Lolo in Trade Jargon

Page 12 of 14

"Lolo" in Trade-Speak

One rainy morning in early December of 1805, "Dead-Eye" Billy Clark, while amusing himself on "the edge of the rageing Seas," shot the head off a sitting duck–accidentally, he insisted–with his "Small rifle." The excited Clatsop men who were with him "plunged into the water like Spaniards Dogs," and retrieved the remains of the duck. Then they "examined the Duck looked at the gun the Size of the ball which was 100 to the pound and Said . . . Clouch Musket, wake, com ma-tax Musket which is, a good Musket do not under Stand this kind of Musket."

With Clark were five men of the Corps, including Interpreter George Drouillard, who may have first heard some of the jargon along the lower reaches of the Columbia River, and by this time could perhaps understand enough to be able to translate it for the captain. A month later Clark learned another word from the same lingo while on his way to inspect the remains of a beached whale at today's Cannon Beach, Oregon. To reach the site, he and his party had to climb over the 1,136-foot high "hill" today known as Tillamook Head. The closer they got to its summit the steeper the climb became, until presently their young Indian guide stopped, pointed to the top and announced it was going to get worse, exclaiming Pe shack! (as Clark heard it). "Bad," Drouillard might have echoed.1

What they were hearing was a new pidgin language barely twenty years old.2 It had begun to take root in the mid-1780s when the first English and American trading ships anchored at the populous Indian seaport on Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, 275 miles north of the Columbia River estuary. At first it was simply a mixture of a few simple English and Nootkan words that were essential to mutual understanding in the process of bargaining. But by the time Lewis and Clark and their party appeared at the mouth of the Columbia in late 1805 it had grown to the point where, as the above incidents show, many native people used it spontaneously to communicate with white visitors. Beginning with the brief tenure of the Astorians in 1810-11, the new language gained further impetus through the addition of many words of the local Chinooks and Clatsops, as well as some in the French dialects from Missouri and rural Canada, all with pronunciations modified to accommodate the absence of a number of consonants–f, j, q, r, u, v, x, z, and the nasal n–in most of the many dialects of Salishan, the dominant linguistic family in the region.

By mid-century it was widely known as the Chinook Trade Jargon or, more appropriately, the Trade Language of Oregon (Territory). It rapidly became a convenient mode of communication among all tribes in the Northwest U.S. and western Canada. That in turn encouraged missionaries to assemble vocabularies of the jargon to facilitate their pastoral work among the various tribes and bands in their missions' districts. The first major published work on the new language was A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or, Trade Language of Oregon, compiled by the American ethnologist George Gibbs (1815-1873).3 It contained nearly 500 words from 7 major languages and dialects. From the Chinook and Clatsop sources it took 221 words; Nootka, 24; Chihalis and Nisqualy, 39; French, including Canadian, 94; English, 67. The remainder came from various other native sources, and included 6 onomatopoetic words.

At first the new language was used chiefly along the Pacific Coast from Nootka Sound southward as far as the Columbia estuary, and eastward to the Willamette River. It soon spread inland along commercial Indian networks, especially between the 42nd and 47th parallels. By the time Gibbs's work was published in 1863 there were few tribes without at least one or two fluent speakers of the trade jargon. It was also used between Americans and French Canadians in the fur trade. In his memoir of 1865, the Montana pioneer Granville Stuart included a 650-word dictionary of the Jargon, perhaps in the conviction that it would be useful to whites east of the Rockies. In his appended "critical and explanatory" notes he offered some helpful keys to grammar and usage, such as the fact that "words express equivocally nouns or verbs."4 Thus LÛ-lo could be used as a verb meaning to carry, or as a noun denoting a carrier or porter.

If Lewis, Clark, or any other member of the Corps, including George Drouillard, ever heard the word lolo in any context, they left no hint of it in their journals. However, it was among the Chinook-Clatsop contributions to the trade jargon, according to Briggs. As a Clatsop Indian verb it originally meant "to carry a child on the back." Used in a more extended sense in the trade jargon, it meant simply "to carry" or "to load," as in Lolo kopa tsiktsik, to carry in a cart, or Mamook lolo kopa canim, to load into a canoe. Briggs listed several other connotations of this word, but in the sense of "carry" or "load" it appears to have been a synonym for voyageur, insofar as the latter denoted "a man employed by the fur companies in carrying goods [emphasis added] to and from the trading posts on the lakes and rivers, including overland portages," although the comparison ended there. Voyageurs were bound to a traditional brotherhood, with characteristic modes of dress, nutrition, patterns of work, habits of recreation, and their own songs and dances. Evidently men called "Lolo" claimed no such distinctions, although like voyageurs they were basically engagés or, as Clark described the French-Canadian boatmen he recruited at St. Charles, "higherlins."5 Gibbs's work was updated almost 50 years later by George C. Shaw, whose entry for LÛ-lo was somewhat broader than Gibbs's, although the emphasis was still on manual labor requiring no particular skill: "To carry; to load; to bear; bring; fetch; remove; transfer; convey; lug; pack; renew."6 At best, one supposes, a Lolo could be a "middleman" in a canoe.

