblin’ around none o’ nights, you see.

“Then you’re going to leave the Palouse and go over to the Sound, are you?” [Puget Sound — DDR]

“Naw That’s just in the song to make it rhyme, I suppose. But I ain’t goin’ to get married right away. I’m goin’ to meet her to-day an’ take her home — down in the Rock Lake country. She’s been down to Portland to school four years, an’ she’s comin’ home now for the first time. Fool idea, sendin’ her down there, but the old man’s cranky, an’ he took a notion to send her. She’s old Sam Barr’s girl. Know him? ‘Coyote’ Barr, they calls him.”

“No, I don’t know him. And she’s going to marry you, is she?”

“Well, that’s the calculation. She used to watch me scratch bronchos…”

This is one of the less Chinuk Wawa-laden versions of the “Seattle Illahee” song. It’s a slight variant on the known versions that start out with:

“No more I’m goin’ to wander
and pack my blankets ’round
I’m goin’ to build a cabin on the
banks of Puget Sound…”

The very close resemblance leads me to conclude it may well be a version that Kramer actually heard while he was in the Pacific Northwest. He’s said to have worked as a cowboy out here. That was in the early 1890s, in the Palouse and Big Bend (of the Columbia River) parts of eastern Washington, according to a Spokane newspaper that was proud of our fair city being publicized.

That’s after the “Seattle Illahee” house(s) of prostitution had closed down, but we know from lots of other instances of this song that it remained a popular ditty for decades.

Kind of makes us wonder whether “Seattle Illahee” got reinterpreted in the popular mind from its original sense, ‘the Seattle place’ (with illahee‘s existing connotation of ‘Native village’ attaching naturally to the known employment of Indigenous women there), to mean ‘Seattle town’.

And just to re-emphasize my point, Kramer’s version of this song is the earliest one that we know of!


Harold Morton Kramer (image credit: Find A Grave)

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