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Northern Alberta Region

Waterhole Post Office and stopping place in Northern Alberta. How often have you wondered why a place was named as it was? As you read through this book, it will not take long to realise places are not named by chance. Where human beings encounter the land, they name it and, although we tend to name things in predictable fashion, the reasons may be as individual as the person naming it. The names contained in each of Volumes I-III of this series have mirrored the history of its region. Place Names of Alberta, Volume IV, Northern Alberta, which completes the series, is no different.

The focus of this volume is on all approved names in northern Alberta, primarily the area north of 55° of latitude. The geographical area covered in this volume is by far the largest of the four, in fact, it covers close to one-half of the entire area of the province. (See page xxvii for the map showing the area covered by this volume.) It is the area where, due to the arrival of fur traders and missionaries, the "Europeans," some of the earliest activities and names are recorded in written form. Because it was an area of sparse settlement, the number of names that have been recorded are by comparison not as great. This large geographic area contains approximately 25 per cent of the province's official names.

As much as possible, there has been an effort to include cross-references between older or unofficial names for officially named features. Due to the unstandardised orthography in many of the first nations' languages, cross-referencing from those languages to official names has been difficult. Where aboriginal names are known, they have been added to the origin information. It is hoped that efforts such as this volume will spark awareness and interest in northern toponymy, and will encourage the recording of geographic names in all the languages of Alberta's north.

In order to fully understand the answer to the question "Why?," it is useful to provide an overview of the trends in naming in northern Alberta. The major influences on Alberta's place names include aboriginal people, explorers, the fur trade, missionaries, surveys, transportation, settlement and industry. A brief look at these factors will explain that trends in naming do exist, and may provide the reader with answers to the inevitable questions of why and when features were named as they were. It also will give insight into the historical perspective provided by toponymy, the study of place names.

The aboriginal people have been in this area of the world the longest, and it is surviving aboriginal names that are the oldest. Some archaeologists believe first nations people have been in this area of the world for at least 12,000 years. The groups that were predominant in the area covered in this volume include the Chipewyan, Cree, and those known historically as the Beaver Indians. Other groups did venture into the territory to follow game or engage in trade with other aboriginal groups or the European fur traders of the Hudson's Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the X.Y. Company. The Beaver Indians are now found in the north-west part of the province, the Chipewyan in the north-east, and the Cree are to the south of these two groups. Because of their nomadic way of life the boundaries were not fixed.

Aboriginal people most often named their world in a pragmatic way. From the names that survive, it appears that, as a general rule, they did not name places after people. They often named features according to physical attributes such as big, little, smoky, stinking; or by the food source that might be available at the site such as jackfish, beaver, buffalo or moose. They journeyed from Point A to Point B, and named the features on their route accordingly. Therefore, if journeys led across different places along a river, the river was not seen as a whole, but rather as a series of distinct, yet interconnected features. One portion might be known as Swift Current River, in another area it might be called Moose River, while in yet another area it would be called Meeting Place River. When this information was recorded by the explorers and scouts, usually one name was used, reflecting European naming convention. A good example of this would be Athabasca. This name has been given to a river, lake, town, mountain, pass and waterfalls. According to conventional thought, the name translates to "where there are reeds." This refers only to that area where the river flows into the lake in north-eastern Alberta, which is where the name was recorded by the well-known explorer David Thompson, in the 1790s.

The first nations' people had an oral tradition; history and names were passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next. It was not until they encountered the explorers, fur traders, and missionaries that names were recorded in written form. The French and English speaking fur traders have been here since the late 1700s and they used aboriginal names for geographical features. The Europeans dealt with the various tribal groups, and found it sensible to use those names, or forms of names already known to their suppliers and guides. The French-Canadian voyageurs and traders were some of the first in the area known as Alberta, therefore, it is the French translations of aboriginal names that are some of the first recorded. In 1800 a promontory on Lake Athabasca was referred to by James Mackenzie as Pointe aux Chiens, which now is called by its English translation, Dog Head.

Where you find European settlements, names are more likely to be commemorative. Examples include Fort MacKay and Fort McMurray. Dr. William Morrison MacKay, hired on as a doctor in the Hudson's Bay Company, took on the duties of chief trader and factor at a number of posts before setting up a medical practice in Edmonton in 1898. Fort McMurray was named in 1870 by H.J. Moberly in honour of Chief Factor William McMurray of the HBC. Europeans also liked to name places after places in their homelands, such as Fort Dunvegan and Nottingham House, each of which was named after a place in the British Isles. In this way, the fur traders, who were far away from the land of their birth, brought a bit of home with them.

Early Europeans, because of the business they were in - exploration and exploitation of natural resources - tended to explore, survey and name only those routes needed. They were searching for the most expedient transportation routes by water from the business centres in Montreal and England to the various posts and trading grounds. They were also searching for the fabled route to the Orient. That is why most features were named only along trade routes, which included the major rivers and lakes. Some names that survive today come directly from the fur trade itself. These include places such as Grande Cache, Demicharge Rapids, and Portage River. Other names were recorded by explorers such as David Thompson in the late 1780s-1790s, Alexander Mackenzie in the 1790s, and the Franklin, Ross and Perry expedition of 1818-1820.

The next group to have an impact on toponymy was Roman Catholic missionaries who came primarily from the French order of priests, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The first missionary to come to what is now northern Alberta was Father (later Bishop) Alexandre Tache. He arrived in Fort Chipewyan in 1847 to work with the resident Chipewyan and Cree populations. Some Oblates have been remembered in place names; features such as Petitot River, and communities such as Grouard and Breynat. However, their greatest contribution to Alberta toponymy has been in their linguistic work. They tirelessly recorded the aboriginal languages, and wrote grammars and dictionaries for native languages. Their systematic recording of the languages give us insight into the names of the past.

With the decline of the fur trade, and the increasing desire to establish a strong British presence, governmental surveying and mapping began in what is now Alberta with the Palliser Expedition between 1857 and 1860. That expedition was concerned with the prairie area to the south in what is now known as the Palliser Triangle. It wasn't until the late 1870s that the first concerted exploration was done in the subject area of this book, under the auspices of the Geological Survey of Canada. The first to work on a systematic natural resource and geological survey was George Mercer Dawson. Although he is best known for his work in British Columbia, he also completed surveys in central and north-western Alberta. His primary concern was geology, he also had to compile information on topography and toponymy as no mapping had yet been done on the area. In August 1879 field research took him from the area of Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fort Dunvegan, traversing south-east as far as Fort Edmonton by October, via Fort Assiniboine and Athabasca Landing. He was a meticulous keeper of detail, and tried to record names of features used by the inhabitants of the area, the Cree and the Beaver.

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