What’s in a name? Nicknames of the past

Esther Darlington MacDonald writes about some of the better known pioneer nicknames of this area's past.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

If anything says something about anybody, it is the tell-tale nickname.

It isn’t surprising how our life and times picks up the salient features of some one’s life and breaks it down to a few words. It is part and parcel of our willingness to laugh. Not only to laugh at each other, but to laugh at ourselves.  For, I’m sure that all those who will go down in history with nicknames, and have already gone down that richly decorated path, knew perfectly well what they were nicknamed. And, they may even have taken pride in them.

Do you think that the Honorable Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, for example, did not know he was “Winnie”? Of course he did. Now Winnie could be construed as a feminine name.  Cherubic features he may have had in old age, Winston could certainly not be viewed as feminine. At least, not in the sense that we understand the gender.

Well, nick names of that bygone era of say, a hundred or more years ago, proliferated like the proverbial fleas on a mongrel. They became part and parcel of the identity of many dozens of persons, usually of the male gender, who carried their nicknames into our history books and will remain there for generations.

For instance, let’s start off with a few that grew out of our colorful Cariboo history.

Twelve Foot Davis. Who located a promising site at Richfield, just a mile from Barkerville. His name was actually Henry Steel. He earned the nickname when he measured the distance from the No. 1 post and covered the available ground at that part of Williams Creek.  He measured  each of the claims  on the creek, 100 feet up and 100 feet down, and found there was a gap of 12 feet between the two claims. He “at once located the ground and then sat down to await developments and later sold the fractional claim for a good round figure”.  (Dr. Mark S. Wade, The Cariboo Road, privately published.)

Closer to home, we find Oregon Jack, after which a creek, a mountain side, and a rest site are named, just south of Ashcroft. Oregon Jack was John Dowling. He came from Oregon, not surprisingly. He built a wayside Inn at the top of the Oregon Jack hill, not far from Basque Ranch. We have to remember that those wayside inns of the time were valuable sources of rest, drink and meals to the teamsters and travellers on that very rough and lengthy tract called the Cariboo wagon road. Building a wayside inn at the top of that steep incline we call “Oregon Jack”was a good idea. And I’m sure it served the American well for a few years anyway.

Then there was Bloody Edwards, an ex-sailor who ran an inn on the Cottonwood River. He earned the nick name because he cursed almost continually, using that word. Actually, the man was not the burly figure one would expect of some one with the nickname Bloody Edwards. He was described as a “small, mild mannered man who charged what was considered exorbitant fees. For meals, $1.50. For a bed for the night, $l.50, and for feed for the horses, $1.50 for each horse. Judge Begbie, ever the gentleman, referred to the inkeeper as “Sanguine Edwards”.

Red Alec, another packer of goods into Barkerville, earned the nickname because the packer liked to tell people about the Indian attacks he and others suffered coming from California. He talked about the hardships endured by those travellers. Perhaps it was one tale too many that earned Red Alec the nickname. His real name remains a mystery.

Then there was William Henry Sanford, who jointly owned Bonaparte House at Cache Creek for a short time.  Sanford was known as Boston Bill Sanford. The native Indians of the time, referred to Americans as “Boston men”.  And though Sanford always said he was a Canadian, – possibly to put an end to the nickname, he was, actually, an American. Now we know the area where Sanford liked to race his horses, as Boston Flats. It is, as most people know, the lovely sweep of an alfalfa field below Elephant Mountain, between Cache Creek and Ashcroft.

There seems to have been a small multitude of men named Doc. The most notable of them was Doc English, whose clever doctoring of horses undoubtedly gave him the nickname.  Doc’s career in the Cariboo ran from the Williams Lake area down to Ashcroft. He ranched in the Hat Creek Valley near the turnoff of the highway to Lillooet, and he built a large two storey house in the middle of the meadow.  Remnants of the building still stand today. Doc loved horses, bred them and trained them to race. And he raced them all over the Cariboo. Horse racing was one of those activities common in almost every community then. Horses were raced on Railway Street in Ashcroft, and up on what is now the Mesa Vista sub division. Before the advent of the veterinarian, some one like Doc English was considered the equivalent.

A man named Robert Smith was known as Peg Leg Smith. In 1866, he was a general contractor who built the road from Soda Creek to Quesnel.  Smith also kept a saloon at Lytton. He earned the nickname Peg Leg owing to his use of a crutch, because he suffered from a swollen knee. Smith went on to become an MLA for the Yale district in the first Provincial legislature after Confederation. Smith objected to B.C. joining the Confederation, because Ottawa was considered dictatorial in the building of the railroad across the country. He asked that the Province secede from Confederation, but the resolution had no second bidder and died a natural death. Peg Leg Smith, it is hoped had the same fate.

There were other names that were colorful enough, but we know little about the men who earned them. Six Toed Pete, Texas Bill, Cantab Williams, Chapman’s Bar Alec, and Doc Chisholm. But every one of those nicknamed pioneers have earned a paragraph or two in our history books. Still, the flavor of the times is reflected somewhat in the names, don’t you think?