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Southern Alberta Region

Almost all of these groups have at least one feature named for their tribe. Within the existing Blackfoot Indian Reserve, there exists a crossing on the Bow River known as Blackfoot Crossing (page 12) that has apparently been a good ford over the river for centuries. The Blackfoot Indian Reserve (page 12) itself takes its name from the Blackfoot, who call themselves Siksika, apparently due to the discoloration of their moccasins from the ashes of prairie fires. Blood Indian Creek (page 13), which flows south into the Red Deer River, approximately 98 kilometres north-west of Medicine Hat, bears the name of the Blood Indians who seem to have acquired this name in a bloody skirmish with the Saulteaux. Gros Ventre Creek (page 54) was named to commemorate an attempted Atsina raid in 1868 on a band of Blackfoot Indians encamped along this creek. Far more common than the names of the major Indian bands and tribes in the unfolding history of southern Alberta are the names that they themselves assigned to their lands. Most of these names were handed down from generation to generation until they were finally accepted as official. Names such as Okotoks (page 89) for the place of the "crossing by the big rock" reflect the Blackfoot presence in the area, but most bands had a name for the huge glacial erratic now known as the Big Rock (page 11). The Sarcee called this place chachosika or "valley of the big rock" and the Stoney name is ipabitungaingay or "where the big rock is." All three groups chose a descriptive name for this unusual feature and most native names in Alberta are in fact either descriptive or they commemorate some major event that may have occurred on or near the site. An interesting and apparently unique aspect of native geographical nomenclature is the refusal to name features after either living or dead persons. This is a phenomenon that is found across Canada and is a shared trait of the people of the First Nations.

The history of the southern portion of Alberta is different from the northern and central areas of the province in a number of ways. The fur trade had less impact on the south because a lack of marketable furs made trading in this area much less profitable than it had proven to be elsewhere. Because there was little profit to be made from trading in the south and the impact of missionary activity was quite limited in this area, there exists in the official record very few names for geographical features associated with the fur trade or missionary activity. There are, however, some names connected to the buffalo robe trade that had its origins in the competition between American traders on the Missouri River and Hudson's Bay Company traders on the North Saskatchewan River for the commerce of the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy2. Although the Plains tribes had always participated in the buffalo robe trade among themselves and as an adjunct to the provisions trade (pemmican, grease and dried meat), it was not until the 1870s that the trade emerged as the primary economic activity in this region. The traders of the Hudson's Bay Company competed for robes with traders from the United States, primarily centred at Fort Benton in Montana. This explains the name of a locality called Benton Station (page 10) located some 165 kilometres east of Drumheller, that was apparently named for the Benton Trail from Fort Benton to Fort Macleod that was commonly used by the Blackfoot and the traders when trading for buffalo robes. Although the locality is not in the immediate vicinity of the Benton Trail, its reputation was very popular. Very quickly the so-called whisky traders entered the buffalo robe trade and several trading posts were established with this commodity acting as the major form of payment for buffalo robes. The locality of Kipp (page 67) located seven kilometres north of the city of Lethbridge became one of these whisky trading posts. Originally located several kilometres west of the present locality at the confluence of the Oldman and Belly rivers, Fort Kipp was named for one of its founders, Joseph Kipp. The trail that connected the main trade at Fort Benton with several whisky posts in southern Alberta was known as the "Whoop-Up Trail" and generally followed the courses of the Oldman and Belly rivers.

Partly to stay the traffic in whisky in exchange for buffalo robes and in part to prevent conflicts between the Indians and whites, the Dominion Government decided to send a contingent of the North West Mounted Police to what was then called the North West Territories. Led by their Commissioner, George Arthur French and Colonel James Macleod, the force decided to build their fort on an island in the Oldman River. It was named Fort Macleod (page 47) after Colonel Macleod who succeeded French as Commissioner and who later became a judge in the Territories. And one year later, a further 50 recruits were dispatched to the junction of the Bow and Elbow rivers where they established a Mounted Police Fort which they called Fort Calgary, later to become the city of Calgary (page 21). This is the name of the ancestral estate of Macleod's cousins, the MacKenzies, on the island of Mull, Scotland, which he had visited shortly before his trek west to the North West Territories.

