NAMING THE PEAKS OF THE CANADIAN ROCKIES

Although many of the prominent peaks must have been assigned names by the aboriginal people, few of these remain. The ones that do are generally descriptive such as Nihahi (rocky) Ridge or are translations of their original names such as Devil's Head. In other cases mountains were assigned Indian names by non-natives. Hungabee (Chieftain), Assiniboine (Stoney), and the original names for the mountains in the Valley of the Ten Peaks fall into this category.

The earliest explorers such as Peter Fidler and David Thompson were probably too overwhelmed with the scale of the country to be concerned with naming individual peaks. In 1792 Peter Fidler took bearings on Devil's Head and what we now know as Mount Glasgow. He named it The Pyramid. Thompson restricted his naming to entire ranges such as Duncan's Mountains (The Rockies) and Nelson's Mountains (the Selkirks).

A few of the names utilized by the Fur Traders during the early nineteenth century have been retained in the Athabasca River Valley. Roche Ronde and Caledonia Mountain are examples of these.

However the vast majority of the mountains were named either by members of the Palliser Expedition, George Dawson, various individuals involved in the building and management of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the early climbers, or Arthur Wheeler and the Interprovincial Boundary Surveyors.

The Palliser Expedition
From 1857 to 1859 Captain John Palliser led a group of scientists into what was then the virtually unknown territory lying west of what is now Manitoba. Known as the British North American Exploring Expedition, it was charged by the government of the day with the task of exploring, studying, and mapping the plains between the North Saskatchewan River and the American border, as well as the southern passes through the Rockies.

John Palliser's background was wilderness travel, hunting, and seeking adventure in the western United States. He was delegated to organize and lead the expedition but the real work was to be done by respected British scientists in the area of geology, botany, zoology, climatology, and geography.

It is difficult to imagine the expedition approaching the front ranges of the Rockies without any sort of map and with virtually all the features un-named. The vastness of this unknown land and their task must have at times seemed overwhelming and it is not surprising that Palliser chose to split his group into smaller parties upon reaching the mountains. Lieutenant Thomas Blakiston, the expedition's "magnetic observer," travelled south to the vicinity of Waterton Lakes and then crossed the Kootenay and South Kootenay Passes. Palliser himself travelled to the headwaters of the Kananaskis River, crossed the Continental Divide, and explored the Kootenay Valley. Dr. James Hector, the expedition's surgeon and geologist, rode up the Bow Valley, over Vermilion and Kicking Horse Passes, and explored the North Saskatchewan Valley, Howse Pass, and the Athabasca River.

The Palliser Expedition produced the first maps of Alberta's mountainous areas and many of the prominent features were named. Generally the names chosen were those of respected fellow scientists such as one member's anatomy professor at the University of Edinburgh, government officials who supported the expedition such as the Governor General of the day, and fellow explorers of the era such as David Livingstone. At times, however, members of the expedition chose names related to the appearance of a mountain such as Molar Mountain or named a peak after a bird or animal seen nearby.

George Dawson
Said to be one of the most outstanding scientists Canada has ever produced, George Dawson conducted the first Government of Canada survey in the Canadian Rockies. Following the Palliser Expedition, any surveying work had been sponsored by the Canadian Pacific Railway and focused on finding a route through the mountain barrier for the railway. Dr. Dawson's task was more general in nature, to determine the courses of the major rivers and the locations of the main peaks and passes.

George Dawson had a reputation for excellence, his maps being referred to as "a literal photograph of the country containing information phenomenally complete and accurate." This quality of work was a result of tremendous physical effort in the field despite his short stature complicated by a chronic chest weakness and a back humped by a childhood accident. He was described as having a "cheerful, amiable disposition combined with an indomitable will and an insatiable passion for exploration and discovery."

During 1884 and 1885 George Dawson travelled extensively through the Rockies. His first summer's work in the mountains began in early July and by the end of the season he had travelled through the country south of Crowsnest Pass, to the headwaters of the Oldman River, up the Kootenay and Columbia Valleys to the present site of Golden, and then through the Kicking Horse Pass and down the Bow River Valley.

