John Tod, Red River Métis, + New Caledonia (BC)

tod house

(Image credit: “Career of a Scotch Boy“)
Active contributor LeAnn Riding got me thinking about BC Métis people, when she posted on our old CHINOOK listserv (remember listservs?) -- 


"A while ago I read one of trader John Tod's journals. He often referred to some of his horses at [Fort] Kamloops by a French word, 'Marron'. 'Marron' seems to describe a horse color, literally 'Chestnut' as we would also say in English. Yet isn't there a horse color Le Malon (or something) in Chinook Jargon, while other horse color words exist, such as Le Kye and Le Clem and Le Gley. However, the way John Todd used the word 'Marron' had little to do with color. The 'Marrons' which he mentioned were green, unbroken horses. So, the connection between this word, 'Marron', is not with any color words -- actually, it is probably the origin of the CJ word for wildness, 'Le Molo.' Lemolo, it has been proposed, is derived from [Spanish] marrón, a runaway slave. However, Lemolo is more of a cousin than offspring of 'marrón, runaway slave', Both words are abbreviations of [Spanish] 'cimarrón', implying wild, untamed, but meaning different things. In John Todd's world, a Marron was an untrained horse. See how he uses the word: ----- • "Michel, [and apparently two Native men named in Métis French] Maron Blanc, & Cendre [Cendré?] Nez Perces, & also three of the New Caledonia Bands the latter of course are to remain there." • "Cloudy & rather cool with drizzly rain Lolo & the cook breaking in marons." • "They take with them four hundred Salmon for the use of that Post and, besides the horses for the loads & the saddle, they take also a few marons to drive a head." • "The people for [Fort] Alexandria with their loaded horses made a start about midday as they take on with them a few Marrons for the trade of that place, which with their number of loaded horses, it is altogether too much for two men, particularly should they fall in with a body of Indns as they most likely will about Green Lake." • "Two of the men have taken a fancy to break in Marrons, Swanson & Simon Gale." • "Lolo arrived with about thirty Skins, and a young maron belonging to New Caledonia which had been left on the way by the Brigade coming in." [LeAnn supplied a link to the document she got these valuable quoations from, but it's dead now. It would be great to track down the journals of John Tod. Maybe they're among these items at the BC Archives.-- DDR]

These are neat tidbits of Métis French! 

They sent me in search of more of John Tod’s reminiscences. 

I found those in “John Tod: ‘Career of a Scotch Boy “, brilliantly edited by Madge Wolfenden. British Columbia Historical Quarterly XVIII(3&4):133-238 (July-October 1954).

We’re told this narrative was actually committed to writing by Gilbert Malcolm Sproat, a Vancouver Island settler who we encounter from time to time in connection with Chinook Jargon.

Tod joined the Hudsons Bay Company in 1811.

1813…1823? — Fort Severn (ᐗᔕᐦᐅᐠ [Waśahohk]), nowadays the most northerly settlement in Ontario, is almost entirely staffed by “French-Canadian half-breeds”  (143).

The young Tod learns Swampy Cree language from a young woman (148).

No Hudsons Bay Company employee had ever been stationed in New Caledonia (interior BC), and the NW Company employees described it as a tough country (156-157), so Tod is apprehensive about being posted there in 1823.

The group of a dozen with which Tod sets out for New Caledonia is  2/3 “French-Canadian boatmen and laborers” (160-161). Here Tod feels compelled to explain the Métis French word “portage“. The 84-pound fur packages in the canoe are called “pieces”; is this MFr pièces?

There were Crees in the Peace River country (modern NE BC/NW Alberta) whose language Tod, an eastern (Swampy) Cree speaker, could not understand (163); are these Plains Cree/Métis? “French-Canadians” at Fort George (modern Prince George ,BC)) are noted on page 164.

“Former Northwest Company officers…alone knew the trade there [in New Caledonia]“, so they were in command of the newly posted HBC guys. 

Various French-Canadian expressions are commonly used by all in the HBC service, for example “to march” means any kind of traveling, including by canoe (161). 

