Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gather the Bones, XIII: On The Chuck

When you come into camp off the chuck, the water taxi will drop you off on the booms. Don't forget your corks, or you'll drown, and even if you make it, you probably won't impress your girl.

And so there you have it:"chuck," along with more workaday slang. "Chuck" is the one word out of Chinook that we still used on the B. C. coast in my boyhood. It means  "the sea," and I really have no idea why that one word out of the whole of the old Jargon, should survive.*  I have no idea why we needed a word out of the old lalange for "the sea," of all things. I think that it probably violates some a priori dictum out of some historical linguist or another, but I've been schooled on the subject of using questionable historical linguists to impugn an entire discipline.

The story is that  James Cook reached the Pacific Northwest on his third voyage of 1776--1779, looking for the "Northwest Passage," a water route directly across the northern hemisphere to China that would mean vast profits for the tea trade. He died, or was apotheosisised** on the  Hawaiian islands, but his ships returned to Guangzhou with a load of sea otter furs that spurred a buying frenzy that Pamela Kyle Crossley explains as a necessarily short-lived mania for luxury goods signifying the north and offering Qing Manchu aristocracy with the cachet of Siberian authenticity.(1)

The story is unnecessarily simple. The improbable story of the "Northwest Passage" had been revived in the last quarter of the decade. We're not sure why, but it is sufficiently fascinating for maritime historians that possible explanations have been mooted at length. I  happened to use Barry Gough's Fortune's A River to prepare this post, but that's just because I have a cheap copy kicking around. Reading in the comfort of your own home you will probably want the appropriate volume of Bancroft's History, because it's been digitised. Unfortunately, the digitisation was a indical disaster. In the mean time, here's Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Spanish were first (what a surprise!) and that there was a well-founded presumption based on lost either lost sources of information or common-sense extrapolation that there was a major river draining into the Pacific somewhere on the coast that might well be reached from the head of canoe navigation on the Missouri or Saskatchewan by an economical portage.

Leaving that aside, the prices offered for Northwestern fur in Guanghzhou inspired follow up voyages, beginning with James Hanna in 1785, but as we close in on 1790, a vague cloud of Boston men are invoked by the learned authorities, but the men we know include three Britons and only one American: George Dixon, John Meares, William Barkley and Robert Gray. That's not to say that the traditional histories are wrong about this. On the contrary, it's an artefact of the intersection of domestic British politics with international relations in the course of the Nootka Crisis that basically forced the British and Spanish to take harder lines with each other than they might well have done. In larger terms, this is perfectly irrelevant given that the two crowns managed to come to a settlement, except that it threw Meares' claims to have bought land and built a settlement at Yuquot (Nootka) Sound, along with all other such things as might bear on a Spanish or British claim to the territory  into that traditional state of epistemic derangement in which diplomats like to leave those things that they have determined shall be ignored. Indeed, I only mention it to bring up by this conversational back door the fact that Meares' men were Tang men from Guangzhou, and stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Canadian nativists.***

So there we have the Oregon Country of the early settlement era: a region free of the law of nations thanks to the competing claims of two powers thrown from their respective American colonies, rendered undecidable by the actions of men sailing ships under the flags of two other powers to meet the commercial appetites of a third.

Or, well, that's one way of looking at it. As I've already tried to signal with that "unnecessarily simple throwaway, I think that the real story is in many respects one of deliberate obscurity. The first part of that deliberate obscurity goes back to Spain and Britain sliding out of war with each other. The sliding required that all earlier settled contact with the coast had to be placed under erasure, something that diplomats have been doing since long before post-modernism was invented. That was no big one, however. If we're led to slightly underestimate the extent of First Nations-Euro-East-Asian-Hawaiian contact, we're basically leaving perhaps a few Spanish voyages and a little intimate contact over five years out of the story.

