1861: When Métis languages (plural) met in the Tsilhqot’in

Why would a Protestant preach in French in the Chilcotin country in 1861?


Klatsassin the skeptic (image credit: biographi.ca)

It’s pretty clear from my research that this was due to the huge importance of BC Métis French as the existing lingua franca. This is the “French of the Mountains” that I’ve written of many times by now.

Here’s a BC map in two parts that I’ve shown my readers before. In the upper part, the 5 locations in the lower right square are fur-trade establishments in Dakelh Dene and Tsilhqot’in country, as are those in the top-central rectangle of the lower part. Around all of these, MFr use flourished until Chinook Jargon arrived:



B.5 is Fort Alexandria (est. 1821); B.37 is Fort Chilcotin (1829 or 1836-44) (Image credit: Hudsons Bay Company Archives)

In 1861, Chinook Jargon, the other Pacific Northwest Métis language, was just coming into use in interior British Columbia, due to especially the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes.

To reach a Tsilhqot’in Native audience, R.C. Lundin Brown had to use his French (surely the educated, literary variety oriented towards Europe) with BC MFr interpreters.

This in turn had to be put into the Tsilhqot’in Dene language as well as Chinuk Wawa; “the Chilcotin” long remained less acculturated to English-speaking newcomers’ ways than did other regions of the province.

Here’s a published account of RCL Brown’s efforts at Fort Alexandria, 19 years after the pioneering work of Father Modeste Demers (who was a Chinook Jargon expert!) and 16 years after Father John Nobili, both Catholics:

chilcotin fotm

rcl brown 2

Nobili may not have started the Prophet Dance among the Tsilhqot’in, but his influence was still discernible sixteen years later, when a Protestant missionary named R.C. Lundin Brown went to preach to a group of them near Fort Alexandria in 1861. Brown spoke in French, which was translated into Chinook Jargon and then into Tsilhqot’in. The Tsilhqot’in listened to Brown in what he described as “that attitude of deep attention which marks an Indian audience.” One man, a Tsilhqot’in named Klatsassin, seemed more attentive than the rest, never taking his eyes off the missionary. At the conclusion of Brown’s sermon, Klatsassin went up to him and began to search his clothing. Brown “hardly relished this” but asked him calmly what he wanted. Klatsassin showed the missionary a crucifix tied around his own neck and told him that it was the mark of a true priest. “I had no crucifix,” Brown said. “I was accordingly in danger of rejection as a false priest. I told him, however, that I was a ‘King George’ or English priest, not exactly like those he knew about: and that the King George priest wore no crucifix about his neck, but carried it inside his heart.” 

— pages 164-165 of “The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau” by William Turkel (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2011)

“King George” is a Chinuk Wawa adjective. It might’ve been just about the only CW known by RCL Brown at the time, easily learned because it comes from his native English language.

Today’s clipping is typical of what we find in researching Métis French in British Columbia and the broader PNW — rarely did anyone directly document what was said in MFr, but we often find its presence noted by various names.

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What do you think?