Search This Blog

Monday, February 1, 2021

What's In A Name? by Elizabeth Clements


What’s In A Name? by Elizabeth Clements

FYI: Due to unexpected circumstances this weekend, I could not finish my blog and instead stayed curled up under two blankets and a space heater. It truly made me appreciate the pioneers who left their comfortable homes in the East to travel for weeks across unfamiliar lands and establish new settlements on the prairies. My city started as a tent city when the Canadian Pacific Railroad was being built to connect the country from ocean to ocean. Thus I'm reposting one of my very first blogs from October 2018 in which I describe some places out west with unusual names.

Have you ever looked at a map and been amazed by the plethora of interesting names for places, provinces and states? It’s interesting to see  the influence of native history in the naming of many places because they were the first inhabitants of the Plains. This is probably one of several reasons why I used the beautiful Cypress Hills as the setting for my book, Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon, because it was referred to as The Thunder-Breeding-Hills by the tribes that roamed the plains leading up to this vast forest. When the Métis fur traders arrived, they called the forest les montagnes des Cypres, which was mistakenly translated into English as Cypress Hills. There are no cypress trees here, mainly pines and aspens.

For the purpose of length, I shall restrict my blog to a few places in Alberta and Saskatchewan that derived their names from translations from the numerous First Nations people that roamed the western prairie provinces and American northern western states. Firstly, though, I thought I’d mention that my country’s name, Canada, was given by the French explorer, Jacques Cartier. The Huron-Iroquois word “kanata” means a village or settlement.

In 1535, two Aboriginal youths told French explorer Jacques Cartier about the route to kanata; they were actually referring to the village of Stadacona, the site of the present-day City of Québec. For lack of another name, Cartier used the word “Canada” to describe not only the village, but the entire area controlled by its chief, Donnacona.  It wasn’t until 1791 when Canada became the official name of our country.

Alberta was a territory until it became a province of Canada in 1905 (together with Saskatchewan) and was named in honor of the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria—Princess Louise Caroline Alberta. Famous Lake Louise in Banff National Park is also given part of that royal name. Saskatchewan derived it’s name from the Saskatchewan River, which the indigenous Cree people called Kisiskatcfhewsani Sipi, meaning “the swiftly flowing river”. This same river flows through Medicine Hat but is called the South Saskatchewan River.

When Sir John A. Macdonald decided Canada needed a transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway was constructed. Many communities sprang up along the railway line. This was the case with Medicine Hat, which is the English translation of Saamis (pronounced Sa-Mus), the Blackfoot word for the “eagle feather headdress worn by medicine men”.

(tent city 1883 and railroad winter quarters)
Medicine Hat, the city where I live, has several legends for the origin of its name. The most popular version (and which I prefer) is that the Cree and Blackfoot had an altercation in the fork of the South Saskatchewan River. During the fierce battle, the Cree medicine man lost his headdress in the river; hence it became known as the place where the medicine man lost his hat.

Another legend  of this community’s name is about a mythical mer-man  river serpent named  Soy-yee-daa-beethe creator, who appeared to a hunter and instructed him to sacrifice his wife to get mystical powers, which were manifested in a special hat.” I much prefer the official one that was chosen about the Cree medicine man.

There are a few interesting historical facts about Medicine Hat. Rudyard Kipling visited  Medicine Hat circa 1905 and immortalized it by saying it’s a city with “all hell for a basement” because the city is situated over a massive reserves of gas. That’s why our city is nicknamed The Gas City.

After the 1988 winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, that city was going to dismantle the large teepee they had built for the Games. One of our local citizens and art collector heard of the plan and initiated the purchase and it was dismantled and re-erected here. It was named the Saamis Teepee and is officially the tallest teepee in the world. Here is an award-winning photograph my son, Nick, took of the teepee during a lightning show.

 Moving a little further west in the province, we have Calgary, known for the greatest outdoor show on earth, the Calgary Stampede. When the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) established a fort there in 1875, it was originally called Fort Brisebois after a NWMP officer but in 1876  Colonel James Macleod renamed the post Fort Calgary for Calgary Bay in Scotland. The Scottish name is derived from the Gaelic words Cala-ghearridh, meaning pasture by the bay.

Part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Lethbridge is located in the south-west corner of Alberta just a few miles from the Montana border and nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This area had many names, such as Coal Banks because of its rich deposits of coal. The Blackfoot called it Aksiiksahko or Steep Banks. It was renamed to Lethbridge in honor of William Lethbridge, a wealthy businessman.

