STURGIS, William

Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur

One of the earliest attempts to create a phonetic dictionary of Aboriginal languages for the Pacific Northwest was made by a young American sailor, William F. Sturgis, who first visited the West Coast in 1799, at age seventeen. From 1810 to 1850, much of the American fur trading along the Pacific Northwest coast was conducted under Sturgis’ direction. In 1846, during a lecture in Boston, he declared that the only natural objects more attractive to him than sea otter pelts were “a beautiful woman and a lovely infant.”

William F. Sturgis was born on February 25, 1782, in Barnstable, Massachusetts, where his father William E. Sturgis was a ship master. William F. Sturgis entered into the New England counting house of his uncle Russell Sturgis in 1796. A year-and-a-half later he became connected with James and Thomas Perkins who were engaged in the booming fur trade between the Pacific Northwest coast and China. Upon the death of his father in 1797, he was forced to go to sea to support the family. In that year his employers at J. & T.H. Perkins were dispatching the Eliza. Sturgis acted as assistant trader and was so good in this position that he was chosen chief mate of the Ulysses. He then served under Captain Charles Derby in the Caroline until Derby died and Sturgis took command. In 1804 the Caroline sailed from the Columbia River to Kaigahnee, just south of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, amassing 2,500 sea otter skins that netted $73,034.

William Sturgis returned to Boston in 1810 and with John Bryant formed the house of Bryant & Sturgis, transacting business with the Pacific Coast and China. The firm of Bryant and Sturgis would continue for more than 50 years until Sturgis’ death. He was known for his fair dealings with Aboriginals, as well as his proficiency at Latin. Sturgis once brought some 5,000 ermine skins from Leipzig and traded them for sea otter skins on a five (otter)-to-one (ermine) ratio, later turning a substantial profit in Canton.

In 1810 Captain Sturgis married Elizabeth M. Davis and sired one son and five daughters. He took great interest in public affairs, especially relating to the Pacific Northwest. For almost 30 years he was a member of the Massachusetts House or Senate. He was President of the Boston Marine Society and a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He died on October 21, 1863, at the age of eighty-one, leaving the Sturgis Library in Barnstable.


Sturgis, William. Memoir of the Hon. William Sturgis (Boston: John Wilson & Sons, 1864). Charles Greely Loring, ed.

Sturgis, William. The Journal of William Sturgis: The Eighteenth-Century Memoirs of a Sailor (Sono Nis, $8,95). S.W. Jackman, ed. ISBN 0-919462-54-5

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "Chinook" "American"

William Sturgis and Chinook

Most historians have assumed that rudimentary translation efforts by sailors and traders such as William Sturgis led towards the haphazard creation of Chinook in the 19th century as a mutual language prompted by trade. Others have suggested Chinook owes its origins to aboriginal trading. The language of Chinook was an amalgam of many sources dating back to rudimentary interpretations of single words by the likes of Heinrich Zimmerman aboard Captain Vancouver's Discovery. James Swan's The Northwest Coast (1857) contained a vocabulary of 250 Chinook words. William Carew Hazlitt (1834–1913) was a English bibliographer who produced an historical study on Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1858 that contained a vocabulary of Chinook jargon. A Dictionary of Indian Tongues was published by Hibben & Carswell in Victoria in 1862, mostly containing terms used by the local 'Tshimpsean' Indians. George Gibbs published A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or Trade Language of Oregon, with the Cramoisy Press of New York in 1863. In 1871, The Missionary Companion on the Pacific Coast was published in Montreal by Rt. Rev. Modeste Demers with the help of Most Rev. F.N. Blanchet and Rev. L.N. St Onge. It was a Chinook dictionary with catechism and prayers. The same year T.N. Hibben Company of Victoria released A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or Trade Language of the North Pacific Coast., mostly a reprint of George Gibbs' book. Sir H.L. Langevin included a 21-page dictionary dictionary of Chinook when the federal Public Works minister visited British Columbia in 1871 and produced British Columbia, a report printed in Ottawa in 1872. The cumulative evolution of the vanishing Chinook dialect was eventually chronicled by Charles Lillard in Voice Great Within Us: The Story of Chinook (New Star, 1998, $16), completed by Transmontanus series editor Terry Glavin. Citing research by UVic linguist Barbara Harris, A Great Voice asserts Chinook arose prior to the influx of Europeans. An estimated one-quarter million people once spoke Chinook on the West Coast of North America; now the language has been reduced to colloquilisms such as Klahowya (hello) and saltchuck (ocean).