Historical Sketches of the Catholic Church in Oregon [Territory]

blanchet insignia

I’ve been learning about pretty early Chinook Jargon history from an eyewitness’s book…

It’s titled “Historical Sketches of the Catholic Church in Oregon during the Past Forty Years“, and technically it’s uncredited but attributed to Father Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) (Portland, OR: ___, 1878).

“Oregon” here is perhaps the oldest meaning of the name, referring to “the Oregon Country” — the broad expanse of the Pacific Northwest from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The usage is appropriate for the supposed author, one of the earliest outsiders to take up permanent residence in the region.

If you come from a Protestant upbringing, you might well feel offended by Blanchet’s harsh and blunt opinions — he’s constantly calling non-Catholic missionaries things like “propagandists of Protestant error” and “tourists” (pages 11-12). He also portrays them as less committed to working with Native people than with encouraging White settlement. Ouch!

The April 17, 1838 letter from Joseph Signay, the Archbishop of Quebec, to Blanchet and his colleague Modeste Demers as they were about to depart for Oregon specifies that they are to learn and grammatically describe the Oregon Indian languages, in order “to publish a grammar after some years of residence there” (page 26). The priests took this order seriously, compiling the first significant description, and texts in, Chinuk Wawa, which we know from its 1871 publication. Why the Jargon? It was far and away the most useful language for actually communicating with Native people of numerous tribes.

A quotation of seeming eyewitness observations of Fort Vancouver (from C.G. Nicolay 1846) evokes vibrantly what the multiracial creole society there was like, with its blending of several cultures’ heritage:

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page 53

From a letter written by Father Demers: Page 57, in the course of describing the various tribes of the Northwest, specifies that the Cayuses not only speak Nez Perce (which is totally different from their own language), but also: “A great many of the[se] Indians speak the Chinook jargon of which there will be mention later.”

And pages 58-59 speak of the difference between the difficult Chinookan tribal language(s) and the widely known Chinook Jargon:

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And page 59 on the Jargon-speaking Cowlitz Indians, among whom Blanchet and Demers established their mission by agreement between HBC chief John McLoughlin and the Catholic hierarchy:

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And page 60 on the K’alapuyas of the Willamette Valley in modern northwest Oregon, also known as Jargon speakers:

blanchet on kalapuyas

Page 67 is interesting as it tells how the newly arrived Catholic missionaries at first set to work getting the Fort Vancouver community’s Native wives and mixed-race children ready for baptism, teaching their rosaries, prayers, and catechism in French — not in Jargon. This is said to have been very difficult, and to have taken months. Page 68 mentions chief factor McLoughlin having maintained since several years before, at his own expense, a French-language Sunday school for the same women and children. (Whereas the regular school at the Fort was conducted in English.)

Similarly (page 74), the newly arrived priests deputized a literate ex-HBC employee (the only one?) at Cowlitz Farm / Fort Cowlitz, named Fagnant (perhaps Fainéant), “to teach the prayers and catechism to the women and children” of that Métis community.

Page 67 notes also that Father Demers had learned Chinuk Wawa within 3 or 4 weeks, and immediately put it to use in translating some basic prayers and composing some hymns, which the area’s Indians quickly learned.

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Page 70 tells of Dr. McLoughlin’s first communion as a Catholic, at Christmas mass in 1842, involving hymns in Chinook Jargon:

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In January of 1839, the two priests made a mission visit to the Willamette Valley Métis communities south of the Columbia River. French was used in the religious ceremonies and teaching, with a literate young man from France helping. But not all the wives of the local ex-HBC men understood French, so a variety of interpreters were used.

Pages 83 and following tell of the first formal mission to Cowlitz Farm, in March of 1839. Already, Puget Sound Indians including Tslalakum’s tribe of Skagit Salish from Whidbey Island had heard of the priests, and journeyed to learn about Christianity from them. It’s at this gathering that the famous Sahale stick / bois d’en haut / sáx̣ali-stík / Catholic Ladder was invented by Blanchet as a portable teaching and mnemonic aid. The Skagits went home having learned the Chinuk Wawa sign of the cross and a couple of hymns in CW.  Page 85 tells that the Cowlitz Farm community’s women and older children had by now learned some signficant part of their prayers and catechism (and the younger children some of their prayers). Several of the Chinuk Wawa and French hymns had been learned.

Pages 92 and following tell of the second mission to the Willamette, in May of 1839; the new Catholic Ladder was found useful here too, as “many of the neophytes did not understand French sufficiently to be instructed in that language”. It was even used in the church on Sundays, being explained to attentive congregations.

Pages 94ff describe the summer of 1839 second mission to the Cowlitz settlement, with the Catholic Ladder being put to yet more use.

Page 96 notes the first mission to the Fort Nisqually community, again using the Catholic Ladder, in spring of that year; many of the employees’ wives could only understand “Nesqualy” (southern Lushootseed Salish), Chinuk Wawa, or “Flathead” (some Salish language or languages), so the fort’s chief trader, Mr. Kitson or Kitsen, assisted by interpreting for the priests into these languages. All women who attended left able to sing “the first couplet of” two Chinuk Wawa hymns and five French ones. Teaching to the Indians followed this session, with 300 or so assembling and learning the Chinuk Wawa sign of the cross a couple of CW hymns, again with the help of the Catholic Ladder.

Page 102 brings us one of the very earliest written occurrences of t’əmánəwas, tamanwas, the name given to the medicines they prepare for the sick”.

On page 103 Demers, in a letter, gives a very interesting description of how Native people in the lower Columbia River area handle the body of a newly dead person:

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Page 105 has Demers making a mission for 5 weeks in early 1840 south of the Columbia to “oppose” the Protestant teaching being done lately by Rev. Jason Lee; the Catholic Ladder is again put to effective use.