However, besides coal, Lethbridge had a much earlier role when in 1869 the U.S. army outlawed alcohol trading with the Blood nation in Montana. Not to be outdone, two men set up a trading post near Lethbridge, selling mostly alcohol, river water, chewing tobacco and lye. It eventually became nicknamed Fort Whoop-Up. The NWMP took over, bringing law and order to the area. The fort stands today as a popular visitors’ stop and sometimes in the summer there are performances of the RCMP Musical Ride.

           Reesor Lake, Cypress Hills, Alberta side  Photo Nicholas Clements Photography

Moving east into southern Saskatchewan, we find the historic town of Maple Creek, which is just a few miles from the bulk of the Cypress Hills (which is the setting for my historical romance trilogy). For centuries this area was the winter quarters for the various tribes because of the abundance of firewood in the Cypress Hills. In 1875 the NWMP built Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, operating there  until 1883 when it closed the fort and set up barracks in Maple Creek because the railroad had arrived that spring. When the railroad reached the area, the crew quartered here and as was often the case, a tent town sprang up, followed quickly by families that left defunct Fort Walsh and resettled in this growing village. The community was named for the Manitoba maples that grew along the creek. It’s proximity to the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park makes it a popular tourist center for exploring the park a few miles south.

Regina is the capital of Saskatchewan but prior to 1905 this flat area was  called the District of the Assiniboine and was the buffalo hunting ground of the Cree. The Cree only killed enough buffalo for meat and used the hides for clothing and covering their teepees. They piled the bones into stacks because they believed the buffalo would return to visit the bones of their herd. They called the area Oskana-Ka-asateki or “the place where bones are piled”. Sadly, the European buffalo hunters came along and shot the buffalo by the thousands for their hides. This is a picture of the bones being loaded onto rail cars for shipment to a bone factory.

When the fur traders came to the area, they dubbed the site Pile of Bones. The community grew, especially when homesteaders could claim 160 acres of land for ten dollars. In 1882, the town elders felt the settlement should have a more dignified name and decided on Regina, this being the Latin word for queen. Regina also became the headquarters for the North-West Mounted Police for many years and remains the training ground for the Mounties to this day.

An unusual name for a community was derived from the Cree who called the saskatoon berry misâskwatômina, which grows in abundance in the area. When the railroad created a settlement, they called the village Saskatoon.  In 1883 the Toronto Methodists wanted to escape from the bad influence of alcohol in the city and decided to set up a “dry” community. They travelled via the newly constructed railroad to Regina and then made the rest of the journey by horse-drawn cart. However, they were unable to buy a large tract of land to suit their needs, and simply integrated into the community.

Another unique name for a city is Moose Jaw. The Cree called it moscâstani-sîpiy which means a warm place by the river, perhaps because of the Coteau Range that shelters the valley. The beginning of the word, moscâ sounds a bit like moose jaw. Also, some people felt the nearby creek was shaped somewhat like a moose’s jawbone. The Dominion government decided to make Moose Jaw a major terminal because of the abundance of water supplies for their steam engines.

In 2000 I was fortunate to spend a few days in Moose Jaw to visit the wolf caves that were used by cattle rustlers and horse thieves in the late 1800’s. What a treasure trove of history and landscape. I actually stood (in the pictured wolf cave) and breathed in the suffocating smell of dirt. No wonder I  could draw on my reaction to this experience and use it in Beneath A Desperado Moon, Josh and Molly's story in my Prairie Moon trilogy.

Another experience—unforgettable—was visiting the underground tunnels in Moose Jaw. For decades the city officials denied these tunnels existed until one day a city bus fell through a cave-in and the secrets were exposed. One section of the tunnels shows where Chinese hid from persecution and worked for a pittance. The living conditions affected me so deeply that it compelled me to write a poem about it and that history bothers me to this day. There is another tunnel tour that explores the prohibition days and some very interesting tales, especially a female bootlegger who took unusual risks. I so have to go back to Moose Jaw and area.

When we left Moose Jaw after four days of exploring, we drove west toward Eastend and the rolling terrain where Sitting Bull once camped out after Custer’s last stand. This inspired yet another story idea and several chapters which I would love to finish this winter.

There are so many more Canadian places of interest, but I have to rein in my enthusiasm for fear of making you go cross-eyed from so many words. Thus, I just selected a few names that are associated with the “taming of the West”. If a vacation brings you to Canada, this is just a sampling of really neat places to visit and explore. I’d love to hear about some of the names of places that resonate with you.

