How Medicine Hat Got Its Name
“Medicine Hat? What a weird name!”
This remark, or some variation thereof, is usually one of the first things I hear after I mention ‘Medicine Hat’ to somebody who’s never heard of it before.
If you happen to be learning about Medicine Hat for the first time, please allow me to fill you in. Medicine Hat- or “the Hat”, as the locals call it- is a prairie city in southeast Alberta, Canada, that currently boasts around 60 000 residents. It lies on the South Saskatchewan River and on the Trans-Canada Highway about 50 km west of the Saskatchewan border, and was founded in 1883, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the river.
Although Medicine Hat has spent time in the Canadian spotlight for a number of different reasons, perhaps its true and most timeless claim to fame is its strange name. As is the case with most things that deviate from the norm, Medicine Hat’s name wasn’t always unanimously accepted. In fact, some early Hatters- as Medicine Hat residents are sometimes called – considered the name to be so bizarre that in 1910, when natural gas was discovered in the area, they petitioned to change it. These disgruntled citizens believed that industries might be attracted to a city with a more conventional name like Gasburg (which would reflect the city’s newfound natural gas) or Smithville (in honour of the C.P.R. co-founder Sir Donald Smith (a.k.a. Lord Strathcona)). A number of old-school Hatters, however, strongly opposed this proposal and entreated the support of Rudyard Kipling, the famous English writer who had a special place in his heart for Medicine Hat. Kipling responded by advocating the old name in a letter written to Francis F. Fatt, the editor of the Medicine Hat News. In this letter, Kipling wrote:
“…To my mind, the name of Medicine Hat has an advantage over (other cities with similarly unique names). It echoes as you so justly put it the old Cree and Blackfoot tradition of red mystery and romance that once filled the prairie… Believe me, the very name is an asset, and as years go on will become more and more of an asset. It has no duplicate in the world; it makes men ask questions, and as I knew, more than twenty years ago, draws the feet of the young men towards it; it has the qualities of uniqueness, individuality, assertion and power.
Above all, it is the lawful, original, sweat-and-dust-won name of the city and to change it would be to risk the luck of the city to disgust and dishearten old-timers, not in the city alone, but the world over…
… (A man’s city) is the living background of his life and love and toil and hope and sorrow and joy. Her success is his success; her shame is his shame’ her honour is his honour; and her good name is his good name.”
Kipling concluded with, “What then should a city be rechristened that has sold its name? Judasville.”
Perhaps due in part to Kipling’s letter (which was printed on the front page of the Medicine Hat News), the town decided, in a ten-to-one vote, to keep the old name, which it bears to this day.
So how did Medicine Hat come by such a provocative and controversial name? As it turns out, there is no clear answer. On the contrary, there are a number of different (and conflicting) explanations for how Medicine Hat came to be called what it is. Most of these explanations claim that the name ‘Medicine Hat’ is based on either:
1) A battle between the Blackfoot and Cree;
2) A native legend involving love and human sacrifice;
3) A landmark that looks like an Indian’s headdress.
In spite of their differences, every single explanation has something in common, namely the inclusion of a medicine man’s headdress, or a ‘medicine hat’ (saamis, in Blackfoot (Siksika)). Below are the 17 most common explanations for how Medicine Hat got its name.
A number of different Indian legends claim that Medicine Hat received its name from an incident that occurred during a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree. Some of these legends are described below.
Legend 1. The Battle of Bitter Lake
The earliest recorded battle legend about Medicine Hat’s naming was published in Regina’s, Leader Post, on July 5, 1883. This story places the battle on the shores of ‘Bitter Lake’, the Indian name for some mysterious body of water. It is interesting to note that there is a ‘Bitter Lake’ that lies less than 60 km east of Medicine Hat, just across the Saskatchewan border slightly east of Many Island Lake.
Many years ago, the Blackfoot and the Iron Confederacy (Cree and Assiniboine Sioux) fought a battle on the shores of “what is known among the Indians as ‘Bitter Lake’”. During the heat of battle, the Assiniboine medicine man lost his hat. After the battle was over (a Blackfoot victory), the medicine man and a handful of braves returned to the battlefield to search for the lost hat. Although they searched until sunset, they found no sign of the hat. At dusk, just as the warriors were preparing to abandon their search, an enormous, shadowy figure emerged in the middle of Bitter Lake. The figure, which appeared to be a man standing on the water’s surface, held the medicine man’s hat in his outstretched hand. The warriors watched in horror as the figure, along with their medicine man’s beloved hat, disappeared beneath the waves.
Legend 2. The Medicine Man’s Vision
Many prairie frontiersmen affirmed that Medicine Hat was so named because of the vision of a medicine man. Their early accounts are summarized in an article that appeared on the front page of the Medicine Hat Times on November 12, 1885.
Sometime in the early 1860’s, a band of Blackfoot was camped by the cliffs near present day Police Point Park. One morning, the Blackfoot were surprised to discover that a party of Cree was camped close by. In order to prepare the band’s warriors for the battle that would inevitably take place, the Blackfoot shaman began to prepare some powerful medicine. As he worked, he saw the image of a medicine hat reflected in the water of the South Saskatchewan River. When he had finished preparing the medicine, the shaman told the braves of his vision and assured them that it was a good omen. The Blackfoot warriors rode out with the newly-made medicine and the encouraging words of the medicine man still ringing in their ears. They confronted the Cree, engaged them in battle and were utterly victorious. From that point on, the place was known as Medicine Hat.
