...hyas tyee wake clatawah copa Wash...

10 July 2011

As I continue my practicum at the Southern Historical Collection, I've been working on the Civil War Day by Day blog, scanning and editing featured documents, transcribing them, and adding descriptive and citation information. Handling the actual letters exchanged between soldiers and their families lends reality, tangibility, and even personality to history as they write about their fears, triumphs, and day-to-day activities.

Some of the letters are quite intimate, in particular those written by Edward Porter Alexander to his wife, Bettie (see a series of his letters here). In between the sweet nothings ("my dear darling little wifey") and greetings to family and neighbors, however, he sometimes tucks in bits of coded messages describing the number, movements, and strategies of the Confederate forces. Here's a passage he wrote on 10 July 1861 in an "unknown tongue" (which my supervisor has identified as Chinook jargon):

"N kah hyas tyee wake clatawah copa Wash. Wake sibkum skukum to clatawah. Yaka midlait yagwa, pe mimeloose conoway spose mesatehy bostons chaco. Wake uk quarter okukum to clatawah coper Washington."

I've translated* the Chinook into the following: [?] that chief no go to Wash[ington]. No part strong to go. He/They remain here and kill all if [?] Yankees come. No one quarter this to go to Washington.

Regardless of the particulars, Alexander is writing about a hyas tyee (chief, usually translated into English as "king") and his or his troops' movements toward Washington. Intriguing, no? Keep checking the blog for more interesting Civil War era documents!

--edit--keep an eye on the comments--someone with much more knowledge of Chinook jargon has submitted his own translation!

*"translated" is a kind but extremely inaccurate description of the process I used to decode the passage; without knowing Chinook syntax, grammar, or tense, I simply attempted to match Chinook and English words through various reliable and unreliable resources.

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