Historical Names Along the Sturgeon-weir River by Dale R. Russell

2015-01-18

A while back, I began documenting the early trading posts along the Churchill River and north to Reindeer Lake, including the “Sturgeon Creek” posts at Sandy Bay, ca. 1799-1801. The oldest post journal (the page bottoms have rotted away!) was from the Pukatawagan area in 1789. I got up to 1813, but put things aside.

pondmap

Peter Pond’s 1785 “Hamilton” map (redrawn). British Archives [click to enlarge the maps]

Then Les Oystryk, from the Denare Beach Museum, asked me how Mirond Lake, on the Sturgeon-weir River just below Pelican Narrows, got its name.

From 1775 to 1883, the Sturgeon-weir was the main route to the far Northwest. Many people had passed over it, so there were numerous records and maps. Although I was only vaguely aware of Mirond Lake, I thought it would only take a couple of hours to find out - clearly, at least in its present form, it is not a Cree word.

It is now a year later, and having spent many hours on Internet, I still don't have a clear answer for Les.

I knew much of the history of the Churchill River, but not a lot of the Sturgeon-weir, so I had to find all the travel accounts between Cumberland House and Frog (Trade) Portage on the Churchill.

map-thompson

David Thompson’s 1814 “North West Company” map (redrawn). Ontario Archives

Since I am interested in references to the Island Falls/Sandy Bay area, I decided to cover the entire region from the Sturgeon-weir and Reindeer Rivers east to Thompson and the Burntwood River. Unfortunately, it turns out that there are very few travel records for the Island Falls region between 1810 and 1909.

I also began tracking down all the old maps starting with Alexander Henry the Elder’s little-known map of 1776.

David Thompson had travelled much of the region between 1793 and 1806. I already had copies of his notebooks and of his huge, unpublished 1826 Map of the West from the British Archives. (The better-known earlier 1814 version is in the Ontario Archives.)

As well, I had Peter Fidler’s field books and sketch maps from 1792 to 1807 to help me out. (Trying to decipher their handwriting is a problem.)

I also decided to record all the names along Sturgeon-weir, not just Mirond Lake.

map-franklin

Sir John Franklin’s 1820 “York Factory to Isle-a-la-Crosse” map (published 1823)

Unfortunately, the most recent official maps omit many geographic names, while many travellers named only the major places. Different names were used over time, even by travellers in the same period, and for different parts of the river. For example, Eagle Portage (1792), Slope Rapids (1805) and Ridge Portage (1823) all refer to Spruce Rapids, just above Amisk Lake.

A major problem: is it Sturgeon-weir, Sturgeon Weir or Sturgeon-Weir? In 1912, the federal “names board” decided that it was to be spelled Sturgeon-weir, and, specifically, not Sturgeon Weir. Yet some government maps are now spelling it “Sturgeon-Weir”. (By the way, the original Cree fishing weirs were built 16 km upstream from modern Sturgeon Landing.) 

The earliest name for Mirond Lake, “Mineront,” was used by Peter Pond (a notoriously poor speller) on his maps from around 1785. After Pond, there are variations of a name similar to Mirond - e.g. Thompson called it Lake Merion.

However, after the early 1800s it was suddenly called Heron Lake on many maps. At first I hoped it might be a translation from the original Cree name. Instead, I found that Sir John Franklin, on his famous first Arctic overland expedition of 1819-22, got confused by the word “Miron” and wrote “Heron” by mistake. Afterwards, everyone simply copied him! 

Oddly, I have yet to find anyone who recorded the original Cree name despite the many travellers. Meanwhile, I am still working through things (over 50 books, reports, journals and maps) and Les is still waiting for my answer.

Saskatoon, SK