Voices of the Pacific Northwest
Language and Life along the Columbia and throughout Cascadia
from the 18th Century to the Present
A Curriculum of Historical and Linguistic Inquiry
Nootka Sound and the Maritime Fur Trade
James Cook was the first English captain to discover the extraordinary price that Chinese merchants were willing to pay for sea otter pelts. His ships, the HMS Resolution and the HMS Discovery, first made contact with the Nuu-chah-nulth in the village of Yuquot on the west coast of present day Vancouver Island. It was his misunderstanding of the word nuutkah (“to turn around” in Nuu-chah-nulth language) that resulted in the name “Nookta” for the sound that they entered and the people they encountered. The maritime fur trade that developed here would flourish for another 40 years until the decline of the otter population in the 1820s. By then the fur trade moved inland and southward in pursuit of beaver pelts along the Columbia River.
Cook developed a short vocabulary of Native words and mistakenly assumed that they would be understood by people in the entire region. While he was mistaken about the uniformity of language in the region, his presence would nevertheless lead to the creation of a trade language – Nootka Jargon – that would later contribute to the pidgin known as Chinook Jargon by Europeans and as Chinuk Wawa by Native people. Examples of native Nuu-chah-nulth words that wound up in Chinook Jargon are wik ‘no, not’ and wawa ‘to speak, talk’. It is also the case that a word from Chinook Jargon entered Nuu-chah-nulth –sapni:
It was in 1841 that the first systematic study of languages of the Pacific Northwest was undertaken. Horatio Hale came to the Pacific Northwest as an ethnographer-philologist aboard the US Exploring Expedition. By this time Europeans and Americans had been in the region for over 60 years and had resolved the question of whether or not there was a Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia. In just five more years the territory would be divided by both groups to the exclusion of the original inhabitants. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 would fix the boundary between Great Britain and America at 49 degrees. With the creation of the Washington Territory in 1851, the process of treaty making would begin, and the lives of Native people would be changed forever. Absent from these negotiations were the Spanish, who had relinquished their claims to the Pacific Northwest in the Nootka Sound Affair (1788–1794).