The big story is the self-creation of a creole aristocracy. Hey, no surprise there: Alex and Lameen have already called it, and the clue is linguistic. The roots here are clear enough. There is a region,  not unknown to the world, to be sure, but as remote as anywhere possibly could be from northwestern Europe. It has a fur trade with China. It won't support many entrepeneurs, but it will be profitable to the limit of the fur. It requires trade goods from Europe, or Boston, and since ships carrying those goods directly to the trading grounds are going to be involved the traditional, potentially disastrous admiralty race (ie, to be first on the trading grounds in the summer), there is a good argument for a wintering-over plantation. The Russian state, which had already spread itself across Siberia by an adroit mix of ethnogenesis and brutality, had already monopolised the most productive zone of maritime fur production, the Alaskan fur country, but there remained mountain beaver, which might be collected at a more southerly depot. The mouth of the Oregon would be best for that, if it existed, if it could be found.

Meanwhile, there was the story of the push that wasn't. It is more than a little amazing in pure geographic terms that the Spanish could reach Acapulco in 1525 (or 1526) and sail the first annual Manila Galleon in 1565, yet not reach California, never mind the Pacific Northwest, until the 1770s, but sometimes geography and geology explain the unlikely. The west coasts of North and South America lie to leeward, and are advancing (geologically) to windward. The advancing plates are subducting the oceanic basins as they advance, crushing oceanic plate deep beneath their continental shelves as they advance. The result is a steadily advancing orogeny that continuously lifts water gaps into the air. In Mexico, which is particularly dry, the western mountains have few easy passes north of Acapulco, and since the wind was onshore, it was difficult and dangerous to explore northwards. At the limits of human endurance due to scurvy, they either ascended the Gulf of California and grounded out in the confusing maze of the  mouth of the Colorado, bringing back stories of passages through seas of reeds that might have had some bearing on early stories about the Northwest Passage, or made the harder voyage up the outer coast past San Diego as far as Monterey, to which they paid much attention after long leagues of hard tacking as being wind-protected anchorages on a coast that otherwise consisted of mountains and breakers.Approximately at  the forty-ninth parallel, the subduction zone moves away from the coast, here, it throws off a steady series of insular land forms which are then incorporated in the advancing face of the North American continent. Or, anyway, that's the current explanation for why there are ports and inland waterways galore north of the Canadian border.

Which is to say, the Spanish did not go as far north as British Columbia --in all likelihood, crazy stories about  Francis Drake aside, no-one did-- they missed the mouth of San Francisco Bay until it was found from inland, which is, in the end, as good an explanation as any as to why there was no Spanish settlement in California until the settlers came overland from the northwest of Mexico, itself a long hard slog to reach and explore for the same geological reasons. The timing of the Spanish arrival on the coast was not accidental. Multiple lines of advance were converging here in 1790.

Just in time, as we know, for the French Revolution. So the story was left to hang fire twenty years until the intervention in 1810 of American fur magnate John Jacob Astor and his official historian, Washington Irving. I mean, it didn't really hang fire. Russian posts ran down to Spanish in northern California, but they're not really part of the story of the settlement of the West, are they? Anyway, in March of 1811, Astor's ship Tonquin reached the mouth of the River Oregon, by now renamed the Columbia in a fit of patriotism that was allowed to hold after it was realised that the Oregon was not one river, but two. Here, the Astor men discovered the limits of geology: far from being a road into the interior, the mouth of the mighty Columbia was not even navigable!

Like the Sacramento to its south, the Columbia does not find its way to the sea through a channel carved by hydrological action, because the steady orogeny of the coast mountains continuously lifts the bed of the river into the air. Instead, the river finds a geological fault (syncline, I guess?) and enters the river through it, laying down its burden of sediment in the narrow gap instead of in a wide delta. The resulting Columbia Bar system is the likely real reason that the Spanish knew of a "river Oregon," from travellers' tales from the landward side, but had not discovered the river mouth in two centuries of admittedly desultory exploration. There was no mouth. Fortunately, the long voyage winnowed out poor boat men. The Hawaiians recruited by Astor's expedition gave a particularly good account of themselves in various escapades around the Bar, and the local communities knew their waters, and so, with difficulty, ships would continue to make their way to trading entrepots, at first Fort Astoria, later Fort Vancouver (not to be confused with the Canadian city to the north),**** sometimes with their landlord, Chief Comcomly of the Chinooks, as their pilot.

