The French Half-Breeds of the Northwest

I want to keep sharing what I’ve been learning of how Métis people, who were so crucial in bringing Chinuk Wawa to its classic and current form, spoke…


Havard circa 1880 (image credit: Wikipedia)

So here are wonderful excerpts from a brief ethnography, “The French Half-Breeds of the Northwest” by V[alery] Havard [1846-1927], MD, Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A[rmy], pages 309-327 in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Condition of the Institution (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1880). 

Pages 316-317 enumerate the places and populations of Métis settlements all around the Pacific Northwest:

  • Montana (Crow Agency area, Fort Benton, Wolf Point, Milk River, Fort Belknap, [Fort] Carroll, Missoula County)
  • Idaho (Nez Perce rez area)
  • Oregon (French Prairie, Willamette Valley, “Kaoulis River” [actually Cowlitz, in Washington?]
  • Washington (Cowlitz [Landing], Colville Valley, Okanogan River, Tulalip, Lummi)
  • BC (Fraser & Okanagan Rivers, Kamloops, Babine, Stuart Lake)

Pages 325-326 are a pretty valuable sketch of some traits of Northwest Métis speech. For me, it inspires a proper respect for the huge mark these folks’ French left on our landscape and on the way we speak Chinuk Wawa & English out here. Havard, to judge from his name, his birth in France and his precise comments below, had a fine ear for details of French usage. 

I’m going to break out Havard’s lists of Métis expressions into bulleted sets, for greater legibility and learnability. Maybe you can think about the features of Chinuk Wawa that some of these have inspired…


The métis generally speak several languages, one or more Indian dialects, French, and often English. In the States most of them understand English, and use it when conversing with Americans, but seldom when among themselves. On the Red River, the Saskatchawan [SIC], and Milk River settlements, English is only exceptionally spoken.

All the métis, from Lake Superior westward, speak more or less Indian; in Manitoba many prefer it, and this preference becomes more general as we near the Rocky Mountains. The Cree principally, and, in a much less degree, the Chippewa are the ordinary languages of the half breeds in the British Northwest.

The Cree is easily learned, expressive, and euphonious, and for these qualities has become the universal medium of conversation among the Northwestern tribes and their kindred, the métis. In Minnesota the latter speak Chippewa; in Dakota, Sioux and Cree; and at the other places the dialect of the tribe from which they originated.

French is understood by all Canadian half-breeds; it is their ordinary language in Michigan, Wisconsin, and around Lake Superior, and everywhere their official medium of communication. At all the parishes on Red River, on the Assiniboin, and even at Saint Albert, on the Saskatchawan, the sermons are usually preached in French.

The French of the métis is a patois, somewhat analogous to that of the poorer classes in Canada. It is not comprehensive but contains a large number of peculiar words and expressions grown out of the character of the land they live in, and their mode of life. The pronunciation, although very defective, is not as bad as that of many of the provincial patois of France. It is readily understood by a Frenchman in spite of its grotesqueness, but correct French, unless made very plain, is not readily understood by the average métis. Whether spoken about the [Great] lakes, on the Saskatchawan, or in British Columbia, it is very nearly identical.

Many words in common use are obsolete French, but may still be heard to-day in Normandy and Picardy; for instance:

  • Aller cri (quérir), to fetch;
  • fleur, flour;
  • patate, potatoe;
  • pãtir [pâtir], to suffer;
  • mouiller, to rain;
  • raisonner, to grumble;
  • grouiller (of persons), to stir;
  • brailler, to weep;
  • jongler, to think;
  • magauer [maganer], to maltreat;
  • boucaue [boucane], smoke [meat];
  • moucher, to beat.

A large number belong to the vocabulary of the prairie:

  • Fourcher, to branch off;
  • fourches, forks of a stream;
  • charrette, cart;
  • carriole, sleigh;
  • traine, sled;
  • embarquer, to get aboard cart or sleigh;
  • faire chaudiére, to cook;
  • coulée, ravine or gully;
  • butte, bluff or cliff;
  • mauvaises terres, bad, broken lands;
  • tétons, small, round peaks;
  • plateau, table-land;
  • plateau du coteau, land system of a river or lake;
  • travail [SIC? cf. travois], the Indian conveyance, consisting of a frame resting on two poles dragging on the ground;
  • poudrer, to storm and snow;
  • babiche, strip of raw hide;
  • cabresse, lasso;
  • pemmican, meat dried and pounded;
  • capot, overcoat with hood;
  • equipage [équipage], team;
  • train, outfit.

Some originated with the fur-trade:

  • Coureurs de bois, bush-rangers;
  • voyageurs, fur carriers, collectors, and boatmen;
  • engagés, employés, laborers at trading posts;
  • portage, place where canoes are carried over shoals or to another stream;
  • bourgeois, proprietor or manager of a post;
  • mangeurs de lard, pork eaters, green, inexperienced hands;
  • plut, peltry;
  • bateau, barge.

Some are English words with a French termination and pronunciation:

  • Salon, saloon;
  • biter, to beat;
  • settler, to settle, &c.

The métis avoid grammatical difficulties in the use of verbs and pronouns, by using as few tenses as possible, and these preferably in the third person singular; for instance:

  • çã dit çã [SIC], they say so;
  • ou [SIC?] va aller, we shall go, &c.

As peculiarities of bad [SIC] pronunciation I may mention the diphthong oi, always pronounced as ai, with the sound of the final consonant, thus:

  • Froid, droit &c., are fraite, draite, &c.;
  • also the broad, nasal sound of the a, as in the following sentence: çã ne va pas. The latter peculiarity is characteristic of the Canadian pronunciation of French.

The author goes on to note important family names in various PNW Métis communities: 

At French Prairie (Oregon) : Gregoire, Maison, Lachapelle, Delorme, Vaudal [Vandal?], Lucier, Gervais, Rondeau, &c.

In Missoula County (Montana) : Asselin, Jangras, Moriceau, Laderout, Lafontaine, Larose, Lavallée, Poirier, Dupuis, Bisson, Houille, Carrier, &c.

In British Columbia: Allard, Boucher, Boulanger, Danant, Dionne, Durocher, Falandeau [Fala(r)deau, a Chinook Jargon-speaking family at Kamloops], Gagnou [Gagnon], Giraud, Lacroix, Lafleur, Napoleon, Perault, &c.

It is probable that many of these names, especially those beginning with the article la, originated in the wilderness, and, when applied to individuals whose paternity was unknown, were made to designate some peculiarity of body or of mind, or some circumstance of birth parentage.

From the above information, my growing recognition is strengthened that what I’ve previously called a BC pidgin “French of the Mountains” was really Métis French, albeit like a pidgin in its multiethnic functionality, being often used by non-Métis Indigenous people and by Euro-Americans!

What do you think?