(continued from How Medicine Hat Got Its Name (1/3))
Legend 6. The Day the Medicine Man Lost His Hat
Another version of the battle legend, which is arguably the version most frequently affirmed by Hatters and (inarguably) one of the two versions officially espoused by the city, is an old local story which was eventually printed in the Medicine Hat News. Today, this version is printed on postcards entitled, The Day the Medicine Man Lost His Hat, which are freely distributed at Medicine Hat’s City Hall.
There was once a great battle between the Blackfoot and Cree that took place on the shores of the South Saskatchewan River (some place the battlefield near present day Finlay Bridge). Although the belligerents were roughly equal in strength, it appeared that the Cree had the upper hand. In the midst of battle, the Cree medicine man, fearing for his life, deserted his kinsmen and swam across the river. In his haste, he lost his headdress midstream to an undercurrent. The Cree braves, upon witnessing the cowardice of their shaman, proclaimed the disappearance of his headdress to be a bad omen and subsequently broke and fled. The Cree warriors, who at first appeared to be winning the battle, were completely routed by the Blackfoot.
Legend 7. The Horner Family Legend
James Henry Horner, one of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s first road masters stationed in Medicine Hat, heard an explanation for Medicine Hat’s name from an old Indian guide. He passed this story down to his son, David Edson Horner, who in turn told it to Marcel M.C. Dirk, a Medicine Hat resident, writer and historian. Dirk recorded this version in his 1993 book But Names Will Never Hurt Me.
This legend is notable in that it involves both a battle between the Blackfoot and Cree and human sacrifice.
There was once a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree along the South Saskatchewan River at the place where the Medicine Hat Arena now stands. The Blackfoot drove the Cree southeast to the area that is between present day Industrial Avenue (to the south), Seven Person’s Creek (to the west) and Ross Creek (to the east), just east of the Medalta Historic Clay District and south of the mouth of Ross Creek. The Cree retreated further, climbing up what is now Porter’s Hill and onto the top of the steep cliffs that overlook the river. There, they were massacred by the Blackfoot. Hundreds of warriors were buried atop these cliffs.
Shortly after the battle, a Blackfoot warrior rode down to the river and prayed that he might one day become the most powerful medicine man in his tribe. While he was praying, he came upon a serpent who told him that his prayers would be answered if he gave the serpent the youngest of his three wives.
The warrior sacrificed his youngest wife to the serpent. Appeased, the serpent instructed the warrior to locate and dig under a large cottonwood tree that grew in a deep ravine in which a spring flowed. The warrior found the tree (at a location that is up present day Parkview Drive east of Maple Avenue), dug at its base and found a plumed medicine hat. Aided by the power of the hat, the warrior went on to become the most powerful medicine man of the Blackfoot tribe and came to be known as “The Man of the Medicine Hat”.
Legend 8. The Top Hat Massacre
One old story passed down through the years by word of mouth is that, many years ago, an Indian war party massacred a group of white settlers. The Indian medicine man among them scavenged the white corpses and took either a young girl’s frilly bonnet or a man’s beaver felt top hat.
Legends of Love and Human Sacrifice
Legend 9. The Kainai (Blood) Blackfoot Sacrifice Legend
James Francis Sanderson, a half breed frontiersman and businessman, documented a Kainai Blackfoot version of how Medicine Hat got its name in his 1894 book Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies. The same story was retold by Reverend Charles Stephens of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in a Medicine Hat News article, and is now one of the two official explanations for the origin of the city’s name.
Jim Marshall, a Medicine Hat artist and sculptor, immortalized this Blood legend in an enormous brick mural that graces the foyer to the Council Chambers in Medicine Hat’s City Hall.
There is a part of the South Saskatchewan River between Police Point Park and Strathcona Island Park that remains free of ice all year round, even during the most severe winters. The Blackfoot believed that this place was the breathing hole of the Great Spirit.
Far back in Blackfoot tradition, it is told that a young Blood hunter was tasked with scouting for buffalo during a particularly severe winter. The hunter, accompanied by his newly married wife and his favorite dog, journeyed down the frozen South Saskatchewan River. After several days of travelling, the trio arrived at the aforementioned part of the river on which ice never forms and made camp on the riverbank.
That evening, the hunter walked alone alongside the river. As he walked, the Great Spirit, in the form of an enormous serpent, slithered from the water. The serpent told the hunter that he would become great chief and medicine man if he threw the body of his wife into the river.
The hunter returned to his wife and told her what the Great Spirit had said. The wife immediately expressed her willingness to die for her husband and for the good of the tribe. Of course, the hunter was reluctant to sacrifice his wife, and so he sacrificed his favorite dog instead and prayed that its carcass might serve as a substitute. Upon throwing the body of his dog into the river, however, the serpent emerged again and told him that unless his wife was sacrificed, he could do nothing.