The Astor Company's experiment in long-distance maritime trading empires was brief, as the Hudson Bay Company ended up on top, putting John Baptiste McLoughlin (1, 2) in charge of the post (and the entire Oregon Country)

Spooky, hunh? From Wikipedia. He's a (real) doctor. Get it?

and giving him, besides Peter Ogden (12) as his lieutenant, James Douglas (1, 2) as an accountant, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie as a surgeon turned bailiff, and John Work.   The (1,2) schtick is my sly way of comparing the capsule biographies on Wikipedia with those of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, where these differ to any significant degree with respect to the subject's country marriages and mixed race children.

The lower Columbia would remain McLoughlin's base for the rest of his active career. This had nothing to do with the original reason. Hopes that the river would cut an easy route to the continental divide were as vain as hopes for an easy passage to the sea. The Fraser might have had an easily accessed port, exploited in the early founding of Fort Langley as a company farm, but both the Fraser nor the and the Columbia have to cut their way through an inner orogeny, and the result are deep, rapids-strewn gorges. The Fraser Canyon is the more spectacularly impassible of the two, but the Dalles of the Columbia lie under Mount Hood itself, and a river of 7,500 cubic meters discharge dropping 40 feet over two miles in a channel 140 feet wide is nothing to sneeze at. Instead, horse trails were the Columbia District's means of communication with both Canada and the United States, the main route coming down from all the way from the Peace Country, from where the North Saskatchewan is easily reached  and navigable via the Fraser, Columbia and Okanagan Valleys.

So why did the company, and McLoughlin, stick with the lower Columbia? It seems because both McLoughlin and his boss took up land just south of Fort Vancouver, in the "prairies," or natural (or possiblyl human curated, but who cares about Indian hunters?) water meadows of the Willamette River. Without the Pacific Northwest's usual burden of heavy timber, the Willamette offered the potential of rapid agricultural development, and McLoughlin's eye saw the water power potential of the falls of the Willamette, while he was careful to keep his boss, Hudson Bay Company governor George Simpson invested.

Comcomly and his people were probably a factor as well, however. At least two of his daughters married into the leadership at Fort Vancouver at an early date, and the importance of the Chinook people are attested in another way, by the emergence (now, where did I bury that lede, again?) of a Northwest coast trade pidgin, the Chinook Jargon.

Now, pidgins are phenomena of weakly dominated cultural interaction spheres. To put it another way, there is no critical mass of speakers of any one language such as to force development in the direction of using that particular language. Instead, a hybridised contact language emerges. The word "pidgin" is often used, after the Southwest Pacific trade "Pidgin" spoken on New Guinea and eastward into the Solomons, although the phenomena would have been well known to European seamen from the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean, which sailors famously spoke without knowing that they spoke it. but Chinook Jargon is very different from pidgin: its vocabulary is dominated by words out of Northwest coast languages, and its pronunciation rules show Northwest "areal" features, notably substituting other sounds for "r" in a way that seems consistent to linguists.****** The speculation is that this means that Chinook predates the coming of the fur traders, since obviously English would dominate the word mix otherwise, as it does in true pidgin. Right?