On page 167 Tod tells how men skilled as traders or interpreters might be promoted to “postmaster” in charge of a “flying” (I guess a minor) trading establishment; interpreters were somewhat high in the HBC hierarchy. 

Tod mentions a word “giddee” meaning an “Indian dog” on page 168, seemingly in connection with the Dakelh / “Carrier” territory of BC. This word, a.k.a. giddé, is not the Dakelh or other Dene word for ‘dog’. The word recurs later in connection with a “French-Canadian”; is it a Métis term? 

Tod goes on to say he spent almost 9 years at the remote McLeod Lake post, nearly forgetting how to casually speak English; the only people around other than BC Indigenous were “French-Canadian” i.e. primarily Métis. His York Factory friends later said he wound up talking a “stew” of “Scotch” (Scots English I guess), [Métis] French, and “Indian dialects”, plus “a bit of English”. Page 189 tells more about this. 

Tod mentions on page 169 a few Cree words (Swampy Cree? Plains Cree of the Métis?), like “titimeg” / “atikameg” for “the white fish”. (Plains Cree ᐊᑎᐦᑲᒣᑯᐢᑳᐤ atihkamêkoskâw.) This is whitefish, which might be the same or similar to what’s called by the Métis French word “inconnu” or “connies” in the North.

On that same page, he discusses the “Tuckullies” (Dakelh) catching fish with a trap he calls a “pouch-basket (“vervoe“)”, footnoted as being what Sir George Simpson called “vorveaux“. Another book, the 1858 “Handbook to the New Gold-Fields“, also uses “vorveaux” in connection with sturgeon. Yet another obscure Métis French word that we only know from historical British Columbia documents… 

Speaking of Métis “French of the Mountains” in BC, Tod quotes his Sekani Dene (“Siccanies” here) friend Cheway in translation from what was almost certainly the FOTM that we know to have been the main pre-Chinuk Wawa intercultural language of central BC, on page 170: “Let me die, I deserve it” and “I am your slave, and will do anything for you.” Surely Tod’s angry words with the Sekanis and Beavers (Dane-Zaa) in an intertribal fight at his trading post were in FOTM. 

On page 170 Tod also notes that he felt he understood many of the BC First Nations’ customs due to his own Scottish Highland heritage in the clan system. See also his ideas about translating for Indigenous people (below), and his opinion on page 217 that many troubles between Natives and Whites have originated in intercultural misunderstandings. 

Tod’s dog was named Chiscot (174). I’m curious whether this was Cree or Métis French — for example [či] from < ti >, standard French petit ‘little’? ‘Little Scot’?

The same page has a “French-Canadian” employee saying “Oui! oui! monsieur!” to Tod when asked to bring an axe quickly. 

Another Métis French fish name comes up in a footnote on page 179, the loche (ling / burbot), a word still common in the Northwest Territories of Canada. A mammal with a Métis name is Tod’s mention of French-Canadians’ word siffleur for the “whistling badger”; I was brought up to call them pikas or rock rabbits. 

Tod tells us on page 183, among other places, how the “French-Canadians” have more faith in Native customs of healing as well as those regarding suicide etc. than in European ones, further proof that he’s talking about Métis rather than Quebecers. 

On pages 184-185 Tod quotes a conversation with a Native medicine man near his own “home”, McLeod Lake, thus again a Dakelh who must have been speaking Métis French with him: “Not upright yet; I thought your great doctor [John McLoughlin of Fort Vancouver] was to cure you.” (Of sciatica. Tod replies that he’ll come to this healer the next day.) “You come then.” When Tod endures this man’s excruciating traditional treatment practice without flinching, the Dakelh says, “you have a great heart”. One plant probably used in this remedy, a footnote tells us, was false Solomon’s seal, about which James Robert Anderson (in “Trees and Shrubs…“, Victoria, 1925) noted his father’s (HBC man & Chinuk Wawa expert Alexander Caulfield Anderson) memory that the “French-Canadians” called it les écronelles or résinée.

