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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

No. 14: The Origin of Athabasca

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Athabasca is a name that lends itself to many places around the province, including a town, lake, river, glacier and a mountain pass.

Athabasca comes from a Cree word that refers to a specific region - the delta where the Athabasca River flows into Lake Athabasca, in northeastern Alberta.

The feature was first recorded in 1790 by Peter Fidler. He was a talented surveyor and mapmaker employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. Based on the Cree name, Fidler called it the Great Arabuska.

But, as historian Merrily Aubrey notes, a more precise translation was recorded a year later, in 1791, by explorer Philip Turner.

And it means low swampy ground on south side, with a few willows growing upon it, from which the lake in general takes its name - Athapeeson, in the southern Cree tongue - and signifies open country, such as lakes with willows and grass growing about them.

Now, further evidence can be found for the translation of Athabasca in the name of another northern feature that people have heard about, and that's the Wabasca River. So, you have "abasca" or Wabasca; Wabasca coming from a Cree word meaning grassy narrows.

History shows that there have been many names for the area.

Along with the name Athabasca, Peter Fidler had recorded the descriptive term, Lake of the Hills, being a translation of another Cree name - tootoosakaheegan - which in a more genteel translation means Breast Lake.

And this referred to the Northwest Shore, which, according to Philip Turner, came from their appearing high and rounded at a distance.

And the river itself was at times called the Elk River.

Over time, the name gradually evolved to more closely resemble today's pronunciation.

In 1801, for example, it was called Athapascow Lake. And, as historian Merrily Aubrey explains, soon it came down to a refinement of proper spelling.

In 1820, George Simpson referred to the name of the river in the spelling we know now. However, for many decades a controversy raged over whether the name spelled with a C or a K. We have it now with a C, and I understand it was settled by the rules of orthography, or the ways of writing things down.

No matter what it was called, both Aboriginal and European traders knew the economic significance of the Athabasca waterway.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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