I'm going to call "wrong" on that. The question of whose language will dominate the mix probably doesn't speak to cultural dominance. I'm not quite prepared to declare Comcomly the secret King of the Northwest here. I see the tantalising possibility that once the haze of ethnocentricity is off the sources, we might conceivably get there some day. Number of speakers is clearly an issue. We know from our sources that the Europeans involved in the fur trade were both French and English speakers, so there is no question of one European language of high technology prevailing. Just to make things complicated, we  have the Hawaiian factor, an interesting example of an entirely assimilated North American racial minority. We have no clear idea of how many "Kanaks" migrated to the Coast, and I know of no sources, nor indeed interest, in pursuing Kanak family histories, except in some First Nations communities. The Hawaiian builders of five states and a province have disappeared from history.

 Although "some linguists think" that "Canuck" is derived from "Kanak." Hunh. The stuff you learn. And the Hawaiians are practically a case of light and clarity compared with the ultimate fate of any the Chinese migrants to the coast before, very roughly, "they came to build the railway," as the Canadian folk memory has it. In fact, the history of San Francisco tells us that the Chinese were coming over earlier and in greater numbers, and even if all of Meares' carpenters packed up and went home in 1790, the inference is that more probably came over later. I am not, however, aware of any accounting for early Chinese migrants within the modern Chinese-American or Chinese-Canadian communities. Did they all marry "Indian women?" As the Kanak men are said to have done? That's one hell of a lid to lift, in my opinion, even if I haven't been able to resist the temptation to do it over in Silbey's comment threads at Edge of the American West.

Anyway, speculating about the extent of multicultural identity within that portion of the early Pacific Northwest human community that came from away should not obscure the more obvious point that the Indianness of the Chinook Jargon is a pretty strong indicator that "White" settler society on the Pacific slope rests on Indian foundations. Not that we need indirect clues, given the biographies that we have. My (1,2) thing is meant to suggest that there used to be a little reticence about discussing the mixed race issue of prominent early Hudson's Bay Company men like McLoughlin, Ogden and Governor Douglas, and that's a dig at Wikipedia.

Which is not always justified. Here's Wikipedia on the eight daughters and three sons of Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor John Work by the woman he married in 1826, Josette Legace,  a "mixed-race" (already at this date!) Spokane Indian woman:

  • Jane, born at Fort Colvile in 1827, married W. Tolmie in 1850
  • Sarah, born at Fort Colvile in 1829, married R. Finlayson in 1849
  • Leticia, born in Idaho in 1831, married E. Huggins in 1857
  • Margaret, born at Fort Vancouver in 1836, married E. Jackson in 1861
  • Mary, born at Fort Simpson in 1837, married J. Grahame in 1860
  • John, born at Fort Simpson in 1839
  • Catherine, born at Fort Simpson between 1840 and 1842, married C. Wallace in 1861
  • Josette, born at Fort Victoria in 1843, married E. Prior in 1878
  • Henry, born at Fort Simpson in 1844 or 1845 (died in an accident at a young age)
  • David, born at Fort Simpson in 1846
  • Cecilia, born at Fort Simpson in 1849, married C. Jones in 1870

 With remarkable naivete, the biography of Work's grandson, Simon Fraser Tolmie, tells us that his "impeccable pioneer heritage" was a considerable help in his rise to the office of Premier of the Province of British Columbia between 1930 and 1933. A little fishing around the Internet proves, once again, that it is a very strange place. The Tolmie surname does not produce the usual avalanche of Rootweb results, but turned up a contemporary account of the Memorial Day festivities at Old Fort Nisqually in 1934, attended by:

the reader  can be forgiven for not knowing much about British Columbia's energetic mining sector, but I can assure you that being Deputy Minister of Mines for 40 years is not  necessarily to live in underpaid bureaucratic obscurity.

So what I'm saying is that it's not a secret that the Pacific Northwest had a creole aristocracy in the 1840s, and that it had not entirely vanished in British Columbia by the turn of the last century. But what about Washington and Oregon, the destinations of the Oregon Trail? Were they not blasted into whiteness by an endless stream of  migrants passing heading west in their covered wagons? It makes for a good story, and also  vintage resource-management games.

