Métis place names around the Pacific NW

Many, many place names north of Louisiana, and from the Missouri River westward, are Métis whether you realize that they were originally French or not.

tea prairie

(Image credit: Columbia River Images)

We certainly have great quantities of Métis toponyms in the Pacific Northwest.

Not all of them are remembered nowadays, so when we go back into documents of the overland fur trade’s heyday, in pre-colonial times up to about 1850 and a bit later, we find exponentially more of them.

That in itself is some evidence of a Métis source; a great proportion of fur-trade workers here were “Canadian halfbreeds”.

But also, in the course of their duties, the male fur-trade employees in the PNW typically traveled together with their mixed, i.e. Métis, families along these routes.

And after 1850?

Chinook Jargon then expanded beyond the lower Columbia River zone, displacing Métis French as the most commonly shared language of our region.

To a small extent, today’s article pulls together stuff that I’ve shared before in this space, but I’ve been tracking down enormously more traces of Canadian Métis people in the Pacific Northwest landscape.

Many more items will be added, I assure you, to this list of one particular type of linguistic trace of the Métis presence out here.

(Necessary note nowadays: if you do an internet search for French place names in our region, you’re likely to wind up at Wikipedia. The pages there tend to include lots of places named after French people, lots of mistaken etymologies, modern names, and other problems. Here I’m limiting the list to French toponyms that were in use during the fur trade era.) 

Can you think of additions, my reader?