Legend 3. Kootenai Brown’s Legend
One of the battle legends was recorded in 1898 by Charles M. Skinner, the famous American writer, folklorist and editor of New York’s Brooklyn Eagle. This particular version of the battle legend, which was published in Skinner’s Myths and Legends Beyond Our Borders, also recurs in the respective writings of Canadian frontier legend John George “Kootenai” Brown (Reminiscence of Western Canadian Travels, 1865-1900) and Rev. Dr. W. Everard Edmonds, a Canadian history professor (Broad Horizons, 1919).
There was once a successful Blackfoot chief who attributed all his good fortune to the eagle feather headdress that he wore. One day, he and his warriors bore down upon a war party of Cree at a place that is near present-day Medicine Hat. Initially, the Blackfoot were wildly successful, led as they were by their courageous, headdress-wearing chief. However, just as it seemed the Blackfoot would rout the Cree, a gust of wind whirled the headdress off the chief’s head and into the South Saskatchewan River. Dismayed, the Blackfoot chief called off the attack and retreated, certain that he would be unable to secure a victory without his lucky hat. He retired to the Cypress Hills, and died broken-hearted shortly thereafter. From that point on, the Blackfoot referred to the site of the battle as “Saamis”, or ‘Medicine Hat’.
Legend 4. The Cree Battle Legend
Another version of the battle legend, which can perhaps be most accurately described as the Cree version, was recorded by Earl Joseph Gillett, a retired CPR engineer and amateur historian, from 1923-1948. In writing this version of the legend, which he maintained was the authentic version, Gillett gathered information from five different sources: 1) J.H.G. Bray, a Sergeant Major in the North West Mounted Police who was posted first at Fort Macleod and later at Fort Walsh following his enlistment in Toronto in 1873; 2) Sergeant Robert McCutcheon, a NWMP officer who, after enlisting in 1875, served for years in the Cypress Hills before becoming one of Medicine Hat’s first white residents; 3) Michael Quesnelle, an accomplished NWMP Scout who also enlisted in 1875; 4) Litto Cohn (a.k.a. Little Corn), a Cree authority on local folklore; 5) Sun Child, another Cree man familiar with Cree legend.
One day in 1870, a party of Cree crossed the South Saskatchewan River from the southeast, at the shallow part of the river that is in between present day Police Point Park and Strathcona Island Park (at the mouth of Ross Creek). After exploring the cottonwood thicket of Police Point, the Cree made their way upriver (west) and discovered the natural spring on the hillside of present day Hargrave Park (on Division Avenue and 4 Street NE).
The Cree, who drank from the spring, were unaware that they were being watched by a war party of Blackfoot. The Blackfoot warriors, who had been spying on the Cree from atop present-day Crescent Heights, waited until their enemies had quenched their thirst before screaming their war whoops and charging down the hill towards them. Frantically, the Cree leapt onto their horses and thundered east towards the ford they had just crossed.
When the Cree crossed the ford and reached the northern shore of Strathcona Island, they stood their ground and showered upon their pursuers a volley of arrows. The Blackfoot medicine man, who rode at the head of the warriors, was shot in the heart by one of the first arrows. In his death throes, the medicine man reared up on his stallion, and as he did so his feathered war bonnet was blown off by the wind. The medicine man’s hat fell into the river and floated against the shores of Strathcona Island.
The remaining Blackfoot warriors watched in horror as their medicine man’s headdress was picked up by the Cree. Imagining that the Great Spirit had forsaken them, they fled back across the river to Police Point.
Later, the Blackfoot returned to the spot and built a stone cairn on the north shore of the river, on the banks of present-day Police Point, in remembrance of the event. Although the cairn has since been scattered into oblivion by Medicine Hat’s many floods, the Indian name for the location, ‘The Place of the Medicine Hat’, remains to this day.
Legend 5. Reverend Morrow’s Legend
Reverend James William Morrow, a minister of Medicine Hat’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church from 1896-1918, described a different battle ostensibly responsible for the city’s name in his 1923 book, Early History of the Medicine Hat Country. This version, which bears some resemblance to Gillett’s Cree battle version, is echoed almost exactly in Edna Baker’s 1934 book, Prairie Place Names.
“Many years before the coming of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police” (before 1874), a band of Crees were camped in Medicine Hat’s present day Riverside district, as “good water was very easily obtained from the springs on the hillside”.
Blackfoot scouts spotted the Cree camp and attacked the next morning. Although caught unawares, the Cree managed to rally quickly and put up a fierce fight. In spite of their efforts, however, the Cree were slowly driven east towards Police Point. A number of Cree braves struggled to hold back the Blackfoot just long enough to allow their squaws, ponies and remaining warriors to cross the river into Strathcona Island.
While the Cree medicine man was crossing the river (in Baker’s version, he was fleeing with the women), a gust of wind blew his hat off his head and tossed it into the South Saskatchewan. The Cree warriors that had already crossed the river saw this, and perceived it to be a bad omen. Immediately, they lost all confidence and fled northeast. The victorious Blackfoot pursued the fleeing Cree as far as Many Island Lake. From that point on, the ford at which the incident occurred has been known as “the place-where-the-medicine-man-lost-his-hat”.
(continued on How Medicine Hat Got Its Name (2/3))