[PEHL’-ton] or [PELL-tun] — noun, adjective.

Meaning: A fool; foolish; crazy; absurd; unwise; hapless; insane; an insane person; imbecilic.

Origin: Hudson’s Bay employee by the name of Archibald Pelton. At least one source suggests that his surname may have been ‘Felton’ or even ‘Filion’, and between French and English pronunciation of that name, the local First Nations reproduced it as pilio, pilian, and at last pehlten.

In the early 19th century, a man named  Archibald Pelton (or perhaps, Felton) went “crazy”, and ever since his name has been used in Chinook Jargon to describe that condition. The details of his life are varied and second-hand, but the following can be agreed on:

Born to a Massachusetts farming family in 1791, eighteen-year-old Archibald Pelton found his way to St. Louis, where he signed on with the Missouri Fur Company on a keelboat voyage to the headwaters of the Missouri River. Fellow trapper Thomas James, in an 1846 memoir about the expedition, described Pelton as “a jovial popular fellow” who entertained the brigade with his songs and sermons. “At every stopping place,” James wrote, “Pelton held a meeting for the mock trial of offenders and exhorted us in the New England style to mend our courses and eschew sin.” Such eccentricities may have contributed to Pelton’s later being nicknamed “Judge.”

James remembered Pelton as having a peculiar face, especially eyes that “resembled those of a bear.” One day, while Pelton was checking traps, James reported, “he was attacked by a large bear, which…stood over him with his eyes fixed on his face as if observing his features; Pelton screamed and yelled in a most unearthly manner, and his new acquaintance, as if frightened by his appearance and voice…growled, and then walked off.” James added, whimsically, that Pelton figured his “bearish eyes” drove the grizzly away.

Pelton and his group also endured ferocious winter storms, severe hunger, and raids by the Siksika (Blackfoot). When the trapping party had dwindled to only a few dozen men, mainly through desertion, Pelton remained, helping establish fur-stations on the Jefferson River in present-day Montana and the Henry’s Fork of the Snake in present-day Idaho. By spring 1811, however, Pelton somehow was separated from the expedition. 

Fort Astoria.

Fort Astoria.

Members of the Pacific Fur Company, led by Wilson Price Hunt, discovered him in January 1812 living among the Niimíipuu (Nez Perces) First Nation on the Snake River. Judging him “deranged,” they took him to Fort Astoria near the Oregon coast, where over the next eighteen months he was described in the company log as “our madman,” “our strange fellow,” and an “object of compassion.” Although Pelton strayed into the forest for days at a time and lived on berries, he was deemed sane enough to work at a sturgeon fishing camp up the Columbia River and in the coal pit and tobacco gardens near the fort. When the North West Company bought Fort Astoria and renamed it Fort George in 1813, Pelton stayed on, appearing on company rosters as the resident “fool” and “idiot.”

Mr. Pelton’s story came to an end when he was murdered at a coal pit with his own ax in late 1814 or early 1815, as described by Ross Cox in Adventures on the Columbia River. According to Cox, two Tillamooks were apprehended after the killing and were tried by a panel of jurists made up of Nor’Westers and Native elders. Cox described “Judge” as “the most harmless individual belonging to [their] establishment” and claimed that the murder was a revenge killing gone awry. Pelton reportedly had been misidentified as a man who had injured an Indian with a sword some months earlier in a dispute over pilfered goods. The trial ended in convictions, and the two accused men were clumsily executed by firing squad on the grounds in front of the fort. Historian J. Neilson Barry called it the first murder trial recorded in Oregon, although it was not yet an American territory, and Archibald Pelton would become a major study regarding mental health and treatment in Oregon. In addition to these historical footnotes, Pelton would be memorialized in a most unusual way; his odd behavior—and perhaps his tragic demise and its dramatic aftermath—made such an impression on Columbia River residents that his name would live on in Chinook Wawa, gradually metamorphosing to mean a person of disordered mind.


It is important to remember that in Chinook Wawa, “pelton” does not convey a sense of danger, as is the case with the Chinook Wawa word “lemolo” (wild/crazy), but instead describes something that deviates from the expected norm in an absurd or unexpectedly negative way. As usual, context is important, as telling someone “hyas pelton mika” (you are very silly) will come across different from calling them “pelton man” (idiot).

The expression “kahkwa pelton” is incredibly varied, and can mean “like a fool”, “foolish” “silly”, “foolhardy”, and “folly”. It can also mean “stupid”, though the somewhat more poetic expression “halo latate” (no head) can also be used for this term. The expression “Nika hyas pelton tumtum kahkwa” literally means “I am very foolish to think so”, but is more to the meaning of “I was out of my mind thinking like that”.

“Pelton” can also imply some level of duplicity or unexpected outcome, as seen in “mamook pelton” (to cheat/disappoint) and “chako pelton” (to become foolish/ to be cheated), as in “nika chako pelton” (I am cheated).

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