Only four of the 16 natural features named Lolo in the GNIS include a "Decision Card" detailing the history and origin of the name, and only two of those notes mention the Lolo-Lawrence etymology, both in reference to Lewis and Clark's "Travelers Rest Creek." Some, or even all, of the other occurrences might well have come from Chinook Trade Jargon, although Ralph Space believed that connection was mere coincidence.7

George R. Stewart, the 20th-century authority on place names, and one of the founders of the American Name Society, declared that the Lolo Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon was "named by the Forest Service from Chinook jargon, 'carrying, back-packing,' because supplies had to be packed to it." That same origin, he added, "is also claimed for the name in ID and MT."8 However, Stewart's conclusion was off the mark. To begin with, the pass or gap in question was never a destination point but a landmark that confirmed, when it was reached, that the principal dividing ridge had been surmounted. Native Americans had long used the ancient Indian trail–and the gap–to cross the Cascade Range on business trips between the Willamette Valley and the seasonal markets at Celilo Falls. The earliest emigrants on the Oregon Trail, between 1838 and 1846, found it impassible by wagon, but they used it to herd their livestock across the mountains while families walked, portaging their baggage around the falls and cascades, or paid for faster but more hazardous boat rides down through the Columbia Gorge. Perhaps the emigrants relied on herders or wranglers who were known as lolos, and thus that name could have been applied to that pass more than fifty years before the Forest Service came into existence.

Irrelevant coincidences

Beginning with the one "Sandwich Island boy," Ottoo, who was aboard Robert Gray's Columbia Rediviva as it crossed the bar into the estuary of the Columbia in 1891, the fur trade in the American northwest came to rely heavily upon the Hawaiian Islanders for reliable, strong, cheap labor of various sorts. John Jacob Astor enlisted 25 Hawaiians for service in building his trading post Astoria. By 1845-46 there were a total of 207 young–mostly in their 20s–swarthy, Kanakan-speaking Hawaiians working at the forts, farms, and coastal ships of the Hudson's Bay Company from California to the Alaskan panhandle. Generally they were hired on 3-year contracts, with pay consisting of clothing, daily food, and $100 in goods payable at contract's end.

In the Kanakan language the word "lolo" has 8 basic meanings: 1) palsied, lying helpless, indolent, lazy, crazy; 2) tall; 3) an expression of triumph over the misfortunes of another person; 4) the brain of person or animal; 5) a religious ceremony at launching of a canoe; 6) feebleness or awkwardness at doing anything; 7) paralysis; 8) to mock at, tantalize, deride. It also serves as a prefix to about 40 other words, and a suffix to fewer than a dozen more. None come anywhere near the verb "carry" or the noun "carrier," as "lolo" does in the Chinook Trade Jargon.9

Finally, there is an aboriginal tribe of people still living in the higher regions of southwestern Sichuan, China, that are known as Lolos. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. around 1820, with thousands more coming in the 1840s to work in the California gold mines, and in the 1860s to help build the first transcontinental railroads. Most of them came from southeastern China through the port of Hong Kong. There is no evidence that any Lolos were among them.


1. Moulton, Journals, 6:121, 177-78. Clark's phonetic transliteration varied somewhat from the word-lists that were published some years later.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pidgin as "a language containing lexical and other features from two or more languages, characteristically with simplified grammar and a smaller vocabulary than the languages from which it is derived, used for communication between people not having a common language; a lingua franca." The term pidgin did not enter the English language until about 1850, so the new lingo was first called "jargon," which Noah Webster defined in his 1806 dictionary as "gibberish, nonsense," and in his 1828 American Dictionary as "confused, unintelligible talk or language." Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), early America's leading philologist, published several articles on the subject in the Transactions of the Ethnological Society in 1849. "The 'Jargon,' or Trade Language of Oregon," The Literary World, February 3, 1849; American Periodicals Series Online (accessed April 4, 2011). Prominent among Gallatin's successors was Horatio Hale. See United States Exploring Expedition, during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 under the Command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., Vol. VI, Ethnography and Philology, by Horatio Hale, Philologist of the Expedition (Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1846).

3. (New York: Cramoisy Press, 1863). A copy provided by the National Library of Canada has been digitized by the Internet Archive (accessed March 12, 2011).

4. Montana as it Is: being a general description of its resources, both mineral and agricultural, including a complete description of the face of the country, its climate, etc. . . . To which is appended a complete dictionary of the Snake language, and also of the famous Chinnoock [sic] jargon (New York: C. S. Westcott, 1865), 102, 105.

5. The engagés hired at St. Charles by Lewis and Clark are listed, with their brief biographies, in Moulton, Journals, 2:525-29. For descriptions of the brotherhoods' unique culture see Grace Lee Nute's classic, The Voyageur, Reprint ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society,1955).

6. George C.. Shaw, The Chinook Jargon and How to Use It (Seattle: Rainier Printing Company, 1909). A copy from the Harvard University library is available online through the Internet Archive (accessed April 2, 2011).

7. Ralph Space, The Lolo Trail: A History and a Guide to the Trail of Lewis and Clark Second Edition (Missoula, Montana: Historic Montana Publishing, 2001), 8.

8. George R. Stewart, American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary for the Continental United States of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 262, s.v. Lolo.

9. Tom Koppel, Kanana: The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 1995). Lorrin Andrews, A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, to Which is Appended an English-Hawaiian Vocabulary and a Chronological Table of Remarkable Events (Honolulu: The Board [of Commissioners of Public Archives of the Territory of Hawaii], 1922). Internet Archive, 2008 (accessed August 12, 2011). George Quimby, "Hawaiians in the Fur Trade of North-West America, 1784-1820," The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 7 (1972), 92-103.