Odd Old News: Mountain Children

Three young girls posing on a redwood log in the forest near Trinidad. [Photo from the HSU, Humboldt Room, Palmquist Collection by Ericson]

Nuggets of old news is served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

Odd Old News has a fondness for the odd human interest story. This week we will take a look at the “home-schooling” of some unusual children who lived five miles east of Ft. Bragg. Specifics about their homestead location are unknown other than knowing that the family lived six miles east of Ft. Bragg in the dense redwood forests of the coastal redwood belt, apparently arriving around 1884.

Most settlers believed in their children getting an education, but distances from schools sometimes prohibited attendance, or necessitated long travel. These two isolated children had the kind of natural education that comes from living in Nature, and created their own language to navigate their natural world.

MOUNTAIN CHILDREN
BABES COULD TALK SPAKE WITH WORDS THEIR PARENTS KNEW NOT
Their Language Was Unique Unto Themselves —A Very Remarkable Story
Los Angeles Herald, April 1, 1880 (originally published in the Washington Post)

In the redwood forests of the mountains of the Coast range in Mendocino county, six miles east from Fort Bragg, stands a cabin with neatly fenced garden and corrals. It is the home of two children who have built up a language. They are children of well bred, educated parents, who have been too busy hewing a livelihood out of the forest to give the little ones even enough of their society to teach them to speak.

Sixteen years ago George Hicks and his young wife came out from the east to find a home where the new west offered, as they thought, wider possibilities. They had a good sum of money to invest, but, like thousands of others, Mr. Hicks was not sharp enough to keep it. With two horses, some cows and chickens, the young couple went by boat up the coast to Fort Bragg and thence struck out into the primeval forest to take up the nearest untreated government land. The redwoods offered them a home and a livelihood, but great labor and little profit. They were destitute of everything but love and hope, and the husband’s ax sang out merrily and soon there was a cabin in place of the hollow tree they had first sought shelter in. He added stables and fences and a garden, and his gun supplied plenty of venison and quail and grouse, and they were able to welcome their first little son to a comfortable home. When Frank was three years old his parents rejoiced to give him a baby sister, to be a companion for the boy, who, before, played alone all day under the trees. The baby, Mollie, was placed almost from her birth in the boy’s charge.

Mrs.Hicks isolated her children from the rough contact with the Indians and as they must all eat at one table by the laws of the western usage, she placed a little table at one corner of the porch and here the two children ate the meals they did not prefer to carry off into the woods. Almost before the baby could walk Frank carried her beyond the green open [sic] on which the house was built and to his favorite nooks in the forest, and she slept her midday naps safe in a great house-like hollow tree. The rain in the tree tops, the smoke of forest fires, the white fog floating dimly in from the ocean, the gray whisk of a squirrel or the blue flash of the chattering jay, each had a meaning for the boy, and how could he convey that meaning to the little sister? There was no one to tell them the accepted word to express the forest sounds and life, and, naturally enough, the little ones invented a language of their own from the sounds they knew, and that language is a true language and has nouns and pronouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs.

More than that, their words are almost identical with the root words of our language. Take, for instance, “phin” for fire or heat, which is identical. Sin is fig, and on is done, think is horse, boo is cow, wala is squirrel, and wa is to run, and wawa to fly. Jaho is the redwood, sava the fawn, mosa the doe; jawawa is the rabbit.

Their voices are soft and their language is the vocalized type of the forest where they have grown like two little squirrels, healthy and happy and gentle. They are not savages. They have distinct ideas of right and theft is to them the greatest conception of wrong. They learned it from the birds when saw a wicked thief help himself from the hardly gathered store of the woodpecker which they had watched carried nut by nut from the ground to a hollow tree.

Mrs. Hicks noticed that the children did not speak in English, but thought it was the usual prattle of babyhood. She tried at spare moments to keep the little ones near her, but they spoke in a language which neither she nor her husband could understand. It worried her and amused their father, but when a school was opened at Fort Bragg, Mr. Hicks presented himself to the young school ma’am with Master Frank, who was to ride the six miles to and from school on an ancient Mexican pony.

The boy was 8 years old, but he had never seen any child but his sister in his life before, nor any woman except his mother, for his home was separated from the world by the silence of the Redwoods. The boy was impressed by the novelty, but could not understand what was said to him, nor could he make the children understand him. The teacher was patient with him, for she could see he was an unusually bright boy, but she could not do anything with him and on Saturday rode through the forest to his home and consulted with his mother. Little Mollie’s devotion to her brother and his protection of her suggested to the teacher to make her a little pupil at school as a balance wheel to her brother.

