Louis Labonte, French Prairie, and Chinuk Wawa

louis labonte

Louis Labonté (image credit: FindAGrave)

A very early mixed-blood son of Oregon, Louis Labonté [Jr.] (1818 or 1819-1906), told his recollections as an old man, and they’re interesting for Chinuk Wawa’s history.

I’d like to excerpt from their 1900 publication edited by H.S. Lyman (Oregon Historical Quarterly volume 1, pages 169-188).

Labonte was highly multilingual, as you might expect from a kid of his time and place. Chinuk Wawa was likely one of his native languages, but it was so new (as far as we can tell) and that he had to be competent in several others. He participated in plenty of other events that we’ve connected with the use of Chinook Jargon:

Louis Labonte (or Le Bonte), son of Louis Labonte [Sr.] [1783-1860] of the Astor expedition, who accompanied [Wilson Price] Hunt [1783-1842] across the continent in 1811–12, is still living [on French Prairie] at Saint Paul, Marion County, Oregon. He is now eighty-two years old, and is in good health. His remembrance of earlier experiences and life is still fresh and his mind seems very vigorous for one of his age. He says, however, that his recollection of the Indian languages that he once knew has now largely slipped away. These were the Clatsop or Chinook, the Tillamook, Tualatin and Calapooya, of which he says he knew a few words, and the Spokane which he understood almost perfectly. Besides these, he talked fluently in the Indian jargon and in French and English.

He was born at Astoria in 1818, his mother being a daughter of Chief Kobayway [Clatsop chief Coboway], and an older sister of Celiast, or Mrs. Helen Smith. Three years of his early life, about 1824 to 1827, were spent at Spokane Falls [presumably the formerly Astorian, then NWC, then HBC Spokane House, by then called Fort Spokane and about to close down], and the three years succeeding at [the HBC’s replacement for it,] Fort Colville. Then two years, probably 1830 to 1833, were spent on French Prairie. His father had removed to that place and was engaged in raising wheat on a piece of land owned by Joseph Gervais [1777-1861], whose wife was a sister of his mother. From this place he accompanied the family to the farm of Thomas McKay [1796-1849] on Scappoose Creek near Sauvie’s Island [originally Wapato Island], where he spent three years. In 1836 he removed with the family to a location on the Yamhill River near Dayton. In 1849, being then a well matured man, he accompanied a party headed by William McKay [1824-1893] to the gold mines of California, returning the same year. During the Indian war of 1855–56 he was a member of the Oregon Volunteers in the company of Robert Newell [1807-1869], which was stationed at Fort Vancouver to hold in check the Cascade Indians and the Klickitats to the north.

— pages 169-170

His father went to great lengths to settle in Oregon with his mixed family. Labonte Sr.:

…returned to Fort Vancouver and his service terminated some time near 1828, when he asked to be dismissed and allowed to remain in Oregon. This was directly against the policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who wished none of their trappers to become settlers or free laborers in their territory, and it was the rule that all of their servants must be dismissed at the place where they were enlisted. But Labonte was an astute Frenchman and contended that as he had enlisted in Oregon and was not brought here by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was no infraction of this rule, but rather in compliance with it that he should be dismissed here. Notwithstanding, his request was refused and no dismission was allowed unless he returned to Montreal. Accordingly, he made the trip to Canada, starting in March, and receiving his regular papers certifying to the ending of his term of service. But he immediately began the journey back and arrived here again in November of the same year—which may have been 1830. This shows him to have been an independent and determined man, and a good husband and father. It may also have had much more bearing than has yet been credited as to the settlement of Oregon.

— page 171

Labonte Jr. tells of his family’s years on French Prairie, and at least one of his Jargon words is an old-fashioned one:

Several of his [Sr.’s] comrades who belonged to the old Hunt party were already contemplating this step, and some had actually begun settlement. Etienne Lucier [1786-1853] had first taken a place at the site of East Portland, but, as Labonte remembers, having been informed by [founder of HBC Fort Vancouver, John] McLoughlin that he himself wished to occupy this location, was now removing to French Prairie. Joseph Gervais, however, was already at French Prairie, having laid a claim at Chemaway, a point on the bank of the Willamette River about two and a half miles south from Fairfield at present. Labonte Sr. moved to the place of Gervais [in 1831] and engaged with him in raising wheat, and, among other improvements, built a barn; but did not complete a location of his own.

Louis, the son, remembers more particularly the boyish occupations of the region, of which hunting was the most important. He describes a method of hunting the deer (jargon, Mowich; Calapooya, Ahawa-ia)…Grizzlies were not unknown in the Willamette Valley, though they were not abundant. The Chinook jargon name for the grizzly was eshayum, quite distinct from the name of the common black bear, itch-hoot. Both these words are evidently primitive Indian terms (S[ilas]. B[ryant]. Smith[1839-1902, son of Celiast and the Solomon Smith who succeeded John Ball as schoolmaster of Fort Vancouver] and thus show that the grizzlies were a well recognized species in the Willamette Valley during the period of Indian occupation.