But "story" is the operative word. There was no trail. Well, okay, obviously there was a trail. Marcus Whitman rode it at mid-winter in 1843, back when lobbyists had to work for a living! (It's quite a story, although it would take forever to go into the Free Soil/Slavery/Gospel Society angles). The thing is that then he decided to lead the "Great Emigration" back west to the prairies of the Willamette. For the Wikipedia article on Whitman, the "Great Emigration" was the vanguard of "hundreds of thousands of migrants who would use the trail in the next decade."

Reality check here: perhaps 120 migrants had travelled the "Oregon Trail" in forty wagons before 1843. A list of fewer than 100 Anglo-American names has been published purporting to show the population of pre-1843 migrants waiting to receive the Great Emigration. A list of perhaps 400 (I'm not hand counting them in this very useful source) male 1843 migrants is listed in an 1876 history, but many of them turned south to California.  At the time when McLoughlin and Simpson were reconciling themselves to being overwhelmed by a tide of incoming American settlers, there were perhaps 2000 "White" settlers in the Oregon Country. And they were very mad at Marcus Whitman, because it turned out that there was no wagon trail to Oregon, although it was possible, at great risk and great cost, to ferry some of the wagons over the Dalles at summer low water.

More precisely, there was no wagon trail past Mount Hood. The  migrants straggled into Oregon City, were resupplied by John McLoughlin's general store, and set up by that worthy as farmers. Not until 1846 was the Barlow Trail completed over Mount Hood, finally giving those willing to use it a means of rolling into the Willamette Valley. In the 1846 season, "152 wagons, 1300 sheep, 1559 mules, horses, and cattle" paid the tolls to take the Barlow Road. Barlow let the tolls lapse after two years, and no further improvements were made on a road that at one point had a sixty degree gradiant!

It is likely that Barlow abandoned his road because no-one was using it. Per my ancient Britannica, the population of Oregon was 13,294 in 1850; 52,465 in 1860;  90,923 in 1870; 174,768 in 1880; 317,704 in 1890; 413,536 in 1900. This is a healthy migration, obviously, but even if everyone on the list is an immigrant (more on that below), 3000/year is not a mighty Volkerwanderung. 

But we do not have to make inferences about the demography of Oregon with an old copy of the Eleventh Edition around the house! In 1900, 84.1% of Oregon's population was native-born, only half in Oregon. So the "native" population was 174,000 after 55 years --well, really, twelve thousand-- of natural increase. 

Speaking of race, the thick-skinned, if not blitheringly oblivious authors of 1908 have me covered.  95.4% were "of the white race." The migrants included 13,300 Germans, 9,365 Chinese, 9000 Scandinavians, 7500 Canadians 5660 English and 4210 Irish. "The coloured population consisted of 10,397 Chinese, 4951 Indians, 2501 Japanese and 1105 negroes." Roman Catholicism was the largest communion in the state, with slightly over one third of communicants reported by the Census. (35, 300 out of 120,200, in case anyone besides Mike Huckabee needed to be told that modern America's unusually extravagant religiosity is a recent development.) 

So, yeah. In 1900, there were fewer Indians in Oregon than there were Chinese. It says here. In fact, there were fully half as many Japanese as Indians, and rather more Canadians. After giving up (for today) on further scrounging through my online backups, I'm not going to source this claim, but you can, if you choose, take it on faith that I have a real live academic to cite when I observe that the "Canadian" category in American census returns of this period basically means "Metis who don't act like Indians." But even if all of the "Canadians" in the census return are Indians in disguise, there's a demographic mystery to be explained here.

Well, not mystery, so  much, when Ambassador Chris Stevens' descent from Comcomly can be celebrated in the press, but "mystery" in the sense that the facts still aren't being deployed to tell America and Canada's history to themselves

And that's cultus history.  

*You might know "skookum," but that's Roaring Twenties slang from the first time that Seattle was cool.

