Modeste Demers Ethnographic Descriptions of the Tribes, 1839

Modeste Demers was assigned with the Oregon Territory, in 1837, at the same time as Francois Norbert Blanchet and they traveled together overland to their assignment in canoes and on horseback, in Hudson’s Bay trading party.  Along the way, Demers and Blanchet take time to have short missions with the tribes and baptize more than 100 people. Demers set up his initial residence in Fort Vancouver and spent three months learning Chinuk Wawa (Jargon), which was the language the missionaries used to instruct nearly every tribe they encountered in the region.

In the following early report of the tribes encountered by Demers and Blanchet, we see that Demers is more concerned to learn the languages to communicate with the tribes than anything else. He does not at this time have first-hand accounts of all the tribes and the opinions he gathers are about the overwhelming savagery of some, like the Kalapuyans. The information about the epidemics is quite interesting suggesting a measure of superiority by the Catholics that their lives were better, free of disease because their lifestyles were more civilized. It is almost like Demers is mixing the privilege he holds about his Catholic religion with the new scientific theories of social evolution, new during this period of time, that the Natives were suffering so much because of their debauched and savage lifeways. Who says that theology is in opposition with science?!

Fort Vancouver, John Mix Stanley

Demers attention to learning Chinook jargon is the one bright spot in his report. He really seems to want to study it and begins an analysis that helps him completely learn the language in only a few months. This will thereafter aid in the spread of religious conversion in the region to many tribes that have full use of the jargon, or even partial use, as they will be able to understand the principles being addressed.

Native peoples in Demers account are extremely interested in learning about the new religion, there never seems to be an outright refusal, except perhaps the Kalapuyans because of their savage thieving ways. This interest makes complete sense when considering that all of the tribes had gone through a massive epidemic, or two (small pox and malaria for some) and many people had died perhaps making others question the power and legitimacy of their own shamen who could not heal anyone afflicted. The Catholics and other missionaries came to tribes telling them that their savage spiritualities are false, their shamen charlatans, and that only through civilization and Christianization would they have the faith to survive the ailments. Recall that in this time period, many people believed that diseases were a problem of faith and notions of viruses and bacterial infections were in their very early phases of discovery. Many people really believed that illness and sicknesses were caused by bad humours and many Europeans thought that even bathing caused sicknesses. Which in some regions may have been the case as poisons and industrial impurities were being drained into rivers and streams. It is important to note that most people did not have plumbing in their houses, and did not have access to clean water.

Astoria, Agate

In tribes, however, religious persons who proposed a cure for an illness that resulted in the death of people, proved that they were ineffectual and perhaps were thought to have even caused the illness, they would be subject to retribution by the family of the deceased. So for a time, the proposed conversion to the faith of the Catholics had great appeal, but within a decade when people native people continued dying of the new diseases many tribal people fell away from the new church’s. The Whitman’s ran afoul of this when they told their flock of natives that they could survive the measles if they just had faith in the Christian God. But when Natives continued to die, retribution was the cost.

Demers notes about the slavery of women, is very interesting as well. It is the case that the tribes practiced slavery, I think he is referring to the prostitution of women, which also was a practice by the tribes. Interesting that he did not address those paying the prostitutes, most likely French-Canadian voyageurs. But slavery was in widescale practice around the world at this time, and much of the wealth of the eastern US, even Britain and Canada at this time was made on the backs of slave labor, either chattel slavery or indentured servitude, or other forms of slavery, even economic slavery, and the extremely stratified social systems of Britain, and most of Europe, which made some families be servants to the rich and wealthy for generations. Perhaps all slavery disgusted Demers, but he spoke from a place of extreme privilege.

Demers is clearly in his first few months in the region and perhaps he will feel differently in some years, perhaps not. But he and his companions and compatriots present much-flawed reasons for their work, based on their feelings of extreme superiority and at the same time denigrating Native peoples in their culture and practices that they really have not yet taken the time to understand, and likely never will.

Modeste Demers, BC archives

Rev. Modeste Demers to Rev. C.F. Cazeau, Sec’ty,  Quebec.

Vancouver, Oregon, March 1st, 1839

[selected reports]

Walla walla

Some of the chiefs of the Cayuse tribe had come together at this post to see the chiefs of the French (Canadians). All over, the same zeal and the same eagerness to know God, the same joy and satisfaction in seeing the black robes of whom they heard so much. Without being Christians, they firmly believe the truths of the religion we explained to them by the way. They speak the language of the Nez Perces which is altogether different from that of the Chaudieres and of the Flat Heads; they can converse with those of Walla walla whose language is spoken as far as Des chutes. Somewhat below are the Dalles Indians, who can speak with those of Des chutes and of the Cascades, twenty miles distant from Vancouver. a great many of the Indians speak the Chinook Jargon of which there will be mention later.


