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Place Names

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, September 1960, Volume 6, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

I wonder how many people know the origin of the name of the town where they live. In some cases where the name came from is obvious — the first people in the town named it for an important person such as Gladstone, after a Prime Minister of Great Britain, or Selkirk after Lord Selkirk, or Churchill, after an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill.

Sometimes, though people in the town don't always realize it, the town takes its name from a town in another part of the world. In Manitoba for instance we have names like Killarney, Reykjavik, Carberry, Altona, Komarno, Mafeking after places in Ireland, Iceland, Scotland, Germany, the Ukraine, and South Africa.

When your town is named after an important person or a town somewhere else in the world it's not too difficult to find out its origin. But when it comes from another language it may not be so easy. You may have to know the language first. In fact you may have to know many languages in Manitoba because we have quite a number represented in the names of our towns. Beausejour is French for "good camping ground"; Arborg is Icelandic for "river town"; Rosengart is German for "rose garden"; Kaleida is Greek for "beautiful". And, of course, there are numerous Indian names used for towns in Western Canada. "Mini" is a Sioux word for water — so we have towns like Miniota which means "much water", Minnedosa which means "rapid water", and Minnewasta meaning "good water". Did you know that Winnipeg was an Indian word meaning "muddy water"? And so Winnipegosis which is an Indian word for "little Winnipeg" means "little muddy water". Some of the Indian words we use for towns, rivers or lakes give a description of the place. For instance, Athapapuskow is a Cree word which means "rock on both sides of the river". Keewatin means "return of the north wind", And Wanipigon is an Indian word which describes a river which enters a lake through a hole in the rocks.

We have our names in English too which describe the town and if we lived in those places we would see why they were given such names as Beautiful Plains, Lillyfield, Treesbank, or Sandilands.

Many places like Angusville, Hartney, or Treherne were named after the first settler in the district, sometimes the first postmaster. In some cases, perhaps because they couldn't agree on who was the first settler, the town got its name from more than one person — like Dunrea which is named after Adam Dunlop and Thomas Rea, early settlers in the district.

There are many strange ways in which the name of a town is chosen. Ashern comes from Mr. A. S. Hern who was timekeeper when the railway was being built. Wabowden comes from Mr. W. A. Bowden a Government engineer. Then there's a place in Manitoba called Wampum. It got its name from Wampum Baking Powder which was used by a cook on the construction gang.

Sometimes we are not sure what the origin of a name is. To go further west briefly, did you ever wonder where the name Medicine Hat came from? I am told there are two different stories. Some people say it comes from a hill near Medicine Hat which was called Saamis, an Indian word which means "the head-dress of a medicine man"; others say that an Indian brave rescued an Indian maid from the river near-by and as a reward was given a medicine man's hat. Then there is the story that in a fight between Crees and Blackfoot the Cree medicine man lost his hat in the river and thus lost the battle. You'll just have to choose the story you like best. Moose Jaw is another unusual name for a town. The name comes from an Indian word meaning "the place where the white man mended the cart with a jaw-bone of a moose". It was at this place that Lord Dunmore while on a trip west had to stop to fix his Red River cart.

One of the most interesting stories of how a town got its name is the story of Flin Flon, Manitoba. In 1915, six men were trudging through northern Manitoba about seventy-five miles north of The Pas. In six weeks they had gone over country which few white men had ever seen and had visited places the map makers knew little about. They had been looking for gold or whatever other valuable minerals they could find. In this respect they hadn't been successful. That part of the country, everyone had said, was just so much rock and of no use to anyone. One night, after the prospectors had pitched their tents by the side of a little lake, one of the group took out a book he had found along the trail. It was an old, torn and faded book called "The Sunless City". The story was about an eccentric grocer who belonged to the Society for the Exploration of Unknown Regions. His name was Josiah Flintabbety Flonatin and he believed that there was a secret passage to the centre of the earth and that at the end of the passage there was a mountain of gold. According to the story his theories were correct and Josiah Flintabbety Flonatin found the secret passage and discovered the gold. But he found it guarded by a strange people who had tails. These people captured him, and took him before their parliament which was composed entirely of women. He didn't think this was a very good kind of parliament and he decided to start a revolution. With the help of a princess who fell in love with him he made his attempt. But the plot was discovered and he had to escape. When he got back to the surface of the earth, nobody would believe that the earth was hollow and that people lived there.

You are perhaps wondering what all this has to do with how Flin Flon got its name. Maybe you've guessed already. A man with a name like Josiah Flintabbety Flonatin was bound to have a nickname. Well his nickname was Flin Flon.

When the prospectors packed their kits and took up the trail next day, they came to a lake around which they found rock and stone of a strange brown colour. Sampling the rock they found it contained gold. They thought that this must be the place where Josiah Flintabbety Flonatin had discovered the secret passage to the centre of the earth so one of them suggested they call the mine Flin Flon.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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