Past, Present & Beyond: What’s in a name? Pt. 1

Barbara Roden has an answer to those nagging questions of who that bit of geography was named after.

It’s summer (almost), which for a lot of people means it’s time to take to the road and do some exploring. So for the next few weeks this column is going to hit the road in a figurative sense, and look at what’s behind the names of some of the places in our area. We take these names for granted, but the stories of how they came to be, or evolved over the years, are often fascinating.

Where to begin? We’ll go east, I think, to a little place called Van Horne. You don’t know where that is? I don’t blame you. We know the village today as Savona, but for a very short time after the Canadian Pacific Railway came through in 1883 it was called Van Horne (or Port Van Horne), after William Cornelius Van Horne, who at the time was general manager of the CPR. Van Horne was apparently keen to have a spot on his railway named after him, but not so keen that a small and rather out of the way spot had been chosen.

It was originally named after one of the first settlers in the area, François Saveneux. He was born in Corsica, France and at some point emigrated to Canada, where he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. By 1858, however, he realized there was enough traffic over the Fur Brigade Trail through the Interior to make some way of crossing the Thompson River at the foot of Kamloops Lake a necessity. He built a small cable ferry on the north side of the river, and operated an HBC wharf and warehouse. The settlement attracted more people to live there, and the community became known after the man who had founded it, although Savenuex’s surname became anglicized in the process. Savona’s, or Savona’s Ferry, was the name the community went by in its earliest days, although the “Ferry” was eventually dropped, and it became simply Savona; the name it reverted to when Van Horne (the man) decided not to honour Van Horne (the place) with his surname any longer.

Heading west from Savona on Hwy. 1 we dip down to cross a small river which, on our right, meanders through a pleasant-looking bit of grassland. Ah, there’s a sign by the bridge giving the river’s name; it’s sure to be something pleasant, in keeping with the loveliness of the scene. Let’s see, it’s called . . . Deadman River?

Indeed it is; it’s also called Deadman’s River, Deadman Creek, and Deadman’s Creek. So while there seems to be some disagreement over whether it’s a river or a creek, there’s no argument about the dead man. But who was he?

He was a North West Company employee named Pierre Chivrette (or Charette). (As an aside, I should mention that discrepancies in spelling and nomenclature will be a regular feature in this series; written records from 100 or 200 years ago are often sketchy at best, made in a hurry by men working from memory, and often a victim of faulty pronunciation and/or misspelled source material.) In 1817 he and a companion were travelling through the area and got into an argument about the best site to make camp, with the result that Charette (or Chivrette) was killed by his companion by the river (or creek) that commemorates him. It took some time, though, before Deadman was settled on. In 1827 it was mapped as the Chivrette River, and subsequent names included Knife River (presumably after the murder weapon), Dead River, Rivière de Défunt (from the French word for late, or dead), and Defeant River (presumably a misspelling of Défunt). Next time you drive over the creek (or river), spare a thought for the sad fate of the man who inspired its (eventual) name.

Just past the bridge a road to the right leads to Vidette Lake. The name comes to us courtesy of the French-Canadiens who worked for the fur-trading companies active in the area, possibly even from Pierre Chivrette/Charette. In French the word vidette means an outpost or mounted sentry, and the French-speaking fur company men used it to indicate the man who guarded the horses when they made camp. A lake would be a logical place for such a camp to be established, so Vidette Lake was probably an important stopping place on the Fur Brigade Trail.

We continue west, and a sign on our left indicates the turnoff to Walhachin. The rise and tragic fall and rebirth of Walhachin is a subject I will probably return to in future, but for now we are looking at the name only; and once more we find confusion and variant spellings. The site was established, in 1908, on the land of the Pennie Ranch, which had been bought by a consortium seeking to create an orchard settlement along the Thompson River. The ranch already boasted a train station with the name “Pennie’s”, but the grand plans for the new community demanded a less prosaic name, and Walhassen was chosen. It was the Nlaka’pamux name for the site, and the advertising literature for the new town chose to translate it as “bountiful valley”, although the true meaning (according to the Nlaka’pamux people) was really “land of round rocks”.

It is, of course, difficult to believe that advertisers would purposely make such a mistake, possibly with the intention of misleading would-be settlers and investors; but for some reason the town’s name was changed, the following year, to the similar-sounding Walhachin. A subsequent advertising brochure from the company owning the area said that this name was “an Indian word signifying an abundance of food products of the earth”. The Nlaka’pamux people have, as far as we can tell, stayed silent regarding the truth (or not) of this statement.

Next time: on to Cache Creek, and then north (or south, depending on which way the wind blows).

Barbara Roden

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