Again, the hunter returned to his wife and told her what the serpent had said. Again, his wife selflessly acquiesced. Finally, with great reluctance, the hunter sacrificed his wife and gave her body to the serpent.
Appeased, the serpent instructed the hunter to spend the night on the small island nearby (at the mouth of Ross Creek). In the morning, he would proceed to the cut banks to the east and find a medicine hat at the base of the cliffs. The headdress, the serpent told him, was only to be worn in battle, and would ensure victory to the wearer. Tradition has it that the hunter became a great medicine man and warrior.
Legend 10. Officer Turner’s Legend
In 1905, J.P. Turner, an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Historical Research Department, “made inquiries bearing on the origin of the unusual name (of Medicine Hat)”. Turner heard many versions regarding the subject from old Indians and white pioneers from both Fort Macleod and Medicine Hat, and wrote down the version “that appeared most authentic and vouched for” by his interviewees.
Senator Dr. Fredrick William Gershaw, an early Medicine Hat resident, physician, politician and amateur historian (who is the namesake of Medicine Hat’s Gershaw Drive and Bow Island’s Senator Gershaw School), included Turner’s story (which is remarkably similar to Sanderson’s Blood Version) in his book Saamis: The Medicine Hat.
There is a small part of the South Saskatchewan River on which no ice ever forms (between Police Point and Strathcona Island). While camped at this part of the river on the southern shore (Strathcona Island), a Blackfoot warrior had a vision. A figure (either an Indian chief or a huge serpent) wearing a magnificent feathered headdress rose from the opening in the ice. Incidentally, the young warrior was engaged to marry love of his life at the time, and was told that if he threw her to the figure, he would become the greatest of all the chiefs. Out of love for her fiancé, the girl agreed to be sacrificed, and was thrown beneath the water. The place has been known as the “spot of the Medicine Hat” ever since.
Legend 11. Thunder Bear’s Elopement
W.H. McKay and James Sallows, Cree half breeds and pioneers who contested Gillett’s Cree battle legend, believed that Medicine Hat was named by William Cornelius Van Horne (General Manager and later President of the Canadian Pacific Railway) after listening to the account of a noted Cree chief named Thunder Bear. According to McKay, a middle aged Thunder Bear met with Van Horne at his uncle’s cabin in the spring of 1883 and told him a personal anecdote. Upon hearing the Indian’s tale, Van Horne supposedly decided to name the new village on the South Saskatchewan ‘Medicine Hat’.
This account was documented by Marcel M.C. Dirk, a Hatter historian, in his book But Names Will Never Hurt Me, by Senator Dr. Frederic William Gershaw, a Medicine Hat physician and politician, in his book Saamis: The Medicine Hat, and by Ed Gould, in his book All Hell for a Basement. In Gershaw’s version, the Cree narrator is named chief Thunder Bird (instead of Thunder Bear).
In the summer of 1862, chief Red Deer (the Cree chief who is the namesake of Red Deer, Alberta) “was camped with his tribe where the river that bears his name joins the swift flowing water” (near Empress). In one of Red Deer’s teepees lived a beautiful girl named Silver Rose. The old chief, who already had four older wives, had forced the girl to marry him against her will.
Thunder Bear loved Silver Rose, and when he heard that she had married Red Deer against her will, he rode into Red Deer’s camp, rescued her from the chief’s teepee and rode off with her. The couple came to “the place where the river runs (closest to) the Cypress Hills” (present day Medicine Hat), and camped on a small island in the river between present day Police Point and Strathcona Island. They chose to come to this spot, Thunder Bear maintained, since it was “very dangerous territory” and subsequently the last place that the chief would expect to find them. On their fifth day on the island, the water level began to rise, and so they crossed to the south shore (Strathcona Island) and pitched their teepee at the foot of the cliffs.
Silver Rose knew that Red Deer had a love of display and a weakness for showy feathers, and so she instructed Thunder Bird to shoot down a number of eagles that were nesting in the cut banks overlooking the river. Using the finest tail feathers from seven of the best eagles, Silver Rose made “one of the most beautiful bonnets any chief ever possessed”.
Thunder Bear and Silver Rose returned to Red Deer’s camp and presented the headdress to the old chief as a peace offering. The chief was so pleased with the gift that he forgave them both, and allowed them to remain together and live in his camp. The Cree people, being very superstitious, believed that Red Deer’s change of heart was attributable to the magic the medicine hat possessed.
Upon hearing Thunder Bear’s tale, Van Horne immediately decided to name the site of the new railway station ‘Medicine Hat’.
(continued on How Medicine Hat Got Its Name (3/3))