**I'm sure that his family would have been comforted by the distinction, had Marshal Sahlins been alive to explain. Modern biographers take the line that the third voyage stretched Cook's nerves beyond their limit, and that he suicidal ideation has to play a part in his death. It's a sad way to treat a hero, and the sponsors who pushed him into his third voyage ought to have been ashamed of themselves.
***Since we're onto the subject of nationalist lunacy, I'm almost tempted to use "Chinese" here and let the scare quotes do the work.
******What would I know? Me and the Reverend Spooner can't even consistently pronounce long and short vowels distinctly.
(Image is Bill Reid's Spirit of Haida Gwaii, or Jade Canoe. From The Lens Flare.)

1. 194--5 and following. I'd put more effort into the citation, but I would just be using the index.


  1. McLoughlin's eye saw the water power potential of the falls of the Willamette

    and no reference, even when we get to The Dalles, to the mighty data centres strung out along the river.

    If you're reading this on the US West Coast, the spinning disk on which Erik's blog resides for you is almost certainly located in the Google data centre in The Dalles, Oregon, and it's the waters of the great rivers as reconstructed by the Bonneville Power Administration that keep the lights on, the disks spinning, and the chillers chilling.

    Also, have you read Peter Davidson's The Idea of North? With regard to selling furs to people in China trying to look like proper Siberian nobs? (Which was a real *I Didn't Know That* moment, btw.)

  2. It's pretty unusual for a pidgin to be based mainly on the locals' language rather than the foreign power's, but there are a couple of other cases: in particular, Sango in the Central African Republic comes to mind.

    So are you suggesting that Chinook Jargon emerged at least partly as a mark of identity for this creole elite? If so, since the vocabulary is dominated by Lower Chinook, that would suggest that, at some crucial point in its early development, "creole elite" primarily means foreigners marrying Chinook Indians, much more than members of other tribes. That would certainly fit Fort Astoria.

    The link I meant to link to last time gives a quick and readable summary of origin theories, pp. 5-6:

  3. Oh, and potential fodder for future posts in this series: Mobilian Jargon (, Does that tie in to the long-promised Jackson story, I wonder? I wouldn't think its speakers ended up as high muckamucks...

  4. Alex: I read the Google Books preview of Davidson's book on the bus to Campbell River on Christmas Eve. I can see why a Yorkshireman likes it! I have my own take on the privileging directions, mainly having to do with "northern barbarians," and I seem to recall a fuss about some guy named Said in that connection, so I should probably read the rest of it, too.

    Lameen, my own take is that given that the Chinook Jargon eventually became a marker of a settler elite, and that the time frame is so compressed that the people we are talking about are Comcomly's great-grandchildren, "eventually" here is not a long time.

    So could the Jargon have won out over competitive ways of talking about trade along the coast because it was the "elite pidgin?" Does that happen in linguistic theory? Would it explain its failure to spread into California?

  5. Sure, this could happen - prestige is relevant to the success of any language, pidgin or not. Usually, a pidgin starts out in a situation where all sides concerned are thinking "How can I talk with these folks while wasting as little time as possible on learning their (insanely complicated) language?" At that early point, it has very low status - by definition, it's no community's language. (Fluent bilinguals rarely choose to create a new "bridge" language, but when they do - as in the case of Michif - the results look very different from pidgins: since they have no need to cater to newbies, they tend to keep most of the irregularities and frills and even add new ones.) However, once a pidgin has come into being - that is, once these folks have developed conventions for which words to use, how to construct sentences, etc. - its status, like that of any other language, depends on that of its speakers. If speaking the Jargon is a precondition for getting rich, or for hanging out with the cool kids, you'll want to speak it!

    I don't see how that helps with the California question, though - I'd need to know more about the history of northern California. My not very well informed guess would be that it was because interaction with Native Americans was crucial to the fur trade, but irrelevant to the Gold Rush; also, I seem to recall that pre-contact California supported lower population densities to begin with.