They run away occasionally, and still talk in their own language when alone, but they are rapidly becoming proficient in English.—Washington Post.

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52 comments

  • This explains so much…

  • 🕯👁There’s a story just like this in the Appalachian mountains back east I think they grew up playing banjos or something. 🖖🖖

  • Reminds me of a Steven King novel…

  • I have a whole lot to say on this subject, but I’m busy this morning. I will be back…..

  • Not too far away, in Anderson Valley around the same time, a language was developed and used mostly by younger folks called Boontling.

  • Wa jawawa Wa!
    From the mouths of babes.
    Very cool.

  • This post explains a lot. The isolated population of the South Fork of the Eel spoke an understandable language, but it was far different from what the civilized people that moved in on us spoke. The original white people in the valley were a mixture of Scandinavian, English and Irish. The Okies came during the timber boom and added to the the mix. Then there was the mixture of the indigenous people who spoke a combination of their language and the white language.

    We had our own names for plants and animals. We had never heard of the word “whom”, and the word “were” was seldom used. “For” was pronounced “fur”, a creek was a was a “crick”. The hardest change that we had to make was the ‘proper’ name for the plants and animals that we loved. The names of places that we used was, for some reason, all wrong.

    I remember in the 50’s and the 60’s when many educated newcomers started moving in. They were, what I would consider to be to be very rude. They would interrupt no matter what you were talking about with the “proper word or term”, and pay no attention to what you were saying. I remember thinking, when they would interrupt one of my grandfather’s stories with a “correct word”, that they were wrong and Grampa was right. After a few rude interruptions Grampa would just go back to spading the garden, or whatever else that he had to do. I would feel such an incredible loss. Grampa was one of my best teachers.

    You could tell which valley someone was from by the way they spoke. It was easy back then to pick up on an accent. You could tell by their accent whether they were from Arkansas, Oklahoma, or Texas. Now, thanks mostly to television, we all speak the same language.

    I am old enough and local enough to remember the incredible change we went through when the newcomers came. They didn’t change their ways a bit, it was the locals that had to change. In someway it was fair, because the locals way of speaking was wrong.

    Many areas of the United States still has its local language. Like, the indigenous people still try to retain their language, and there are other groups like the Pennsylvania Dutch that speak pigeon German.

    The one thing that I’m sure of is, some of the smartest people that I ever knew were some with the poorest education.

    The people that moved here could have learned incredible stuff and gained some incredible knowledge if they would have learned to listen without correcting. The first few comments of this post were Jokes about Banjo’s and Steven King. In the generation of “woke” you would think that they would know better.

    The one thing that I always admired about David Heller is that he was one of the only Newcomers that, not only listened and learned, but he taught me many things about my own family that I would never have learned without him. What a valuable person to teach us our history.

    • Ah, that you were right about all of us speaking the same language sir, alas we do not. Half of adults of voting age apparently have no idea what the other half is saying.
      For example, “black lives matter” 😥
      Watch for following comments which will prove my point.

      • Yeah, that’s what happens when you throw out bait but somehow pretend it’s presented innocently so you can then proceed to gaslight whoever responds.
        Your games lack intelligence or sophistication.

      • In my 1911 I trust

        C’mon man, this is an awesome story and Ernie always has incredible insight to add about our history, why do you have to attempt to mar it with politics? Can’t it just be an awesome story with some historical insight added and for once and be left at that?

    • Gee Ernie, just imagine how the Indians felt when the “newcomers” came, stole their land, told them not to speak their own language, sent native children to “re-education “schools where they were abused sexually and otherwise, their parents and grandparents hunted down killed.
      But hell, the poor local yokels were battered with corrections of their “local language “.
      I was one of the “newcomers” that you hold a grudge against and I can’t think of any instance of me or anyone I know shutting locals up and correcting them or even mentioning the local terms for words in private.

    • It’s probably been 50 years since I last heard a native rural Californian say crick, but if you go back to the ‘60s many of the old timers on the north coast, who were often born in the 19th or early 20th century, did say pronounce it that way. I’m thinking of one old guy in particular whose wife told us the story of how when she was young girl they used to run to the front gate if a car drove by so that they got a good look at it. Now you might go out to see a horse ridden by.

      I did hear crick used again recently in the rural midwest.

