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There are stories behind each community


Francois Lake, one of the region’s largest bodies of water, wasn’t always known by this name. To the Witsuwit’en people who have lived here since time immemorial, it was Nitagh Bin, (“bin” meaning “lake”). We don’t know what the English translation of nitagh is; according to Father Adrien Gabriel Morice, the Catholic priest who worked out of Fort St. James in the late nineteenth century, it came from the Indigenous word Nita-poen, which he claimed meant “lip lake” in the local dialect – a name that reflected the lake’s shape. When viewed from above, Francois Lake certainly looks like someone’s upper lip, but it is unlikely that anyone had that view in the age before airplanes.

How did a lake known to Indigenous people as Nitagh Bin become Francois Lake? One theory is that the first Euro-Canadian explorers to pass through this area confused the Witsuwit’en word nitagh with nedo, the Carrier word for “Frenchman” or “white man.” In this way, Nitagh Bin became “Lac des Francais” or “Lake of French,” because most early European visitors were French-Canadian voyageurs. Father Morice labeled the lake “French Lake” on his 1907 map of this area, though it appears as “Francois Lake” on the 1875-76 map of Central BC by George W. Dawson.

Regardless of its source, the name stuck, though today some people pronounce it “Francis.”

Many other well-known geographic features can trace their names to this area’s Indigenous people. The mountain we now know as “Nadina” was known to the Witsuwit’en as Nedin’a, which according to elder Rita George means “stands alone” in the Witsuwit’en dialect. Similarly, Uncha Lake on the Southside derives its name from the Witsuwit’en word for “large area” (Honcagh).

Even Ootsa Lake can trace its name to the Indigenous people who hunted and fished it. To the Witsuwit’en people, it was Utsewh Bin. Father Morice’s map does not name the lake we now call Ootsa, but Dawson labeled it Ootsabunket in 1875, which is similar ‘Oosa Bunket, the name given it by the Cheslatta Carrier people.

Some of our communities have strange names, too.

The source of the name given the unincorporated community of Tintagel (pronounced Tin-TAY-Gull by locals) has also been lost over time. Pat Turkki, author of Burns Lake & District: A History, suggested in 1972 that the community might have got its name from Josiah Clement Wedgwood, the first Baron of Wedgwood, a British politician and a descendant of the man who started the Wedgwood pottery firm. According to her, an official of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway asked Baron Wedgwood to suggest names for communities along the new rail line, and “Tintagel” was one of those names. (Sheraton was another).

While this story may be suspect, “Tintagel” definitely has its roots firmly planted in the United Kingdom. There is a village of the same name (pronounced Tin-TAWJ-uhl” by the Brits) along the rocky coast of Cornwall. Also known as “Trevena,” (the Cornish word for “village on a mountain”) the British settlement of this name has been around for at least a thousand years – and could date back to the Roman occupation of Britain. Though a noble built the nearby castle in the thirteen century, Tintagel has long been associated with Arthurian legend. Cleric and author Geoffrey of Monmouth (1094 – 1155) claimed that King Arthur was conceived and born at Tintagel, and that the sorcerer Merlin lived in a cave nearby.

In 1967, members of the Tintagel (BC) Centennial Committee (which including Pete Hairsine, Don Lacey, and Fred Stearns) asked the UK’s Ministry of Works for a stone from the walls of Tintagel Castle. Measuring 24x12x9 inches, this “little bit of old England” was transported to North America by the SS Loch Loyal, a ship owned by Royal Mail Lines Ltd. Today, the rock that once stood high on a wind-swept cliff in Cornwall is the centrepiece of a memorial cairn at the Tintagel rest stop east of Burns Lake.

The tiny community of Clemretta cannot trace its roots back quite as far, but it too has a history. By the 1930s, there were enough homesteaders west of Colleymount to warrant a post office. The Cowan family agreed to host the new facility, but they had a problem: Canada’s Postmaster General required that each post office have a name, and the community that had grown up around the Cowan farm did not have one at that time.

Neighbours suggested several possibilities, but the winner came from an unlikely source.

“My brother Tom, he had two calves, one called Henrietta, the other called Clementine,” recalled Hugh Cowan in the 1980s. “So he got the bright idea of putting the two names together. I remember my dad saying, ‘Oh, we’re not sending that in,’ and I said, “Oh, send it in.’”

The Postmaster General approved the name, and Clemretta became Canada’s newest post office.

Two other communities also owe their names in part to Canada Post.

Lee Newgard, a man supposedly born in St. Paul, Minnesota, settled near the west end of Francois Lake in 1915. He lived alone for several years, walking 47 miles to Houston twice a year for supplies. Somewhere along the line, he met Nora Middleton, and the two were married in December 1923.

In 1937, the Newgards petitioned the federal government for a post office. Like the Cowans six years earlier, the Newgards had to come up with a name for the facility. The name they chose was Noralee – a contraction of their given names – and it was approved without comment.

Bob Nelson, who homesteaded in the Ootsa Lake country early in the twentieth century, wasn’t so lucky. When the Postmaster-General asked him to give his post office a name, he initially couldn’t come up with one – until residents noted that the area in which he lived had a more temperate climate than did most others in the region.

Nelson, perhaps out of whimsy as much as desperation, suggested that the new community be named “Banana” because it was located in the area’s “banana belt.”

The Postmaster General was not amused. According to Arthur Shelford, who also homesteaded at Ootsa Lake, Canada Post’s top official would not consider “such a ridiculous name,” and gave Nelson a choice of two others: Wisteria (a plant with purple flowers) and Eversley (a quaint village in Hampshire). Nelson chose the former, but spelled it “Wistaria.”

The origins of Marilla, an unincorporated community at what was once the east end of Ootsa Lake, have also been lost over time. The Horr family – Myron Eugene, his wife Tena, and their son Roswell – were some of the area’s first settlers, arriving in 1909-10. Myron and Tena later retired to the US, but Roswell stayed in the East Ootsa area and established the community’s post office. Why he chose the name “Marilla” remains a mystery, but it bears noting that there is a “Marilla Township” in Michigan.

We know that before coming to the Lakes District, the Horr family lived in Aberdeen, Washington. Did at least one member of the family originally hailed from Michigan? It’s possible because, in 1883, a Myron Eugene Horr was appointed postmaster of Whittemore, Michigan – which happens to be only 183 km east of Marilla Township.

It’s a mystery begging to be solved. Yet in the end, does it really matter? Shakespeare would argue that it doesn’t, because “a rose is a rose by any other name.”

(c) 2022 Lakes District Museum Society