— page 172-173

We can tell Labonte Jr.’s eshayum is early Chinuk Wawa because of the “e”. That’s the old Chinookan masculine noun prefix, which dropped off from a large number of words as they became Jargon. This particular word went on to become sháyim/sháyum for modern Jargon speakers.

For me it’s enlightening to hear Labonte Jr.’s specification that it wasn’t Hudsons Bay Co. retireees but Astorians who originally settled French Prairie:

According to these recollections, which should of course be subjected to close examination before being used as the basis of a final conclusion, it was Joseph Gervais and the remnants of the Astor company, or Hunt’s part of it, who were the original pioneers of French Prairie, and thus of Oregon. These were Joseph Gervais, Etienne Lucier, Louis Labonte, Wm. Cannon [1755-1854; the Pacific Northwest’s only known Revolutionary War veteran], Alexander Carson (Alex. Essen) [a relative of mountain man Kit Carson], and Dubruy. Whether the fact that they had been with an American company made them any more independent and more disposed to settle for themselves, may be questioned; but at any rate, they formed a little company of comrades and became the first group of independent Oregon people.

— pages 173-174

Labonte Jr.’s recollections of the many Native-style wedding ceremonies he witnessed bring up more of his linguistic knowledge, including additional Chinuk Wawa:

…probably indicating the desire of both peoples that the ceremony should proceed, and that all were friendly, a shout or hallo [in Kalapuya?] was raised by all parties, which is given as follows: “Awatch-a-he-lay-ee. Awatch-a-he-lay-ee.” After which she was taken the rest of the way and presented, while the same cry of applause and approbation was again raised.

A bride was purchased, and the presents were numerous and valuable. In case that the groom and bride were descendants of chiefs, presents were made between the whole tribes. These presents were of all sorts, and consisted of horses (cuiton), blankets (passissie), guns (mosket), slaves (eliatie), haiqua shells, or, as the small haiqua shells were called, cope-cope, which is a kind of turritella, kettles (moos-moos), tobacco (ekainoos), powder (poolallie), bullets (kah-lai-ton), knives (eop-taths), or other articles.

— page 177

The preceding vocabulary tells you some interesting things, for example about Labonte Jr.’s apparent foreign accent when speaking English, which Lyman sometimes draws attention to: moos-moos actually means ‘cows’, not ‘kettles’ — so Labonte must have said ‘cattles’!

His Chinuk Wawa’s early vintage also emerges again, with the initial “e” on ekainoos (compare Grand Ronde k’áynuł) and eoptaths (compare GR úptsax̣). Both are super old school; I haven’t yet found corresponding forms with “e” in any of the well-known published Jargon dictionaries. His use of kah-lai-ton (kaláytən) for ‘bullets’ is also kind of interesting because this word is thought to have originally meant ‘arrows’ in older Chinookan; virtually all Jargon dictionaries, however, give it a meaning of ‘ball; lead; bullet’ etc.

A little more about Labonte’s accent, from his 1834/1835 memory of fur trader Captain Nathaniel Wyeth on the brig May Dacre:

It was during this period that Wyeth—whom Labonte recalls as White, from a mixture of the English aspirate and the French non-aspiration of th—made his second visit to the Columbia.

— page 178

Labonte’s remembered circa-1825 Spokane Salish language looks pretty fluent to me, but I find a particular expression notable because it blends Chinuk Wawa and Spokane:

He was much with the Indians, and learned their language like a native, and was often present at their religious services, and heard them tell their myths. One of their meetings he describes as follows: At the lodge of the greatest chief there was a picture, from whom obtained he does not know, but in all probability from some member of the Hudson’s Bay Company. When worship was held, this picture was spread out on the floor, and, kneeling before it, the chief began a prayer to the Great Spirit, or the Hyas Ilmihum, who was addressed also by the name of Creator; the expression “Quilen-tsatmen,” meaning Creator, or, more exactly, “He made us.”

— pages 180-181

I should explain that Hyas is Jargon háyásh ‘great; big’, whereas Ilmihum is Spokane ʔilmíxʷm ‘chief’. (Quilen-tsatmen is recognizable as Spokane k̓’wl̓ncútn, now often translated as ‘God’.) I’m made to wonder whether Christian worship at that early date in Spokane country involved some significant component of Chinook Jargon. Louis goes on to mention traditional beliefs around “the coyote, or Tallapus“, but only to translate this Jargon word into Spokane.

On pages 185 and following, he also talks about skookums or monsters, in the Kalapuya country, thus pretty directly touching on Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa. Page 188 carries his discussion of Skookum Lake as “a tomaniwus water”, i.e. haunted; this implies a possible t’əmánəwas-tsə́qw in G.R. spelling, which would be ‘spirit water’.

For a relatively short piece, the memoir of Louis Labonte is an extremely interesting bit of Oregon literature. It really ties the room together, in terms of helping me make sense of connections between (A) the first encounters between Natives and non-Natives and (B) our overtly documented history of Chinook Jargon. I absolutely loved reading it!

What do you think?