On page 106 it seems revealing that the sickness of chief trader Kitson/Kitsen (misprinted here as “Kihen” and elsewhere as “Kitron”) during a May 1840 visit to Fort Nisqually leads to “Mrs. Kitson being kind enough, as usual, to serve as interpreter.” This seems to correct the above report of her husband having interpreted into various Indigenous languages; it makes more sense that a Native wife would have had the necessary skills. Mrs. K. is reported to have had a great acculturating effect on local Native women, and in “the lodges” (Indian homes) in the vicinity the knowledge of the sign of the cross, Chinuk Wawa hymns, and the ability to repeat (Jargon?) religious instruction has increased notably.

Making a first visit to Tslalakom’s Skagits of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound in late May of 1840, Blanchet makes use of a 72×15 inch (apparently paper) Catholic Ladder, along with Chinook Jargon. When he began saying the sign of the cross in CJ, he was amazed that the assembled crowd could and did recite it along with him. He was equally delighted when they took up a Jargon hymn, to the tune of “Tu vas remplir le voeu de la tendresse“, singing it through to the end. The Skagits also already knew a CJ hymn that he sang to the tune of “Je mets ma confiance. (Both links take you to his own publication of the Jargon lyrics.) Blanchet went on to preach, most likely in Jargon, to even bigger crowds when visitors from other tribes arrived by canoe. He had similar experiences of Puget Sound people’s familiarity with Jargon religious texts when he visited other parts of Whidbey Island.

In early summer of the same year, Demers made a month-long mission to the Chinook (Clatsop) Indians near Astoria, equipped primarily with a Catholic Ladder and “a little bell”. I find that last detail thought-provoking; could that local Catholic missionary tool have wound up influencing Indian Shaker Church worship?

Page 121 reports the Clackamas (Chinook) Indians having learned quite a lot of Catholic teaching, prayers, and hymns in Chinuk Wawa in the spring of 1841.

Word of the newly arrived missionaries spread far and fast, and it was typical for a chief to arrive with his family from some distant tribe seeking instruction in the seemingly powerful “medicine” (that word is used in Blanchet’s book). Yakimas, Okanagans, and Priest Rapids (Wanapum) Indians were among those showing up or sending word quite soon after learning of Demers’ and Blanchet’s presence. Take note: as had been the case with the Skagits above, those tribes had had little or no significant exposure to Chinook Jargon yet; many groups not local to the Fort Vancouver area seem to have first learned the language along with the Catholic religion.

Page 123, referring to 1841, provides further evidence of the Catholic Ladder’s success: the nearby, competing Protestant missionaries introduced an “Evangelical Ladder” to try to win converts away from the priests — and their effort failed.

Father Demers ranges as far north as Fort Langley on the Fraser River of present-day British Columbia, in the summer of 1841. By the way, many of these events and people are also recorded in the Fort Langley HBC post journals, which have been published and which I’ll be writing about before too long.

Page 125 has the Cascades tribe (I take it this is the Kiksht-speaking Upper Chinookans such as the Wascos) being visited for the first time by the “Black Gowns”, our two Catholic missionaries. Unlike the Protestants who had visited the tribe previously, Blanchet had fairly quick success with these folks as well, seemingly using Chinuk Wawa. On departing, he left their chief Tamakoon with a Catholic Ladder and a bell.

In 1842 Demers traveled even farther north, to “Fort Alexander” (Alexandria) in New Caledonia (modern central BC), where he introduced the Catholic Ladder and did some preliminary translation of religious materials into “two languages” — perhaps Dakelh (Carrier Dene) and Secwepemctsín (Shuswap Salish)?

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to punching back at anti-Catholic slanders following the Indian killing of several people associated with the Protestant Waiilatpu (Whitman) Mission in 1847.

But what I feel we learn from the whole volume is a fresh perspective on how Chinuk Wawa spread beyond its original homeland in the lower Columbia River drainage. Of course, we know with pretty good certainty that C.W. had already taken hold strongly there, due to the rapid formation of a Métis community that had the Jargon for a home language. But there had to be some motivation for the language to spread beyond that the bounds of that community.

I hypothesize that the sheer novelty of the “Black Robes”, who may have been equated with shamans by Native people — but nontraditional ones, willing to share their supernatural knowledge — was enough to spur tribal people from far abroad to come seeking the advantages that that knowledge would confer.

(Note, by contrast, Blanchet’s book indicates that certain tribes closer to the priests’ Cowlitz home base, e.g. the Chinooks on the Washington side of the river, apparently received these missionaries with indifference. In that light, I read some exasperation in page 179’s mention of the later-arrived Father “Lionet” (Joseph Louis Lionnet) being sent at the end of 1848 “to establish a mission at Astoria; instead of that he established it on the other side of the Columbia, on a [sic] land whlch [sic] he cultivates.”)

In order to learn from the priests, you had to learn the Jargon — at least enough of it to repeat their magical incantations (hymns and prayers).

As a byproduct of this, the earliest occurrences we find of Chinook Jargon in certain regions such as Puget Sound show Indigenous people able to recite, if not actively speak, the language.

A corollary of my claim is that in still other regions, beyond the personal reach of Blanchet and Demers, but eventually the scene of Jargon usage, it’s other reasons that account for the introduction of the language.

For example, a couple of decades later, the massive Fraser River gold rush(es) suddenly brought about the urgent need for an interethnic language in BC, so we can more or less attribute Chinuk Wawa’s rise in the province to the mostly USA-based newcomers.

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qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?