    • Thanks again Ernie…. though as my great great grandaddy’s 1st cousin twice removed put it…”Praise is like perfume, it’s ok to smell it, but you don’t want to drink any”.. or something like that….

      I was thinking last night about how indebted I am to the historians who were here earlier and DID listen to the oldtimers who were alive thirty years ago, I got to this too late. Mary Ella Anderson interviewed and recorded the people I would have liked to have talked to back in the 80’s. Her archive that she shared with me before it went to the Historical Society was a rich treasure trove that really inspired my early days of research, and Diane Hawk has been very generous with her large archive for over a decade. HSU librarians and Historical Society docents have been equally helpful over the years. The gov’t response to Covid has been brutal for historical society and, as is obvious, there is big money for projects like a big tunnel to take water from one area to another, or to build a high-speed train, but Historical Societies don’t matter. Sadly they are going to go under without more members and patrons. I want to encourage others to support the Mendocino and Humboldt county historical societies by becoming a member to help keep them open.

      • I don’t know what is happening with the comments tonight, but they are doing weird things. Like not disappearing when you want then to,then not appearing when they are posted.
        Anyway…. I told David that my great great grandmother 1st cousin twicw removed made her own perfume with vanilla Beans soaked in white lightning. She often drank it. She sure smelled good!

      • now is a GREAT time for historical societies to interview elders by phone or by video conference. They’d probably all really love to have someone to talk to.

        • Were our historical societies even open, and fully funded, that would be a great project! Generally speaking, our historical societies are often understaffed, rely on volunteers, and are busy enough with just running a historical society. In an ideal future world maybe HSU students could do such a project, or someone could get a grant. I wish there was more motivation within families to zoom record interview their seniors and get their life’s story for posterity and family archives. My sister and I recorded on a tape deck my mother’s life narrative over a few long visits. My amazing sister typed it up, and made a book with family photos of my mother’s life and gave it to her on her 90th birthday. It was a special gift. Not that most of us could make a book, but there are a lot of means of recording family stories. Most of us have had that “I wish I had thought to ask…” realization.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share that Ernie Branscomb.

    • Thanks for this, Ernie. I hope you’ll write more of this down or talk in to a tape recorder fhe way Studs Terkel had his people do.

      You are correct, people who are “woke” should be against classism, regionalism, and ableism in addition to being against racism, sexism, and homophobia. But, some people just like to hold on to their prejudices.

      The trailer park and the ghetto are closer together and have more in common than most people think. Both get looked down on and judged by outsiders.

  • Incredibly unique story. Love it.

  • Being a surfer that got my first surfboard at 8 years old In 1961. I was one of those blessed to observe the development of surf language. Like – Whoa! Like 8 foot top to bottom tubes, totally glassy. This linguistic form was used by Jeff Spicoi in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

    • Sandy
      If you started surfing in 1961 you must have most certainly known, or had heard of my dentist, Doc Ball. Doc made his own surfboards. and taught many people to surf. Not me, Too cold!

  • No surfer type wet suits then. Used scuba type wet suit jackets that had a flap on lower back that was made to tuck between legs and button in front. When worn loose they were referred to as beaver tail wet suits. When surf was big and direction and tides right, there was sometimes a break in the bay by King Salmon. Yes cold! Good lesson in pre hypothermia, brain freeze or ice cream head and difficulty to hold car keys to open car. Loved it.

  • i would think this spot would be either the Noyo River area, or near the township of Glenn Blair. Sawmills and logging was prime during those years. Both areas have streams that would have had year round trout, and salmon in the winter. Plenty of deer, quail, bears etc. , but in 70 years I have yet to see a Grouse.

  • Harmony and Sutra used their private twin language well into kndg.

  • Duty skeptic checking in.

    What language did the kids speak with their parents? Or were they on non-speaking terms?

  • I’ll stagger in here and make a few comments.. The various white “brogues” of English in SoHum NoMen came first from Missouri and the troops recruited into he war with Mexico.. Frank Asbill did manage them in his “Last of the West.. The first ex military settlers and hide hunters came in from the east not the Eureka settlement or the southern counties.. They culled huge numbers of deer for the leather factories supplying the 49ers.. Another source of income was found in kidnapping and selling Native children.. Plenty of documentation of that.. The timber industry was the beginning of the new population here and the various brogues.. The Hippies (Say it out loud, I’m hip and I’m proud..) believe it or not, did not come here to grow pot.. We came to get the hell out of the cities into a beautiful country.. We found a place where logged over land was “dirt” cheap and developers anxious to subdivide and sell it to us.. We became a new industry for real estate folks. The word in town was that we’d be gone in no time as you couldn’t make a living on 40 acres.. Makes me smile.. Years ago, I knew the daughter in law of Steven Fleming the first white settler at Eel Rock.. We have not been in this country long and yet, even I, see myself as an old timer.. If I had corrected Tennessee Hodges’ english in the bar, I would have had sudden familiarity with the floor.. The old them and us culture here has dissolved into marriages and grandchildren with redneck and hippie ancestors… When Covid clears, go to a High School graduation.. The division is just an entertaining memory..