His second summer's studies began in early June and took him from the Bow Valley to the headwaters of the Kananaskis River and south again to the Crowsnest Pass, returning to the Bow Valley in late July. The month of August was spent covering the area from south of Mount Assiniboine to the Kicking Horse Pass. During September his party studied the area north of Castle Junction to the Red Deer Valley and west to the headwaters of the Bow River.

Approximately one thousand kilometres were travelled during the two seasons, a remarkable effort considering the lack of trails. As well, Dr. Dawson would have constantly been stopping and taking side trips for his scientific work and it must be remembered that he had some significant physical limitations.

Appointed Director of the Geological Survey of Canada shortly after his summers in the Rockies, Dr. Dawson's work took him to many other parts of the country. His name is to be found on the maps and in numerous reports ranging from the Alberta Rockies, through British Columbia to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and in the Yukon.

The Canadian Pacific Railway
As the surveying, construction, and development along the main line of the CPR proceeded during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, most of the significant features along the route were named. Some honoured prominent early visitors of the day such as Sir John A. Macdonald's wife who enjoyed the views from the cowcatcher of a locomotive as she travelled over Kicking Horse Pass. Others were named after important railway officials such as the CPR's first president and others after people with perhaps less power and influence such as the freight traffic manager.

The Early Climbers
Following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, the word spread that innumerable un-named and un-climbed mountains rose for hundreds of kilometres on both sides of the tracks. Before long, mountaineers such as Charles Fay from the United States and J. Norman Collie and James Outram from Britain began exploring and climbing both in the regions near to the railway and in the unexplored areas to the north and south. Generally focusing on the high peaks of the Continental Divide, they too had an opportunity to name mountains. This was still the Victorian Age and these mountaineers were generally "well read" individuals, often university professors, whose interests went far beyond climbing mountains. They named peaks after fellow mountaineers who had gained fame in the Alps and Himalayas, the packers, hunters, and guides who accompanied their expeditions, and sometimes after each other.

These early climbers left a special legacy in the form of the books which many of them wrote describing their climbs and explorations. But more importantly, they documented the individuals who were involved and the sense of wonder and the thrill of discovery which they enjoyed during these early years. These works have provided the basis for what has now become an impressive accumulation of literature related to the Canadian Rockies.

Richard Cautley, Arthur Wheeler and the Boundary Surveyors
Those involved in the survey which established the Alberta-British Columbia boundary were responsible for the naming of more peaks than any other group. The survey was begun in 1913 and continued every summer until 1925, delineating some one thousand kilometres of the Continental Divide. It was a major effort which involved much detailed mapping in the areas adjacent to the border as well. Because the boundary was to follow the height of land it hopped from "boundary peak" to "boundary peak". Many of these peaks appeared to have no established name, so the surveyors recommended names to the Geographic Board of Canada.

Richard Cautley was the Alberta representative on the survey. He was responsible for the precise work required in the twenty-four major passes and the placing of concrete survey monuments to mark the interprovincial boundary. Cautley did not believe that mountains should be named after people but seemed pleased that the Geographic Board of Canada named a peak near Mount Assiniboine in his honour. In his memoirs he wrote, "In theory I know that it is perfectly absurd that one of the Creator's stupendous mountains should be named after any man, but I was awfully pleased at this particular negation of my theory."


The survey's British Columbia representative was Arthur O. Wheeler, a native of Ireland who had acquired considerable surveying experience in Ontario, the prairies and the North-West Territories. After seeing action during the suppression of the 1885 Riel Rebellion, he became an employee of the Department of the Interior, completing detailed surveys in the Selkirks and southern Rockies.

Arthur Wheeler became the man most associated with the Interprovincial Boundary Survey. His role was to map the divide through the high mountains between the major passes. As well as having a professional interest in travelling through the mountains, Wheeler was a co-founder of the Alpine Club of Canada. He became its first president in 1906 and continued to serve on its executive until 1927. Through his involvement with the Boundary Survey and the Alpine Club over four decades, Arthur Wheeler probably saw more of the Canadian Rockies than any other person. During his retirement he promoted walking tours to the Mount Assiniboine area. A mountain in a remote part of the Selkirk Range carries his name.

As much of the Survey's work was done during and immediately following the First World War when patriotism was at its height, many of the names which were chosen were related to this conflict. Mountains were named after warships, French villages, war heroes, songs of the era, generals and admirals, and little known soldiers who had left the survey and lost their lives overseas.

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