  • The Rocky Mountains are the Métis French montagnes rocheuses.
  • Boise, ID is boisé ‘wooded’.
  • Lac d’OrignalBC is ‘Moose Lake’
  • Fountain, BC is la fontaine in allusion to the tumultuous confluence of the Fraser and Lower Fountain Rivers.
  • Old maps are said to also have Rivière du Pont ‘Bridge River’ in the Fountain area, which suggests the very nearby place still known as Bridge River. (Wikipedia claims without evidence that it might be Rivière du Font as a synonym of ‘Fountain River’, but I haven’t located evidence for use of such a noun.)
  • Pavilion, BC is le(s) pavillion(s) ‘the flag(s)’.
  • Rock(y) Island, WA as I seem to recall was Ile des Rochers (and apparently in 1841 Isle des Pierres).
  • all the Coulées in our region including Grand(e) Coulée go back to MFr for a ‘gulch’.
  • Boistfort, WA is bois fort, a MFr term for certain tree species.
  • Pe Ell, WA is a man’s MFr name, Pierre.
  • Quinze Sous River, WA is ‘fifteen sous’ ~ ‘fifteen cents’. It’s the Newaukum River.
  • (Des)chutes River is the ‘river of the falls’; the Chutes was the French name of the now Chinook Jargon-named Tumwater, WA (‘waterfall(s)’).
  • The Dalles, OR are ‘the slabs’ of rock; translated as the ‘narrows’ by Ross Cox.
  • The two Grand(e) Rondes in OR are the ‘big holes’, to use the fur-trade era American frontier expression for valleys sheltered all around.
  • Rivière du Malheur, OR is ‘bad-luck river’.
  • Terrebonne, OR is ‘good land’.
  • Rickreal, OR is la créole ‘the creole / native-born one’.
  • Lake Labish, OR is la biche ‘elk’.
  • Siskiyou Mountains, OR & CA are from Plains Cree for ‘spotted horse’, named by Red River fur trade workers.
  • All the Buttes in our region are ‘a small hill’.
  • Ross Cox (an Astorian, thus early on the scene) is a fine source of information on place names as well as various expressions of the Canadians; he writes these in standard French because he (or a ghost author) is apparently literate in that language. He makes note that prior to Fort Vancouver, “French is the language in general use among traders in this country, owing to most [sic] part of their workingmen being Canadians” (page 84).
  • The Grande Rapide on the Columbia near the mouth of the Walla Walla R.
  • Les Terres Jaunes in the vicinity of Yakima, WA (‘the yellow lands’) were the “marl-banks”.
  • La Prairie du Thé apparently in WA, across from the mouth of the Willamette R., is ‘tea meadow’ or ‘tea prairie’ after a species of mint that the Canadians liked brewing up to drink.
  • Pacquin’s Rapid on the Columbia R. (WA).
  • Rocky Island Rapid on the Columbia R. (WA).
  • La Rapide d’Ignace  on the Columbia R. (WA) near Fort Okanagan.
  • The First Dalles (“or narrows”) above Kettle Falls, WA.
  • Rivière de Beliers is ‘ram river’ “from some mountain sheep having been killed near the spot by our hunter some years before”.
  • A part of the Columbia above this is called the Straits; presumably les étroits in MFr.
  • The Second Dalles.
  • The Upper Dalles.
  • The grand traverse with its powerful current that the men have to walk through hand in hand.
  • The grand côte “or principal hill which we have to ascend in passing from the Columbia”.
  • L’encampement du fusil called thus by the party’s hunters.
  • The Traverse du Trou on the banks of “the Rocky Mountain river” is the ‘hole crossing’.
  • La Prairie de la Vache ‘cow meadow’ because it had been a buffalo hunting place formerly…this is before there were any domesticated cattle here, you understand.
  • Le Rocher de Miette near Jasper, Alberta, a name that’s cause some confusion and controversy — it’s probably not ‘crumb rock’ but ‘Miette’s rock’ (or after a Canadian with a similar-sounding name). Plenty of places were named after individuals habitually associated with them, unlike Anglo-American official names, which often referenced political or historical figures.
  • La Rivière à la Boucane in Alberta ~ ‘smok(ing) river’.
  • Rocher de Boule, BC is ‘ball rock’.
  • Tête Jaune Cache, BC is the ‘hiding place’ (for supplies) of the man with the MFr name ‘Yellowhead’.
  • Bonaparte, BC has indications of having gotten this name from contact between Métis and the Secwépemc Salish people; Ross Cox page 130 discusses a Hawai’ian fur trade employee at Fork Okinagan known as Bonaparte.
  • The Grand Teton Mountains are often said to be named from MFr.
  • François Lake / Lac des François/des Français, BC is ‘lake of the French i.e. Canadian people’.
  • Alexander Caulfield Anderson 1858 gives a map of fur-trade era interior BC, from which I got a number of toponyms:
  • BC’s Rivière aux Chapeaux is ‘hat river’.
  • Mauvais Rocher ‘bad rock’.
  • Dalles du Mort ‘deadly slabs’.
  • Rivière a la Grise (?sp?) might be ‘river of the grey one’ (female, a horse if you ask me; judging from Ross Cox’s book, these guys were constantly talking about their French-named horses).