Much of the information about this area of the Dominion, information that was used by both the NWMP as well as the railway companies in the later period, was the result of a British North American Exploring Expedition headed by Captain John Palliser (1817-1887) between the years 1857 and 1860 and known as the Palliser Expedition. The expedition itself was initiated by Palliser, but when he applied to the Royal Geographical Society for funding, the expedition grew and Palliser was instructed by the Imperial Government to expand the project into a scientific fact-finding mission. Charged with charting the land, especially the lands under the ownership of the Hudson's Bay Company, Palliser was to conduct his explorations across the plains south of the North Saskatchewan River to and through the Rocky Mountains. The expedition collected vast amounts of data on the meteorological, geological and magnetic importance of this vast territory, and Palliser also collected information about the country's food supply, its flora, its inhabitants and its potential for settlement and routes of transportation. Palliser identified in his reports an area, now known as Palliser's Triangle, that he called "semi-arid" stretching across the American boundary into the prairies of Alberta. This loosely shaped triangle extended from what is now the Manitoba-U.S. border south of Brandon, north-west to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It then looped west to Calgary, before dipping south to Lethbridge and on to the American border. He believed this area to be virtually worthless for intensive cultivation, although it was surrounded by a fertile belt that he believed to be well-suited for the raising of stock and even possibly for agriculture. Palliser's published reports, and especially his comprehensive map of 1865, were for some time the main source of information about the lands in the south of what is now Alberta and they became the basis for later railway routes and surveys of land. Since the vast majority of Palliser's treks involved routes through the mountains, the expedition itself left few names in this study area.

By the late 1880s and early 1900s, ranching emerged as the main industry in southern Alberta. Supported by Palliser's reports, ranchers claimed this land was unsuitable for other forms of agriculture. Ranchers in the south became very powerful and were owners of extremely large ranching operations. In the late 1890s, about 200 cattlemen controlled almost the entire region and, because of their business and political friends, they formed a powerful economic, social and political elite. Because so many of these early ranchers were either immigrants from the United Kingdom or former members of the North West Mounted Police, they created a "transplanted British Victorian lifestyle that lasted until World War I" complete with "formal balls, formal dress dinners, fox hunts, polo, cricket and tennis."3

Ranching is amply represented in the names of geographical features in this area. Senator Matthew Henry Cochrane established The Cochrane Ranche Company in 1885 which was the first large-scale ranching company in the area. A few kilometres west of the ranch, a community began to emerge (originally named "Mitford") which, when the Canadian Pacific Railway line was established, was renamed Cochrane (page 29) after the Senator. Several of the larger ranches were named for places in England from whence their owners had come. Oxley Creek (page 91), located some 84 kilometres north-west of Lethbridge was named after the nearby Oxley Ranch which in turn was named for Oxley Manor in Wolverhampton, England. And many of the cowboys who worked the ranches also left legacies of their names of the land. The locality of Nier (page 87), located 43 kilometres north north-west of Calgary, was named for "Shorty" Nier, an early rancher who came from Arizona to the Calgary area in the late 1800s and who homesteaded at the turn of the century west of Crossfield. When the C.P.R. spur line to Cremona was established, it passed through Shorty's property and the railway siding at this point became known as Nier.

Priorities set by the Dominion Government in the east set the stage for the next major development in southern Alberta: the coming of the railways. No other phenomenon in western Canadian history so affected the toponymy of western Canada as railroad development. The Dominion Government hoped that the railway would improve transportation and communication lines across the prairies and between the east and west, but, more important, they believed that the railway would open up a new economic hinterland for eastern and central Canada. The pace for settlement of the west was decided, almost exclusively, by the routes chosen for development by these various companies. As the famous prairie historian L.G. Thomas has noted: "The tide of agricultural settlement ebbed and flowed, but after 1870 it was consistently directed by the availability of railway services."4

The choice of names of the various stations that dotted the routes of the lines of these railways varied from the names of the nabobs of the railway industry to names that were purely descriptive. The village of Stirling (page 115), located 30 kilometres south-east of Lethbridge was named in 1901 for John A. Stirling, the Managing Director of the company that had large-scale holdings in the Alberta Railway and Coal Company. The town of Strathmore (page 116), located 45 kilometres east of Calgary was originally a Canadian Pacific Railway station that was established in 1884 and named for Claude Bowes-Lyon, the 13th Earl of Strathmore (1824-1904). The hamlet of Balzac (page 5), located approximately 18 kilometres north of Calgary, illustrates a certain whimsy or caprice in railroad naming practices. Originally a C.P.R. station that began operating in 1910, it was named by W.C. Van Home, then the president of the railway, after one of his favourite authors, Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the noted French novelist. Completed through modern Alberta in 1883, the transcontinental railway (the C.P.R.) set the stage for the coming of settlement and the further development that followed very closely the main line westward across the prairies.


2.R.F. Beal, J.E. Foster, and Louise Zuk. "The Metis Hivernement Settlement at Buffalo Lake, 1872-1877." Unpublished study, 1987, p. 3.

3.A Canadian Sourcebook by David H. Breen (ed). Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 6.

4.L.G. Thomas. "Introduction" in The Prairie West to 1905: A Canadian Sourcebook by David H. Breen (ed). Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 6

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