1846: Frémont’s “Narrative” and implicit CW

Not all documents of Chinuk Wawa seem like documents of CW.


John C. Frémont (image credit: Wikipedia)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you John Charles Frémont’s 1846 book, “Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44” (Syracuse, NY: L.W. Hall). 

This frontier Frémont (1813-1890) was an explorer of the Pacific Northwest and other regions; a military man; the first US Senator from California; a governor of Arizona; the first Republican candidate for President; and so on and so forth.

This places him on the long list of middle-1800s national figures who knew Chinook Jargon. 

Let’s set about demonstrating that claim.

On page 6, the author lists by name the “principally Creole [i.e. locally-born] and Canadian voyageurs” who he hired for the first expedition recounted in the book. All of these men would have been speakers of Mississippi Valley-style and/or Métis French; some became closely connected with the Oregon Country. 

Frémont, I imagine, had some ability to talk French with such a predominantly Francophone crew. He easily uses words that were current among them, for example < prele > (prêle, Equisetum sp.), page 12, several of them familiar to Chinuk Wawa speakers, like appolas ~ ‘meat-barbecuing sticks’, page 98 (CW lapʰalá). In fact he quotes entire sentences in French, like page 14’s Du monde! … nous allons attraper des coups de baguette.(Something like ‘Heads up! We’re gonna get a whippin’!) Page 46 reproduces a letter in French received by the author during this journey.

The author repeatedly mentions such terms as a clover-like plant esparcette, and épinettes des prairies (Grindelia squarrosa, curlycup gumweed), as well as démontés (~’dejected’), none of which I’ve seen listed in McDermott’s 1941 “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French”.

All of this made me wonder where he picked up the habit of placing an accent aigu on his last name.. But then I learned that he was actually himself the son of a French-Canadian immigrant, Charles Frémon.

At all events, we get the impression of Frémont as an aware and educated observer. I wonder about page 48’s self-quotation of his speech to an Arapaho leader through an interpreter, wherein he says “See! I have pulled down my white houses, and my people are ready; when the sun is ten paces higher, we shall be on the march.” The italics are in the original; could white houses have been a conventional term for ‘tents’ in Plains Indian Sign Language, French, or some such intercultural medium? 

The Oregon & California portion of the Narrative begins on page 89. Frémont’s crew of 39 is again predominantly “Creole and Canadian French”, again listed by full name. I should pause to tell you that his book mentions any number of North American French place-names, such as the “Fontaine-qui-bouit” (‘Boiling Springs’) on the Arkansas River, all of which should be added to any serious study of this variety of the language. 

On page 130, in relation to Snake Indian country, the author discusses “kamas” (camas), though he’s using this name only in relation to his later experiences among lower Columbia River & California Indians. 

Frémont’s party reaches Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s mission in present-day Washington state, on page 179. Mr. Whitman is absent, but this is one of the first instances of the party’s dealing with known speakers of Chinuk Wawa. I don’t necessarily think F knew, or even knew of, CW yet; read my next paragraph.  

On page 182, a bit farther down the Columbia, in the vicinity of modern Boardman, Oregon, with Mount Hood in sight, F’s group meet “a party of Indians unusually well dressed. They appeared intelligent, and, in our slight intercourse, impressed me with the belief that they possessed some aptitude for acquiring languages.” I think that entire passage, when your turn on your app to “translate from White guy viewpoint”, tells us that the Native folks were Westernized in their clothing and were speaking Chinuk Wawa, which by this time (Halloween day of 1843) contained plenty of French and English. There’s still no indication that F or his buddies were aware of such a thing as CW, though! 

The travelers stop at the Methodists’ Wascopam Mission (opened in 1838) at the Dalles of the Columbia — another place where Chinuk Wawa was well known. Again, no indication of that language’s existence is to be found!

In this vicinity, Frémont’s bunch busies themselves with getting across the Columbia to the modern-day Washington side. He knows that Captain Wilkes’ US Exploring Expedition has already mapped this area in detail 2 years prior, so not needing the sun for latitude/longitude measurements, they travel at night. (That is, Frémont is under explicit orders to map the country westward to as far as the U.S.Ex.Ex. got things surveyed.) A recurring theme: the Wilkes crew included philologist (linguist) and CW researcher Horatio Hale — but F remains totally ignorant of the Jargon’s existence, as far as I can make out, even having apparently encountered it himself. Story of a pidgin language’s life. 

On page 189, F meets Fort Vancouver boss, Dr John McLoughlin, at that place. Like so many other observers, he’s highly impressed with the kindness and generosity of McL. No impression of CW comes to us from Frémont’s entire stay at the fort! 

On page 196, Frémont and company are back at the Dalles, preparing for their overland trip south to the Sacramento, California area: “Several of the Indians inquired very anxiously to know if we had any dollars” — pretty clearly CW dála ‘money’! They take on, “at the request of [the missionary] Mr. Perkins, a Chinook Indian, a lad of nineteen…He had lived in the household of Mr. Perkins, and spoke a few words of the English language.” This would be the famous Billy Chinook, and, I betcha, those “few words of…English” are the famous Chinook Jargon 🙂 

On page 201, partway southward through Oregon, some local Indians tell Frémont that the Metolius River is “a salmon water”, quite probably a direct translation of what they said in CW. The group also encounter a “Nez Perce” (Cayuse?) family and offer to buy one of their horses, but “the man ‘had two hearts’ ” — also a direct translation from CW, which is documented as saying mákwst-tə́mtəm for ‘doubtful; undecided’. 

The party are among the Klamath Indians of the Klamath Lake area on pages 205-206, and not able to communicate with these folks very well. It’s said a number of times in the book that this tribe are notable for their hostility to outsiders. Given what we know of history, including the Modoc Wars, these may well have been among the last western Oregon Indians to learn Jargon. 

That’s more or less the extent of Frémont’s experiences that can be directly related to Chinuk Wawa.

I find his account interesting for its nearly complete lack of direct evidence of the Jargon, at a time and place in which this language was already pretty widespread. But what we do have here is a good deal of background information on Canadian/Métis French language use, and some pretty fair clues that CW was heard and used by this exploring party, who however thought of it as an approximation of English and/or French!

What do you think?