  • Rivière aux Serpen(t)s is one of the streams called the ‘snake river’.
  • Rivière Trepannier [sic] / R. a Trepagnier [sic] is ‘drill river’ (due to its strong current? or some other reason?).
  • Campement du Chevreuil is a typical MFr PNW place name for an activity done there: ‘deer(-hunting) camp’.
  • Campement des Femmes, then, is ‘women camp’…
  • Rocher de la Biche is ‘elk rock’.
  • Le Lac a l’Eau Bleue is ‘bluewater lake’.
  • Boat Encampment, BC = Campement des Berges ‘barge camp’
  • Rivière aux Canots, BC is ‘canoe river’.
  • Rivière à Joseph, BC is ‘Joseph’s river’.
  • I.S. MacLaren 2001 gives a marvelous tally of many toponyms within a relatively limited geographical area:
  • Lac en Long / Lac la Hache, BC is ‘stretched-out lake’, I figure / ‘hatchet lake’.
  • Lac des Chevaux, BC is ‘horse lake’.
  • Lac Tranquil, BC is ‘calm lake’.
  • Park Rill, BC (from Fr parc ‘corral’) is a small stream.
  • Fourche de Chemin, BC is ‘fork in the road’.
  • Lac du Chien, BC = Skaha Lake = ‘dog lake’ (sqáx̣aʔ is dog in Nsilx / Okanagan Salish).
  • Bute de Sable / Côte de Sable, BC is ‘sand mound’ / ‘sand bank’.
  • Rivière au Thé, BC is ‘tea river’, perhaps for its appearance but not a place where Labrador tea / the Métis “muskeg tea” grows.
  • The Barrière (entrance) of the Okanagan River, BC; also Barrière River, BC = ‘fence’, perhaps a place of traditional Native deer-hunting chutes.
  • Lac du Rocher / Lac des Rochers / Lac de Roches, BC = ‘rock lake’.
  • Grand Muskeg, BC is ‘big swamp’.
  • Les Pineux, BC is ‘the prickly ones’, possibly the prickly pear cactus that grows abundantly in the area.
  • Le Barge, BC is ‘the barge’ or flat-bottom boat.
  • Rivière de Liards, central BC (the Cariboo one) is ‘the cottonwood river’.
  • Campement du Poulin, BC is ‘Colt Camp’.
  • Grande Prairie, BC is ‘big meadow’.
  • Lac Ronde, BC is ’round lake’.
  • Rivière de Talle d’Epinette, BC is another typically navigation- and activity-oriented MFr name, the ‘Spruce Tiller River’. Perhaps a good place to make a supply of boat tillers?
  • Rivière de Borgnes, BC is ‘Blindmen’s River’.
  • Rivière de [sic] Aguires, BC … after someone’s personal name, like R. à Joseph above?
  • Rivière au [sic] Paquets, BC is ‘the river with all those packages [of furs]’.
  • Rivière la Biche, BC is ‘elk river’.
  • L’Anse au Sable, BC (Westbank) is ‘sandy cove’.
  • Rivière d’Ours, BC is ‘bear river’.
  • Rivière a Jacques et du Borgne, BC is ‘James and the blind man’s river’.
  • L’Arbre Seul, BC is ‘the lone tree’.
  • Rivière Prairie de Nicholas, BC is ‘river of Nicola‘s meadow’.
  • Rivière de la [sic] Fruite [sic], BC is ‘fruit river’ and “la fruite” appears to reflect Métis pronunciation diverging from standard French in the typical way of preserving /t/ at the end of a word.
  • Rivière la [sic?] Cendri [sic], BC is ‘roan-horse river’, also indicating MFr pronunciation where standard French correlates with MFr i; compare Chinuk Wawa’s inheritance of this horse term.
  • “The Fort Okanagan – Fort Vancouver stretch of the brigade route was called des porteurs, for in places, such as portages, the brigaders had to carry the property on their own backs.” Gibson 101
  • Campement du Sable OR is ‘sandy camp’.
  • Riviere au Boudin, OR is ‘Pudding River’ because of the meal prepared from freshly killed elk there on one memorable occasion.
  • Jolie Prairie, WA is ‘pretty meadow’.
  • Liard (‘Cottonwood’) River, northern BC & YT.
  • Another Prairie du Thé was near Fort Nisqually in WA, according to the 1841 Wilkes Expedition.
  • Point de Bois ‘woods point’ was near modern Entiat, WA.
  • Lac d’Ours ‘(Great) Bear Lake’, NWT
  • Trembleur Lake, central BC — is this the ‘quaking’ aspen?
  • Lac la Martre, NWT ‘marten’ (the fur-bearing animal)
  • Carcajou River, NWT ‘wolverine’ in Canadian French
  • Lac de Gras, NWT ‘fat lake’
  • Gros Cap, NWT ‘big cape/point’ (on a lake)
  • Travaillant River, NWT ‘worker’
  • Belle Isle (now Eagle), AK on the Yukon border ‘nice island’

We also have to include as Métis place names those that tell us where these communities lived, such as:

  • French Gulch, CA
  • French Prairie, OR
  • Frenchtown, WA
  • Frenchtown, MT

Bonus fact:

When we read David Thompson’s 1811 journal of the first voyage from New Caledonia (interior BC) to the mouth of the Columbia River, in a group that was mostly Canadians/Métis, we find no French place names yet.

Of course.

These folks had never been along the lower Columbia River before.

But, by the time of Ross Cox’s journal notes, just a couple of years later, the voyageurs had learned the terrain well.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
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