The Chinook Indians are scattered along the Columbia River from this fort down to the Pacific Ocean. Before the year 1830, they were the most numerous tribe inhabiting the banks of this river. this rendered them proud and haughty. Besides this, they were rich: but about this time came the disastrous malady known by the name of fever-and-ague [malaria] which carried a great many to their graves. In the heat of the fever, they would leap into the river in the hope of relieving them of their suffering, but they found death as quick as it was certain. It was found necessary to burn a whole village where the dead bodies piled one upon another; for the survivors were not capable of burying their dead. This calamity which God sent these Indians on account of their abominable lives, came to visit them every year, and always made some of them its victims. We are told they reformed their lives, except those who live near the fort, who are wicked and demoralized on account of their communication with the whites.  They make a shameful traffic in crime; they have female slaves whom they hire at a price to the first who asks them. They have seen us and see us yet with an indifference that makes us regret the good Indians of the Upper river, but the part of the tribe situated not far from Fort George (Now Astoria) down the river, is not as depraved, which gives us the hope of being able to Christianize them, with the assistance of Him who wills that no one should perish, but that all should come to the truth. At the very moment, I write this I learn that their chief [Concomley?], with a great many of his men, has just arrived to see the French priests. A few days ago he had sent deputies to know whether they would instruct his Indians.

The real language of the Chinook is almost unlearnable; it differs entirely from that of all the neighboring tribes; but they speak the jargon also, which is used as the medium between the Canadians and the whites in general and the Indians who are settled near the fort. the jargon is composed of words taken from different languages, disfigured in their orthography and pronunciation. It is all borrowed from different languages which makes it easy to acquire. It possesses only from four hundred to five hundred words. It has no participle: one and the same word has several meanings. For instance: Wawa, means to speak, to tell, to answer, to ask: Komtaks, means to know, to learn, to comprehend, to hear, to think and to believe: thus by adding Nawitika, certainly; we have, Nawitika Naika Kamtax Sahaletaye, I believe in God. : hence it follows that it is not easy to translate French expressions into it. We have to use paraphrases. for the last month, I know this jargon sufficiently well to give instruction and to teach the Catechism without being obliged to write them down. I have translated the Sign of the Cross and the way to give one’s heart to God. I cannot send the translation of the other prayers, as they are not quite finished. A good many of the Cascades Indians who understand their jargon, and some of the Klickitats, attend the catechism and evening prayers. in order to impress deeper upon their memory the truths contained in the Apostles Creed, I have tried to arrange it to a certain air. The Indians love music very much; they know nearly by heart the canticles that were sung at the Mass on Sunday last. I expect to learn the Klickitat language, which will be of great use in instructing this tribe and those of Des Chutes and of the Cascades, who understand it well. The greatest difficulty in learning the language spoken on this side of the mountains, consists in the pronunciation which is such, that we are, many times at a loss to find characters to represent it, as in Sahaletaye, God, hihkt, one. Time does not allow me to expatiate on this matter.

The Indians of the Cowlitz

The Indians of the Cowlitz love with reverence the missionaries who are established among them. They have a language of their own, different from that of the Chinook Indians. They also speak jargon. They are tolerably numerous but poor. They give us hopes of their conversion. After the visit of the Vicar General (Blanchet), they said to the settlers of Cowlitz: “the priests are going to stay with us; we are poor, and have nothing to give them: Tlahowiam nesaika waik ekita nesaika: We want to do something for them, we will work, make fences, and whatever they wish us to do.” Several of them came to see the missionaries at Vancouver, and expressed the most ardent desire to have them come and remain with them.

Wallamette Indians

The Vicar General (Blanchet) who passed a month among the Canadian established on this river, could not speak highly of the Indians he had seen- the Kalapooias. They were very numerous before the fevers, but are now reduced to a small number, which keeps decreasing every day. They are poor and lazy; thieving may be considered as their predominant passion. they wish to keep away from the missionaries as much as the Cowlitz Indians wish to be near them. Hardly any of them were seen by the Vicar General at the chapel assisting at the instruction. But it seems we might succeed better among the different tribes of this nation who are settled on the tributaries of the Upper Wallamette. From these they take their different names. I learn that there are fourteen or fifteen different dialects spoken by these tribes; they are not so essentially different but that they can understand each other. Moreover, the Chinook jargon is spoken among the Kalapooias.


Blanchet, Francis  Norbert, Historical Sketches of the Catholic Church in Oregon, During the past forty years, Catholic Sentinel Press 1878, Google Books digital copy. pp 57-60

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