Jump Off Joe! How’d that name happen?

jumpoff joe creek oregon

Jumpoff Joe Creek, OR (image credit: Hugo Neighborhood Association & Historical Society)

Because I deal in Linguistic Archaeology™, my readers know Pacific NW place names periodically come up here (see “15 Sous and the HBC” and such), so how about the oddity that is “Jump Off Joe”?

We have a Jumpoff Joe Lake near Spokane, in eastern Washington, as I remember from seeing the sign on the way to go fishing at Eloika Lake as a kid. There’s a Jump Off Joe butte in the Horse Heaven Hills, too.

Places called this are also found in Western Oregon. That’s a quirky distribution. What gives?

This time around, I think a simple chronology tells the story. We find, in various spellings and punctuations:

JUMP-OFF-JO Creek in the 1853 Indian treaty with Rogue Rivers (who wound up at Grand Ronde Reservation).

That creek appears in the earliest mention I know of JUMP-OFF JOE in a newspaper, 1856.

A railroad survey reports the Oregon creek name in an 1857 book.

A first explanation is forthcoming soon enough about the story of the name JUMP OFF JOE, tracing it to a familiar character in early settler history, General (later first Oregon governor) Joseph Lane:

jump off joe origin

— from the Indianapolis (IN) Daily State Sentinel of September 8, 1865, page 4, column 2

A 1909 magazine piece by an Oregon missionary seconds this story. I have to admit that I haven’t found it mentioned in a biography of Joseph Lane, although I learned there that a Rogue River chief formerly known in Chinuk Wawa as “Militecuitan, (Horse at Home)” [míłayt kʰíyutən, perhaps better translated as ‘Has Horses’] renamed himself Joe Lane.

But an 1888 book of an oldtimer’s reminiscences (3rd edition) instead gives JUMP-OFF JO a nameless Oregonian — out searching for a lost horse, but again chased by hostile Native people — as its namesake (page 102). This is essentially the same story advanced in 1883 letters to Portland newspaper editors by old-timers asserting it was a Hudsons Bay Company employee, Joe McLoughlin, who fell off a cliff by the stream some time in 1837, 1838, or 1839. Because I’ve found no mention of such an event in intervening 45 years, I’m awfully skeptical of such a detailed account.

The earliest newspaper occurrence of JUMP OFF JOE within Oregon in in 1867, discussing a mining operation.

All of the earliest mentions of Jump Off Joe in Washington publications refer to the Oregon mining district, circa 1893-1894, timing that suggests our Washingtonian J.O.J.’s are much newer than the Oregonian ones.

1900 magazine article titled “Jump-Off-Joe” from the Pacific Coast by L.T. Higgins gives a third explanation for the name, this time applied to a now-disintegrated sea stack in Newport, Oregon. It’s a romanticized, purportedly Native origin story for the name, but it appears to be fictionalized and blended with e.g. Tlingit elements (“Icht” for ‘shaman’).

1902 book gives a fourth, almost equally unconvincing, story which seems influenced by the third: it attributes the place name to a trapper Joe McLoughlin who fell off a bluff into the creek.

In 1904 near Kennewick, WA, we hear of a mastodon tusk found atop Jump Off Joe hill or peak in the Horse Heaven Hills, for our first mention of a non-Oregon locale with this name.

Jumpoff Joe Lake in Stevens County near Colville/Chewelah in northeast WA, makes its appearance in the record in 1915.

Put all of this together, and the likeliest story is that “Jump Off Joe” traces to some early White newcomer. It’s not unlikely this was Joe Lane, because he was a well-remembered character in regional folk culture (a ton of other stuff from counties to colleges is named for him), leaping for his life from a speeding steed near a creek in southwest Oregon. The catchy name got transferred to a reasonably nearby coastal feature (Wikipedia give a fifth, totally folk-etymological, explanation), and later also to places progressively northward in Oregon and in Washington state.

What do you think?

Are there other place names in our region that you’ve wondered about?