A footnote on page 186 observes that the soapberry mentioned by Tod was called brue by “French-Canadians”, again on the authority of JR Anderson (1925). 

Tod notes “the increasing number of men of mixed blood in the Indian country” was an enormous help in the HBC’s having become so incredibly profitable (page 191). 

Tod is not literate in French, further evidence that he only spoke Métis French of the Mountains. His spelling of French is atrocious by standard-French standards 😀 He gives the name of a Native witness from Hay River (Xátł’odehchee on Great Slave Lake, NWT), who he escorted to England for a trial, as “Le Grace”, when it’s probably La Graisse as the footnotes indicate. (Pages 197 and following.)  

On page 200, Tod is decades ahead of his time. When ordered to take an oath to “duly interpret” for La Grace, Tod refuses. He insists that even though he can “speak the Indian’s tongue”, someone in the court might say something “which his language would not admit of being interpreted”. That’s an exquisitely nuanced and extraordinarily rare understanding of intercultural translation, to this day!

duly interpret

Was “La Grace’s language” French of the Mountains, or South Slavey Dene, or the closely related Chipewyan Dene, which lots of fur-trade dudes knew? Nope. Page 203 gives us a colorful anecdote of Tod & La Grace at a pub called “The Shades”, cussing out a fat, rude, anti-Scottish German in “the language of the Crees”. I take this as tending to confirm the independently known fact that some kind of Cree was a lingua franca of the Canadian fur trade. Since La Grace spoke it, possibly this was the Plains Cree of the Red River Métis whose French, too, has left a still-enduring mark on northern Dene languages. 

In England, the George and Vulture pub is the favourite haunt of HBC men. I just wanted you to know! (Page 201.)

Tod’s ignorance of proper French spelling extends to his saying he led a group of emigrants to Fort Vancouver in 1838 that included Bishop “Blanchard” and Father “Meyers” — Blanchet & Demers, of Chinuk Wawa fame! (Page 208.) 

Tod spent a couple of years in a management position at the Métis community of Cowlitz Farms for the HBC (pages 211-212), so he surely had an acquaintance with Chinuk Wawa.

He then was posted to (Fort) Alexandria, an old NW Co. post back in New Caledonia, i.e. the interior of BC, where Métis French of the Mountains was still the primary intercultural language. Then he was sent to Fort Kamloops. 

A Secwépemc (“Shuswap” Salish) chief named Tranquille in Métis French dies, which is ultimately the occasion of the killing of Fort Kamloops boss and Tod’s fellow Scotsman, Samuel Black. (Page 213.) Another Métis French-named Native leader, and interpreter for the fur traders in Tod’s time, was (“Jean-Baptiste”) Lolo (“St Paul”), that is, Laurent (page 214).

Quite a number of “French-Canadians” and their wives and families lived at Fort Kamloops (page 223). You see why I say Métis French was the usual cross-cultural language in BC until Chinook Jargon came in?

Page 225 mentions the BC Native village of “Pebeion“, “or, as the Whites came to call it Pavilion — Métis French for ‘flag(s)’. This MFr word shows up in northern Dene languages as well. A footnote says it was sometimes spelled “Papillion“. Fort Kamloops was dependent on the Native salmon fishery there. 

Page 228 recalls Tod’s cook Como, “nominally a Sandwich Islander” (Hawai’ian) but apparently of very mixed background, thought to be reflected in his way of talking. He is quoted answering Tod’s question as to what Como has served him to eat: “Bear — he is welly good bow-wow.” Is this early Maritime Polynesian Pidgin

Bonus fact:

There are other Canadian French words that you see all the time in memoirs of the fur trade, implying that they too were Métis expressions. A couple that are especially frequent, also showing up in place names, are chevreuil ‘deer’ and biche ‘elk’ (or ‘red deer’ in some older sources). You’ll see these preserved in the Cree-French mixed language of the Red River Métis, “Southern” Michif, as shoovreu & bish

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