Furs at HBC replica fort at Fort Langley, B. C.

This selections of furs is displayed at Fort Langley, but the same furs would be found at any HBC fort in the territory.

It was a tradition among the voyageurs to use nicknames. As all of us who read a little British Columbia history know, the Native chief Tranquille, who frequented the Kamloops post at the time Sam Black was in charge, was given his nickname for his calm demeanor. In his “History of the Northwest Coast,” Alexander Caulfield Anderson explains how Tranquille got his name: 

On his return from Okanogan with the brigade in the autumn of 1841 Mr. Black as usual took up his residence in the old Fort Kamloops. Among the surrounding chiefs there was one who bore the name of Tranquille, a name which had been given him by Canadian voyageurs owing to his suavity of demeanor and his invariable quietude.

James Robert Anderson, son of A.C. Anderson, explains how both the Natives and the animals at Fort Alexandria got their names and nicknames. This is a strong indication of how the voyageurs used descriptive names for everything and everyone:

I may remark that except to our parents, we the children spoke French Canadian to every one, hence the name of Patte Croche for a horse, another whose name I remember was Misere de Monde, an untameable beast with a most vicious temper; and a train dog on account of a peculiar habit he had was called Cochon; my own horse was named Petit Centre being a Strawberry Roan; an Indian who frequented the fort a good deal, on account of his rotund form, was dubbed Gros Ventre; another on account of his physiognomy was called Tout Laid, many other nicknames which I have forgotten were applied to the various persons and animals attached to the fort. [J.R. Anderson, Memoirs, p. 50, at BCA but this copy in my possession]

James also described one Native at Fort Alexandria, “an evil looking Indian who went by the cheerful designation of “The Murderer,” why I do not know…” I wrote about The Murderer here:

Jack Nisbet struggled with this when he wrote about one of the Natives that David Thompson met, a man who the voyageurs called Ugly Head:

Two days after Finan McDonald departed, the Old Chief finally made his appearance, accompanied by the Flat Bow chief Ugly Head, “so named for his hair curling.” 

A descendant of “Ugly Head” confirms Thompson’s account in a sidebar on same page:

Ugly Head… is remembered as rolling his unruly hair on a stick and pressing it tight against his forehead, the way some people do with curlers today… She believes that “Bushy Bangs” or “Big Head” would be a better translation of her ancestor’s tribal name of Kwililnuqmi’keik. [Jack Nisbet, The Mapmakers Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau, [WSU Press, 2005] p.47.

Now I already knew about the nicknames, not only from James R. Anderson’s quote, above, but from another source. Do you think I could find it? Five years later (more or less) I did, when I re-read Carolyn Pudrochny’s Making the Voyageur World: Travelers and Traders in the North American Fur Trade [U of Toronto Press: 2006] p.78. This is only one of the things she has to say about nicknames, and in this quote, the word “bourgeois” refers to the North West Company gentlemen:

Ross Cox recalled: “It is laughable to hear the nominal distinctions [voyageurs] are obliged to adopt in reference to many of the partners and clerks, who have the same surname. They are Mr. Mackenzie, le rouge; Mr. Mackenzie, le blanc; Mr. Mackenzie, le borgne; Mr. Mackenzie, le picote, Mr. McDonald, le grand; Mr. McDonald, le pretre; Mr. McDonald, le bras croche; and so on, according to the colour of the hair the size, or other personal peculiarity of each individual.” He reported that voyageurs called one of the agents, Mr. Shaw, Monsieur Le Chat (Mr. Cat), and one voyageur who met Shaw in Montreal referred to his children as les petits Chatons (the little kittens.) In the 1850’s Johan Georg Kohl noted that old French Canadians living around Lake Superior referred to bears as shaggy bourgeois. In this case it is difficult to tell if this designation was meant to note the human qualities of bears, insult bears, or acknowledge the power of bourgeois.

So this tendency to give nicknames to everyone, and especially to those whose name was not easy to pronounce, can really confuse people who are attempting to find their Native ancestor’s name among the people the fur traders traded with. But the Natives also used nicknames, and as you know Alexander Caulfield Anderson had a nickname given to him by the Natives that surrounded Fort Colvile. You will find the quote in the caption under the image on page 159 of my book, The Pathfinder:

The Interior Salish who camped near Fort Colvile called Angus McDonald Oops-chin, probably because of his whiskers. Anderson also earned a Salishan name that is difficult to translate — S’gath-poose.