    • Ben, you are one of the Newcomers that took the time to listen and learn about the incredible culture of the north coast, and you have contributed much to our knowledge.

      I have often said the the people that criticize our history obvious know nothing of their own history. A person does not have to go very far down the family tree to find some real monsters.

      • 🕯🌳Do you really know the real history of this area Erinie? I like David’s stories but I’ve yet to see one of the true native of the area and it being Native American Heritage Month it would be nice to hear a nice heart warming story about them wouldn’t think?🖖🖖

        • Willie
          No, I do not know the “real history” of the area, few people ever will. Every ‘Old-Timer’ history story is passed down through the local families. Each family seemed to end up with their own version of the story. There is a reason that I call what I know “Bullshistory”.

          However, I loved hearing the old stories, with every families different slant. I never criticized or corrected, because I knew full-well that would make the story go away.

          Willie. Why don’t you tell your story? You fill me with curiosity. You are one of the most unique commenters on this blogsite. I’m sure that we would have many, many questions for you.

  • Leonard Bernstein, the great composer lived in a very tight neighborhood in Brooklyn. He grew up with a very small group of kids who created their own language…it was like a little club in the neighborhood. They could communicate secretly in front of other kids and adults and no one knew what they were talking about. They stayed close through adulthood and Bernstein spoke the language until he died.

  • Brad reminds me of my Sister and her friends speaking “haibu jaibu”, a secret lnguage related to “pig latin”.. My first real love was a young woman who, as a child, had invented a fantasy language she only used in an imaginary country.. She did not share it at all and only spoke it in her imagination.. Later in life, she became a PHD in linguistics, developing computer learning games for children with Down’s syndrome.. I’m often asked how to say “hello” in Wailaki.. The Native langage had no “hello” but one might say: “Good.. Good.. You are here”.. Simple abstractions were not used.. If I were to say: “He barked like a dog..” A Native speaker might reply: “What dog.?.. Whose dog. ?” Cultural differences are large.. A friend in college became the black scholar Moulana Karenga.. He started the Christmas tradition of Kwanzaa and invented a study of black language called “Ebonics”.. Preserving a language tradition in the black community.. Slang terms we consider “bad English” have real and distinct meaning.. As Ernie points out, the sad reality is that these dialects are fading away through the influence of media rather than some correcting teacher.. That the unique qualities of dialects signaling kinship with strangers could disappear.. I have very little sympathy for “good English”..

    • Ben said, “I have very little sympathy for “good English”..

      Wow! Ben gets it! Very few people appreciate that language is dynamic and needs to change to fit the times, otherwise we would all be speaking ‘Sumarian’. I have have experienced more changes than most, being from the hinterlands of the South Fork of the Eel. Isolation will always end up with developing nuances in language.

      Children will always make up their own language to keep their secrets, we used to speak ‘Monkey Slang’. Which for some reason we thought would keep our secrets safe. If you added an ‘ast’ after the first syllable in every word it would keep your secrets. Monkey Slang would be pronounced Mastonkey Slastang. Gastet itast?

    • Ben, So many languages have those approximates that mean different things. That’s what makes them so hard to understand…different tenses, gender male, female and neutral….and in the case of English so many words that can mean the same thing. Native American languages are very subtle and nuanced with similar words meaning different things. It’s a wonder we can ever understand each other…but, somehow it sort of works. Hawaiians have only thirteen letters in their alphabet. Aloha is one word with many different uses…It truly is fascinating…Then you can go into the etymology of words and that’s a whole other world of exploration that you can spend a lifetime on.

  • I can’t believe how some people feel like they are so educated, and then remark so ignorantly. Why make a little story about local history seem less than any of us have today. When in fact, the majority or your crap comments are just that….crap. You would not know what it was to care for your family, or work hard to make a nice home. Because your CRAP.

  • And then there is that unique military patois I call “G. I. Creole”. This being a public forum, I decline to supply quotes.

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