What's in a name? The story behind community names in the Peace Region

The names of the places we use every day quickly become invisible to us over time, fading into mindless repetition. It is easy to forget that once, often long ago, someone put a lot of thought – and sometimes a lot of fight – into picking a name and making it stick.

The origins of some names that seem obvious, like Fort St. John, are lost to time. Others, like Pouce Coupe, are weird and interesting. Some places are somewhere in between, with a couple of different theories as to why they’ve got the moniker they do.

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“Place names have come from pretty much everywhere,” said North Peace Museum curator Heather Longworth. Settlers’ and surveyors’ names, their past homes or landmarks are not uncommon name origins. Read on to find out why we call these places what we do.

The Peace – In 1782 the Beaver and the Cree came together for a peace rally on the banks of what is now known as the Peace River. The Cree agreed to stay south of the Peace River, and the Beaver north. “The river was named ‘Unchagah,’ that was the word for ‘peace’ in Cree, and then that was translated into English,” explained Longworth.

The Peace River, so influential as a transportation route, defined the region, and eventually led to the entire area being called the Peace.

Fort St. John – The current Fort St. John is named for the early forts that were in the area. Fort d’Epinette was established in the early 1800s, but it was also called Fort St. John, and that name stuck, even after a massacre in 1823 that led to its closure. It popped back up 40 years later on the south side of the Peace River, and then moved to the opposite bank, where “Old Fort” now sits, and finally to where it currently stands well up the embankment. Through all of that, Fort St. John stuck.

places“It could have to do with it being completed around the feast day of St. John the Baptist or even St. John the apostle, but we don’t really know for sure,” said Longworth. “It may have just been that was somebody’s patron saint and that was how they named it – who knows?”

Fort St. John is known by another name – the Energetic City, which is the municipal slogan.

Dawson Creek – Named after a body of water that runs through the region called – you guessed it – Dawson Creek. The creek was named after George Mercer Dawson, a land surveyor, by one of his company as they passed through the area in August of 1879.

Dawson Creek’s other name, “The Mile Zero City” is more emblematic of its location on the southernmost end of the Alaska Highway.

Taylor – This town was named for the first trapper who settled on the flat in 1912 – Donald Herbert Taylor. Known as Herbie Taylor, he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company until he decided to stake out a home on the Taylor Flats. He was officially given the land when the federal government opened the land up to homesteaders. In 1919 his nine children made up a large contingent of the students at the new Taylor Flats School.

It was known colloquially as Taylor’s Flat to the First Nations and other trappers who took their furs there to trade, but naming the place wasn’t quite as simple as that. There was another trapper who lived right next to Herbie named Bob Barker, who was insistent that he be the place’s namesake. Although friends, the two men feuded for years over what it should be called. When Herbie was away on his trap line, Bob would put up a “Barker Flats” sign, and when Bob was away, Herbie would take down the Barker sign and put his own sign back up. The dispute was settled in 1923, when a post office came in to the community and officially named it Taylor.

That wasn’t the end of Barker’s influence on place names in the Peace, however. He was stopped and robbed of his furs and money in Murdale, north of Charlie Lake. After that incident the place became known colloquially as “Hold-up,” a nickname that has stuck with it.

Hudson’s Hope – There are a couple of theories about where the name for Hudson’s Hope comes from. One is that the first part, “Hudson” comes from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was very active in the area during the fur trade in the 1800’s, and “Hope” coming from the Scottish word meaning “a small, enclosed valley.”

The other theory is that it comes from a prospector named Hudson, who came to the area “hoping” to strike it rich.

Both theories are speculative, and the true origins of the name have been lost to time.places

Tumbler Ridge – Edmund Spieker, an explorer and surveyor came through the area in 1920, and coined the place Tumbler Ridge, though at that time there were only five settlers living there. He got the name from an earlier map, made by J.C. Gwillim who came through a year before. Gwillim had called the mountains to the northwest of the future town “Tumbler Range” in his maps.

Chetwynd – This little town was actually called Little Prairie until the 1960s, when it was renamed in honour of provincial politician Ralph L.T. Chetwynd. Ralph Chetwynd, then the Minister of Railways, spearheaded a rail line project in the 1950’s that followed the highway from Prince George. It made him so popular that when the town incorporated in 1962 they renamed it after him.

Pouce Coupe – By far the most bizarre origin story for a place in Northeastern B.C., it is French for “cut thumb.” But the explanation has nothing to do with either cuts or thumbs. French-speaking immigrant Hector Tremblay founded the town, and changed the name from Pouskapie’s Prairie, named after the chief of a local First Nations band, to Pouce Coupe. His rationale? Tremblay wanted to change it to something French without actually changing how it sounded, so he picked two French words that sounded the most like “Pouskapie,” and ended up with “Pouce Coupe.” Weird!

Fort Nelson – Named for British naval hero Horatio Nelson. The town was established as a fur trading post in 1805, the same year Nelson died in the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars. There’s no evidence that there is any direct connection between the place and the man.

“That would have been when they established Fort Nelson as a trading post. Of course there would have been people living in the area long before that,” said Shallen Johnson, business manager of the Fort Nelson Historical Society. She admitted that she got some of her information from “longsuffering volunteer” Paul Dimaggio.

“It would have been the North West Company who gave the name, so they would have chosen it to reflect someone they thought highly of.”

What is interesting to note is that while most places named after Nelson – and there are a lot – have a park or a square or a street named Trafalgar to go along with it, Fort Nelson does not.

place“We didn’t have street names for a long time. Fort Nelson had about five different town sites, we moved several times and eventually we moved to our current location when the highway came through. If you talk to people who have lived here a long time, they still don’t use street names, they’ll tell you, ‘I live on the street by the gas station,’ or whatever, so it’s still very much a part of the way we speak,” said Johnson, speculating on why that might be. “It’s just been something that has carried on with the people living here, so it doesn’t surprise me that we wouldn’t have a street formally named after [Trafalgar].”

Pink Mountain – In this instance, it is simply a name that describes the place – the mountain is famous for the burnt pink hue in its rock.

Tomslake – Named for Toms Lake that sat just north of the community. In 1939, a group of refugees from Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia moved into the area. Previously known as Tate Creek, the residents were trying to get a post office in 1947, but were informed that the name “Tate Creek” was already taken. They settled for Tomslake, which was named after Tom the Trapper who lived near there.

The shallow lake eventually dried up.

Goodlow – Just east of Fort St. John on the Rose Prairie Road, Goodlow was actually named for two different settlers. Although known as Goodlow long before it was officially named, it was picked out of respect for James Good, a long-time rancher, and Alan Low, one of the first landowners in the area, who were famous for lending a hand.

“When you think Goodlow today you wouldn’t necessarily think it was two people’s names,” said Longworth. “But it says a lot for the people who settled this area and how much they were respected by the people who came before.”

Grandhaven – Just west of Fort St. John lays Grandhaven, which was named by Thor Thorsen. Thorsen, unsurprisingly of Scandinavian descent, came up north from a place called Grandhaven, in North Dakota. Either he was attached to the name or he just didn’t feel like bothering with a new one.

Baldonnel – Named by one Jack Abbott in the early 1930s after his home county in Ireland.

Wonowon – Located on Mile 101 of the Alaska Highway, that is actually how the place became known over time. “One-oh-one” spelled phonetically became “Wonowon.”

Charlie Lake – Origins unknown, no documented attempts to guess.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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