The story comes from Christina McDonald, daughter of Angus McDonald of Fort Colvile. It is found in “The Daughter of Angus MacDonald,” p. 115, at  

For all his years in the Northwest, father [Angus McDonald] was never weaned from his Scotch habits and ways. Once when I was with him in Victoria he engaged a coach and, taking Big McLean, a bag pipe player, we set off to pay a visit to s’gatch poose Anderson, a fellow countryman and old acquaintance who lived near Esquimalt, and was so named by the Indians on account of a gathering or scar on his cheek. He was an old Hudson’s By Company man formerly from Fort Colvile.

Sometimes the Natives happily adopted the names that the HBC men gave them. One of these was the chief of the Songhees, who lived across the water from Fort Victoria. As young James Anderson, a student at the Fort Victoria school, wrote in later years:

The Chief of the Stamis tribe at this time and for many years after was named ‘Freezy’ in adaptation of the French word ‘frizer’ to curl, in reference to his mop of closely frizzled hair, an inheritance from his Kanaka progenitor. His proper name was Chee-ah-thluk. He was a peaceable old chap and ever lived in amity with the whites during his somewhat lengthy reign. Some sensational writers have credited him with fictitious attributes; not the least is that of his possessing and killing off many wives; this is pure fiction as I can vouch from personal knowledge. He died in 1864. Like all natives he loved rum and led the simple life. If he wanted a salmon he had to catch it like any other of his subjects and as for clams it was the duty of the Queen to dig them up. A lady newly arrived and unaccustomed to the peculiarities of the savage, on asking to be informed of the sex of a child in arms was answered by ocular demonstration. [James Robert Anderson, Memoirs, p. 171]

So the use of nicknames sometimes makes it hard to discover who the Native man you are speaking of is — and more importantly, what his real name is. However, sometimes the name identifies the man clearly, as in the case of “Blackeye, the Similkameen,” and “Capot Blanc,” [see last post]. Tsilaxitsa is almost always referred to as “N’Kwala’s nephew,” and Selixt-asposem as “N’Kwala’s Son.” [I haven’t written that story yet on this blog. Perhaps it is time to now do so]. Anyway, N’Kwala had many sons and many nephews but, as far as I am aware, these two are the only two described by these words, by the HBC men at Kamloops. I have to admit however, I can be proven wrong on this statement, and am happy to hear from you if I am incorrect. 

Enjoy the stories.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved. 

7 thoughts on “Nicknames

  1. Joanne Peterson

    My GGG Grandfather Basile Brousseau was the dairyman at Fort Langley, born about 1808 in Quebec, and first a voyageur who made his way west and known also as dit LaFleur. Based on much of what I read, I thought it was probably an ‘affectionate’ name for him – in that he was anything but beautiful. But imagine my great surprise to see this old IGI search that seems to suggest his GGG Grandfather, the first of the line to come to Canada, was AKA LaFleur?

    From LDS-IGI search: Francois Brousseau dit LaFleur Compact Disc #35 Pin #752921 Sex: M
    Event(s): Birth: bef 1654 Place: Parents:
    Marriage(s): Spouse: Francoise Gribault Disc #35 Pin #753074 Marriage: bef 1666 Place:

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Yes, dit names are important, but I am not finding your ancestor under either name in Bruce Watson’s Lives Lived West of the Divide. Do you belong to the Children of Fort Langley Facebook page?

  2. Joanne Peterson

    Do you mean the Children of Fort Langley? Yes, I am a member.
    Bruce spells his name Bazile – on pages 248/249 of the PDF version or 229 of the actual book I believe. It says, in part:
    Brousseau (LaFleur), Bazile [variation: Brazil, Bazil Brusseau, Brasseau] (c. 1810-?) (Mixed descent}
    Birth: Pontigny, Montreal, Lower Canada – c. 1810
    Death: possibly Fraser Valley, British Columbia
    Fur Trade employee
    HBC Steersman, Fort Langley (1833-1834); Steersman, Fort Vancouver (1834-1835); Middleman, Fort Vancouver (1836-1836); Middleman, Fort Langley (1836-1845); Dairyman, Fort Langley (1834-1859).
    He also had a son with the same name – born about 1839 – who was also a dairyman at the Fort.

  3. Sharon Syrette

    Interesting – names can be confusing to researchers, and every bit of new info is helpful. We do a game with youth who are learning details of their family tree; can be quite funny when they see a picture and nickname and have to guess why that nickname was used. Lots of good examples here that we can use. Thanks.

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      I understand that Black-eye was named such because his band marked their slaves with their slaves with a “black eye” of some sort. I do not know if that is true, whether it was a tattoo, or any other method, or even if they had slaves. But its a story I heard.