Where the hell is Oregon, and what the hell were the French doing there?

The Pacific Northwest. It includes parts of Northern California, Washingto State, Idaho, and Canada. Map from http://www.city-data.com/forum/general-u-s/623470-my-map-pacific-northwest.html
The Pacific Northwest. It includes parts of Northern California, Washington State, Idaho, and Canada. Map from http://www.city-data.com/forum/general-u-s/623470-my-map-pacific-northwest.html

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest–an obscure, but special, part of the United States. You can tell that you’re someplace different as soon as you get off the plane here—the pine trees covering the sides of the valleys; the rivers and their wide variety of bridges; the blackberries growing by the side of the road everyplace that they’re not actively suppressed. Driving through the area, there’s something else that marks this part of the country as different: the Native American place names. Many of the tribally-derived place names here are immediately identifiable as being from the Pacific Northwest by their consonant clusters—Chilkat, Klamath, Clackamas, Klickitat—reflexes of the articulatorily complex consonants of many of the Native American languages from which they come. The Pacific Northwest native cultures were very different from the stereotypical Plains Indian culture that you probably know from cowboy movies—no teepees, no horses, no buffalo.  Many of the Pacific Northwest tribes lived primarily from the rivers and the sea.  Their art featured very distinctively stylistic forms from nature—fish, birds, animals—often carved. The famous “totem poles” are from here.

Namgis_(Native_American)._Thunderbird_Transformation_Mask,_19th_century
Pacific Northwest Native American mask, from the Namgis tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw ethnic group. 19th century. Brooklyn Museum. Licensed under “No restrictions” via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org.

Everyone knows about the American explorers Lewis and Clark coming through here. What people are less aware of is that there was once a heavy French presence in this part of the country—not settlers, but traders. From the 1500s to the 1800s, animal furs were one of the major exports of the North American continent, and the French were in it from the beginning.  Europeans typically traded for their furs from Native hunters.  In the American educational system, we typically mention very briefly the role of the French in exploring the Mississippi River valley, then move on to other things, and we completely ignore the connections between some of the best-loved figures of our early history and France. The famous frontiersman Davy Crockett (what American schoolchild cannot sing “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”?) was from the de Crocketagne family. The mythical giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan’s name is thought to have come from Canadian French. In the Pacific Northwest, we still see remnants of the French role in our settlement in place names, and in the name of the occasional Native American tribe. Let’s see what some of those mean:

  • la chute: a fall, a drop—or a waterfall. In the “waterfall” sense, this word shows up in many place names in the Pacific Northwest. The Deschutes River in Oregon was originally called the Rivière des Chutes, due to the Celilo Falls. Deschutes County, the Deschutes National Forest, and other places in Oregon and Washington State take their names from it.
  • la cascade: a waterfall.  This is the source of the name of the Cascade Mountain Range, a long chain of mountains that goes through much of the Pacific Northwest.
  • la dalle: various meanings, including a slab or flagstone of rock. In the time of the fur trade, French-Canadians used it to refer to rapids. The Dalles is a small city in Oregon named for some nearby rapids on the Columbia River. (In a bit of bizarreness, in 1984, 751 people in The Dalles came down with food poisoning after some Rajneeshees put salmonella bacteria in the salad bars of 10 restaurants there, hoping to knock out lots of voters so that Rajneeshee candidates would win the local elections.)
  • le malheur: misfortune, tragedy. The Malheur River in Oregon, along with Malheur Lake and Malheur County, was named by French Canadians during the fur trade.
  • percer: to pierce, and a lot of related meanings, such as to penetrate. The Nez Perce tribe, which covered parts of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Montana, was originally referred to as the Nez Percé (“pierced nose”) people by French Canadian fur traders. (According to Wikipedia, the real “pierced nose” people were the Chinook tribe, but the name has stuck.)
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