“Covered Wagon Women” 1840-1849

I’m glad I picked up volumes 1 & 2 of “Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails”, edited & compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes (Lincoln, NB: U. of Nebraska Press).


Image credit: AbeBooks

Volume 1 spotlights the earlier years, 1840-1849, so it’s got some lovely Oregon Trail eyewitness stuff. Here are 3 small things I noticed, all from northwest Oregon’s Willamette Valley region:


Anna Maria(h) King wrote from the Luckiamute Valley in 1846 to her relatives back east. She tells (page 44),

The Indians appear to be very friendly, like to have the Bostons come, as they call them.”

So this early Settler has already learned the Chinuk Wawa word for ‘Americans; White people’.


Tabitha Brown wrote from Forest Grove on the Tualatin Plains in 1854 to catch her family up on events since she emigrated out here in 1846. On page 55, one anecdote mentions

Within 8 or 10 feet of where my tent was set fresh tracks of two Indians were plain to be seen, but I did not know they were there. They killed and robbed a Mr. Newman but a short distance off, but would not kill his wife because she was a (Clushman?) woman.

The closing of her letter (page 59) is her own Chinuk Wawa “interlinearized text” written in her own spellings, because there weren’t yet any dictionaries you could buy:

Yes — Niker hias scocum Tillscum, Close TumTum.
me     very  brave    woman,   good    heart.

Cumtux Chemuke Wawwaw?
Understand Indian talk?

I’d bet you a stack of gold dollars that “Tillscum” is just the editor’s misreading of “Tillacum” or “Tillicum”. And “Chemuke” was probably written by her as “Chenuke”. So, in modern Grand Ronde spellings, because all of the women quoted today were talking GR-area Chinook Jargon (although before the 1855-56 establishment of that Reservation):

nayka hayas-skúkum tílixam, ɬúsh-tə́mtəm.
‘I’m a very strong person, (and) good-hearted.’
kə́mtəks chinúk wáwa?
‘Understand Chinook Jargon?’

I’m very interested to see that this relatively early Settler CW is already as typically pidginized as that of other non-Native newcomers.

  • For instance, Tabitha Brown’s own translation of skukum as ‘brave’ is a portent of the borrowing of this word into White folks’ English to mean ‘excellent; admirable’.
  • Her tilixam and ɬush-təmtəm also are expressions that Settlers made to mean ‘friend’ and ‘sincere’ when talking with Indigenous people.
  • And she does that Settler thing of leaving out the pronoun mayka ‘you’ when asking whether the addressee understands what she’s saying in Jargon.


Rachel Fisher writes from Tuality County, Oregon Territory in 1848, listing on pages 107-108 the abundance of locally growing crops, including:

strawberries, gooseberries, rasberries [sic], blackberries, hucleberries [sic], cranberries, dewberries, sallal berries, sarvis berries, &c.

We’re sometimes told that salal was a Chinuk Wawa word. I know it’s used in modern Grand Ronde CW. It’s certainly from a northwest Oregon Indigenous language. Here we see that it was already the usual term among Settlers for Gaultheria shallon.

Dewberries are usually called blackberries now in the Pacific NW. Also neat to note is the pronunciation sarvisberries for what’s often written by city people as serviceberries. Which way do you say this word?

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?