McArthur’s “Oregon Geographic Names” (part 1 of 8)

Finally I’ve gotten hold of a copy of a venerable Oregon reference work…

And it’s packed with even more Chinook Jargon-related material than I had imagined!


Different edition with a nicer cover! (Image credit: Thriftbooks)

Page vi tallies Oregon’s toponyms by Language of Origin. I guess it isn’t surprising that in a dictionary of Settler-recognized place names, English is the source of 64.6%. And this being Oregon, it’s understandable that 22.6% are tallied as “Indian”. But here let’s slow down. I notice that numerous other languages of Settlers are distinguished in the tally, such as Portuguese (0.2%) and the then purely literary Hebrew (0.1%) and Latin (0.5%). Even Hawai’ian (0.5%) is noted separately. Meanwhile, “Indian” covers everything from Chinuk Wawa — which, as we’ll see hints of in this mini-series, accounts for maybe 15%+ of the names cataloged — to Umatilla, Klamath, K’alapuyan, Athabaskan, Takelma and more! Even more strange, the individual entries for the Indigenous-derived names usually do specify the relevant tribal language. On a related note, 3.5% of the names are called “French” on this page, without regard for whether they’re ancestral family names from Europe or are locally spoken French Canadian words! I would suggest that future editions of McArthur, and there will probably be more, ought to revise this page to tabulate every language of origin in more detail, which will give a much more refined understanding of the state’s linguistic landscape.

McArthur was most certainly capable of the level of nuance I’m advocating. On page viii, his evaluation of much other placename research is a breath of fresh air, and it harmonizes with my own frequent observation that fluent Chinuk Wawa isn’t flowery:

A good deal of nonsense has been written about the meaning of Indian names. The compiler has known and respected many Indians and it his experience that they were principally concerned in getting a living amidst hard circumstances. It seems improbably that Oregon Indians ever made up geographic names because of ‘moonlight filtering through trees,’ ‘sunshine dancing on the water,’ ‘rose petals floating on water’ and ‘water rippling over pebbles.’ Competent researchers have found that most Indian names were based on much more practical and everyday matters.

After these general observations, we move into the listing of individual place names. Amota on page 15 (in Lake County, more or less the center of Oregon) is “named with the Chinook jargon word for strawberry, presumably because the plant grows on the butte.” McArthur makes no comment on who named it, although he’s usually very sharp about showing you an origin story when one is on record. Given the locale, I have some doubts that this was a name that was current in local CW speech. The standardized spelling makes it seem more likely to me that it was given after the frontier period, by some land-management bureaucrat who had a published Jargon dictionary in hand.

Pages 44, 81, 245, and 598 bring examples of places called Battle Bar, Brandy Bar, Eldriedge Bar, and Post Office Bar. I note these because each is of very old vintage, on an Oregon Settler timescale, referring to incidents occurring in the mid-frontier era: 1856, 1850, the 1850s, and 1851, respectively. “Bar” was a widely known term in Settler English of the time, and it was very frequent in spoken language, because a “bar” was among the finest land features from which to prospect for gold. Thus the word may well have been heard a lot in Chinuk Wawa, as newcomers negotiated with Native people for access to local geographic knowledge and for their labor on the White folks’ gold claims. This Pacific Northwest English word, common also in California’s goldrush country, and in Washington (e.g. Gold Bar on the Skykomish River), appears to have a Canadian presence primarily in British Columbia — I wager due to American prospectors rushing to BC in the 1850s from the PNW, bringing the Jargon with them. Thus BC has its Boston Bar, Kanaka Bar, etc.

Places called Camas Valley, Camas Swale, and such (page 105) get a unified entry, where McArthur erroneously assigns this CW word an etymology in “Nootka” (Nuučaan’uɬ). Forgive him that, because it’s pretty cool that he collects variant old spellings in CW: kamass, lac[a]mass, lakamass.

Page 118’s Cannibal Mountain entry, while not directly involving Chinuk Wawa, is a splendid example of McArthur’s careful research. Among the competing origins known to have been put forth for this name, he says it “was sometimes called Canniber Mountain, supposed to be an Indian name meaning saddle, but search so far has disclosed no such Indian word.” We certainly don’t know any CW words with a matching sound and meaning, and I’ll wager we won’t find an etymology in any other tribal language, no matter how attractive the story may be. (See page viii above!) The mountain is known locally only as “Cannonball”, which tells you something. Nobody knows how this became “Cannibal” on maps, but that’s not a very unusual occurrence. I’m impressed with McArthur’s good ear for locally spoken English, which surely helps him to have a healthy skepticism about folks freely invoking so-called “Indian” names.

Coffin Rock (page 167) is an entry that many of you will know is of interest to CW students. It’s a traditional Indigenous burial islet — a míməlust-íliʔi (‘dead.people-place’) in Chinuk Wawa, so this English name dating to early fur-trade days (1814) is probably a loose translation of that.

Page 177’s entry for Coquille on the southern Oregon coast is awesome. What I take away from its many diligently researched details is that this is one of several Tolowa names in that region that got reinterpreted as being either CW or English. Tolowa and all other Athabaskan languages have a history of proving immensely difficult for White folks, and Settlers in fact seem to have only ever learned enough Tolowa to recognize the final element dəne ~ təne ‘people’ in the Indigenous placenames. What remained after factoring that root out were Tolowa stems that coincidentally sounded to the newcomers like English euchre & sixes, and CW skákʰwəl ‘eel(s)’. The latter got further shortened to Coquille [kókwəl], under the influence of written standard French for ‘seashell’ — even though it sounds nothing like Fr. [kokíy]!

We read about Cultus Creek (Douglas County) and Cultus Lake (Deschutes County) on page 199, as well as Cultus Prairie, Cultus Mountain, etc. Certainly the first, according to McArthur, and likely most, of these are the hallmark of late-20th century government officials. In my experience of Indigenous place-naming, there are few locations known by such a dismissive label. Settler culture, on the other hand, consistently grades places for their ±utility to European modes of making a living, and places found to be too “wild” for that receive monikers like “Useless” (CW Cultus), “Lost”, “Hell”, and such. This is especially true of post-frontier White folks’ behavior in our region, because in earlier times almost any land would have a taker who would find a way to survive on it.

A splendid Jargon placename is page 200’s Cupit Mary Mountain (Lane County, in the heart of traditional Chinuk Wawa country). A local authority is cited as explaining that the place is named for Mary, the last (cupit ‘the end; all done’) child of a nearby Native chief Moses. Because the spelling used for CW kʰəpít is not one of the effectively standardized ones found in published dictionaries, we have evidence for this being a genuine local name. The negative evidence that I can’t find a trace of this name in print prior to McArthur might support that analysis too. The phrase Cupit Mary might be compared to the BC CW custom of calling people Iht Joe, Mokst Joe etc. (‘First Joe’, ‘Second Joe’, etc.)!

What do you think?