Friday, January 04, 2008

On 'Caucus'

As I was watching the Iowa results last night, a friend asked me what the Latin root of the word 'caucus' was. I had no idea, but vaguely remembered knowing at some point in the distant past that 'caucus,' while sounding vaguely Latin [or Greek] in origin, wasn't. So off to the OED I went, and found this etymological explanation:

"[Arose in New England: origin obscure. Alleged to have been used in Boston U.S. before 1724; quotations go back to 1763. Already in 1774 Gordon (Hist. Amer. Rev.) could obtain no ‘satisfactory account of the origin of the name’. Mr. Pickering, in 1816, as a mere guess, thought it ‘not improbable that caucus might be a corruption of caulkers', the word “meetings” being understood’. For this, and the more detailed statement quoted in Webster, there is absolutely no evidence beyond the similarity of sound; and the word was actually in use before the date (1770) of the event mentioned in Webster. Dr. J. H. Trumbull (Proc. Amer. Philol. Assoc. 1872) has suggested possible derivation from an Algonkin word cau´-cau-as´u, which occurs in Capt. Smith's Virginia 23, as Caw-cawaassough ‘one who advises, urges, encourages’, from a vb. meaning primarily ‘to talk to’, hence ‘to give counsel, advise, encourage’, and ‘to urge, promote, incite to action’. For such a derivation there is claimed the general suitability of the form and sense, and it is stated that Indian names were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England; but there appears to be no direct evidence.]"

Then, as if on cue, a post from J.L. Bell over at Boston 1775 came across the transom. That 1763 quotation mentioned above, the first known use of the word 'caucus,' was from a diary entry written by [drum roll please] John Adams. He wrote in February, 1763:

Boston Feby. 1763. This day learned that the Caucas Clubb meets at certain Times in the Garret of Tom Daws, the Adjutant of the Boston Regiment. He has a large House, and he has a moveable Partition in his Garrett, which he takes down and the whole Clubb meets in one Room.

There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other. There they drink Phlip I suppose, and there they choose a Moderator, who puts Questions to the Vote regularly, and select Men, Assessors, Collectors, Wardens, Fire Wards, and Representatives are Regularly chosen before they are chosen in the Town. ..."

Bell's got more on the process, and promises another post today on the origins of the Boston caucus. I'll post a link to that when it's up. [Update: John's follow-up post is here; a third post covers three of the possible origins of the word].

1 comment:

Doug Beattie said...

Regarding the origins of the word caucus, I came across an example of how the process of "caucus" was used with one tribe on Long Island, even into the 20th century.

I am reading the book "The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island" by John Strong. It is particularly interesting to me because our family ancestor, Catoneras, was a Montaukett Indian, born some time in the early 1600's. She married Jan Cornelius van Tassell who had recently come from Holland. Catoneras, whose name may also mean "heather flower," and Jan were in some ways the "Adam" and "Eve" of part of our family in America. My grandfather Wilbur Boyer's mother was Ella van Tassell, a direct descendent of Catoneras and Jan van Tassell.

The author, John Strong, gives the history of the Montauketts, and then builds up to describing a 1904 court battle the remaining Montaukett people had with developers whom they argued grabbed their land from them with dubious legal agreements.

At one point in the trial, the lawyers called to the stand Maria Pharaoh-Banks who was the mother of the leader of the remaining Montauketts. Her testimony "confirmed the existence of a system of tribal leadership with an established procedure for succession." Her son, Wyandank, had been chosen in the traditional manner of native Americans, by a consensus decision [caucus]. Then both the lawyer for the Montauketts, a man named Maas,and the lawyer for the developers, Mr. Blackmar, asked her more questions about tribal leadership. One of them asked her if her son, the Montaukett chief Wyandank "bossed people around."

Here I quote from the book:

"The question puzzled her. 'I don't know what you mean by bossing. Yes sir he would tell people, give advice, but I don't know what you mean by bossing. . .' Although neither Maas nor Blackmar appreciated it, Maria had given a textbook example of leadership in small-scale traditional societies where the sachems or chiefs governed by persuasion rather than by force." [ Strong, p. 134] A footnote to this particular event is that even the way the word "boss" was used in this early 20th century exchange between lawyer and defendent is uniquely American: Boss came into American English language from the Dutch word baas, which means "uncle." It took on its meaning of "master" uniquely in America, at the time when the Dutch colony of Niew Amsterdam was just being established. Even the Oxford English Dictionary comments "An American equivalent of 'master' in the sense of employer of labour; applied also to a business manager, or one who has a right to give orders. In England, only in workman's slang, or humorously..."

Back in the 17th century, Catoneras' father, Wyandanch, was well-known in his day as a great leader. Wyandank, Maria Pharaoh-Banks' son I mentioned above as the 20th century Montaukett chief was named after that 17th century sachem. In those tumultuous years when Europeans first met native American Indians, Wyandanch showed his skills with his ability to negotiate both with the first English settlers on eastern Long Island and also with other Indian tribes. He worked out these agreements in the traditional manner of his people - by "cau' -cau-as 'u." It was the way my American Indian ancestors did things, and we still do it today, as we saw so dramatically in Iowa.

May the caucus be with you! We are in process of choosing the "big boss."

Doug Beattie