Excerpt Beneath A Horse Thief Moon 

They emerged from a stand of pines. Moonlight whitewashed the coulees, etching in stark relief every bush and tree. The only sound in the night was the shuffling of their horses and the crickets in the bushes.

A horse thief moon, Sara had called it. In his mind’s eye he relived her unbuttoning his shirt, pulling it from his body. Smoothing her callused palms over his heated skin before pressing her breasts against him.

Lovely, lonely Sara.

Damn it, forget her. She's dead and buried.

Anger at his thoughts made him speak. “Where the hell are we going?”

“Yuh'll see.”

Silence fell, broken only by the soft thud of hooves and the dog padding inches from his right stirrup. An owl's hoot drifted through the darkness. Occasionally, he heard a small creature scuttle in the dry grass.

Abruptly, the prairie plunged into another ravine. Through the trees below, the dark shapes of outbuildings huddled like orphans in the moonlight. The unmistakable odor of a barnyard drifted on the breeze. Horses nickered. A calf bawled. Water murmured and gleamed in a silver path around the curve of the coulee while the moon played hide and seek in the rustling leaves of a giant cottonwood.

Surprise kicked him in the gut. “Where are we?” But he already knew.

“Never mind.”

The old Cranston place. Coincidence that an outlaw had brought him to his quarry, a train robber's hideout? Not by a long shot. But why? Was Billy smarter than I’ve given him credit for?

Chase gritted his teeth. I’m gonna get you, Billy. You’ll pay for the grief you’ve caused Big Jake. His eyes narrowed when a low-roofed log cabin loomed in the moonlight. I'll outwit you and take you in. Maybe even tonight.

“Hold up,” the outlaw snarled. His rifle never wavered from Chase. “Git down. Slow-like.”

Chase frowned, staring through the deep shadows cast by a huge cottonwood. Why were they stopping here by the outbuildings instead of the cabin? And where were the lookouts? The fine hairs on his neck and arms prickled. This isn’t a gathering of outlaws. It’s an execution. But why here instead of back at my camp?




Beneath A Horse Thief Moon:

Link for Diamond Jack’s Angel/Hot Western Nights Anthology


  1. Such an interesting and very full post. So much information here. You certainly do have some wonderful names for places in the New World, and it's very interesting to find out the origins. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thanks, Christine. I was hard to draw a limit. I've always loved knowing the origin of things, and names are no exception. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I enjoyed this post very much, Elizabeth. You have a beautiful country and such interesting history. I also enjoyed the excerpt from your book. You grab the reader in few words and your descriptions of setting are very vivid.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I agree, Canada is a beautiful country and has a lot of amazing history, just like the United States. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana border on each other and have so much in common. I'm glad you liked my excerpt. I set my trilogy in The Thunder-Breeding-Hills because it's such a unique terrain of dense pine forest smack in the middle of the bald-headed prairie...thanks to the Ice Age that moved through here millions of years ago. Thanks for stopping by, Linda.

  3. Fascinating blog. Elizabeth. Love the caves!
    What a cliff-hanger excerpt!

    1. Thank you, Lindsay. It's been twenty years since I stood in Sam Kelly's cave. It's mind-blowing to think someone spent hours hiding out in those caves until the "redcoats" or ranchers moved on. I knew had to use it in one of my books. The memory of the smell of nose-clogging dirt remains vivid all these years later. So glad you enjoyed the excerpt. I've been blessed with fabulous reviews for my trilogy. Thank you for stopping by, Lindsay.

  4. I loved these stories about how places got their names. I especially like the names the Indigenous People gave these places--like the name that means "a warm place by the river." What an intriguing vision and feeling that name suggests.

    I hope you are feeling better. I'm certain you've been through a great deal. Take good care of yourself first and foremost. God bless you...

    1. I love the description of a place that inspired a name simply from the phonetic sounds. Your quote is perfect, Sarah. Another community in Saskatchewan derived its name from water that simply bubbled up from the earth and formed a stream, hence, Swift Current. I love the story behind the name and found it hard to stop. Thank you for stopping by, dear friend and God bless you, as well.

  5. Interesting post. It's always fun to learn how places got their names - especially those with unusual names. When researching Canadian history for my novel, THE CLAIM, Two of the interesting names I came across were Forty Mile and Sixty Mile. Thanks for sharing.