“ Names are the pegs from which history is hung.”
– Henry Schoolcraft.

The work contained in this book began around 1970 as a hobby. When first prospecting in the southeast Yukon and Cassiar country, I was naturally interested in the history of an area about which I had read and been told so much. Becoming curious about the origin or meaning of a Yukon place name, I found that there was often no answer, or conflicting ones. Alone of Canada’s provinces and territories almost nothing has been written on this subject. On reading the early literature it often appeared that the modern name was not that given originally and that in many cases the name and its meaning had been altered or changed. I began to search for the true origins of these names. Gradually, the people and the stories behind the names began to live for me and many were more interesting than much of the fiction written about the territory. As the stories unfolded and extended, my interest became more serious but no less enjoyable. Many newly learned facts revealed other stories and puzzles to be traced and solved.

The stories set down here are almost entirely contained in the written accounts of those who took part in or were close to the events. Little is from hearsay, unless confirmed by other statements or accounts. In cases of conflict the earliest or most obvious story is given: in some cases, two or more equally reliable but differing accounts are recorded and the reader may choose between them.

The stories of most of the early explorers are well-known but those of the common people who opened and developed the country are often remembered only in the name of a feature where they pioneered. As builders of a country their names should not be forgotten. This is an attempt to record some of these stories. This Yukon is a hard and demanding country. For the most part it has always attracted the more self-reliant, individualistic and adventurous types of people. They were people worth knowing and people worth remembering.

The first known white man to set foot in the Yukon Territory was John Franklin, the famous English Arctic explorer. During his second expedition in 1826, he travelled the Arctic coast from the mouth of the MacKenzie River westward into what is now Alaska. Many of the Yukon’s coastal features, including Herschel Island were named by him at that time. However, the first feature in the Yukon to be given a name by white men was Mount St. Elias in the southwest corner of the territory. Seen from the sea on St. Elias Day, 16 July 1741, it was named by Vitus Bering while he was exploring the coast of Alaska for the Russian government.

The next group of names was given in the period between 1839 and 1850. Robert Campbell of the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the central Yukon by way of the Liard, Frances and Pelly Rivers. Campbell established the courses of the Frances, Pelly and Yukon Rivers and built trading posts on or near each of them. He named these rivers and many of their tributaries. Later in the same period John Bell and Alexander Hunter Murray of the same company, crossed the northern Yukon from the MacKenzie River and established Lapierre House and later, Fort Yukon.

From 1880 on, the early prospector-miners arrived and in their wanderings gave names to many of the streams where they found gold and to the mountains they used as landmarks. Up to this time the prospectors and explorers retained many of the old native names.
Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, US Army, came over the Chilkoot Pass and rafted quickly down the Yukon River in June and July 1883, conducting the first rough survey of its course. Ignoring the names known to the natives, traders and miners he renamed most of the principal streams, lakes and outstanding features along the river after his Army superiors and prominent academicians of his day.

Dr. George Mercer Dawson, Director of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada (and one of Canada’s outstanding explorer-geologists), in 1887 ascended the Liard and Frances Rivers from the Stikine and descended the Pelly to its junction with the Yukon, surveying the rivers and topography as he went. His maps and reports, which included all available information concerning the Territory and its inhabitants, were of such high quality that they are still classics of their kind today. He repudiated much of Schwatka’s nomenclature, retaining many of the original names.

William Ogilvie, DLS, of the Department of the Interior, ran a precise survey in 1887-88 from Pyramid Harbor near Haines, Alaska, up Chilkoot Inlet to Dyea and over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett. From Bennett he carried his survey down the Yukon River to the Yukon-Alaska boundary below Forty Mile. These were the first accurate surveys made of the route through the central Yukon. He then cut the Yukon-Alaska boundary line from the Yukon River south through the Fortymile and Sixty Mile Rivers country, thus settling any dispute as to the national ownership of the rich placer goldfields then being exploited there. He later settled the first disputes as to claim ownership on Bonanza Creek in the Klondike in the fall of 1896. Ogilvie, who was to become the first Commissioner of the Yukon Territory, named a number of prominent peaks after the pioneer prospectors of the Yukon, whom he admired, and a number of streams after geological phenomena observed on them.

The Klondike Gold Rush years of 1896-99 saw hundreds of names added to the maps as thousands of gold-seekers overran the country. The custom of the times allowed the first man who found gold and staked the Discovery claim on any creek (the first or Discovery claim, was double the size of a regular claim) to give it any name he chose. In many cases where the miner was ignorant of this custom the Mining Recorder supplied the name for him.

Other and later mining rushes and stampedes to various parts of the territory added still more names to the maps. Many creeks and lakes were named locally after the trappers, traders and prospectors who made their homes on them. The Geological Survey of Canada has, since Dawson’s time, added many names as its geologists mapped the rocks of the region. The Alpine Club of Canada and various institutional mountaineering expeditions have named many of the peaks in the St. Elias Range of the southwestern Yukon. Construction workers of the Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline added their share of new names.

The last large group of names was acquired in the 1960-70 period, when the Surveys and Mapping Branch of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources was preparing its 1:50,000 scale topographical maps. As each sheet is titled by the name of a central feature, any that were without such names were given those of early Yukoners. Gordon McIntyre, Yukon Lands Titles Agent and later member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly was responsible for most of the research. He ensured the perpetuation of the names of many nearly forgotten pioneers.

A continuing class of names is that honouring many Yukoners and other Canadians who died in foreign wars. Individual names have been and are being proposed and adopted with the approval of the Territorial government and the Canada Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (also known as the Canadian Board on Geographical Names or the Geographical Board).

In no way is this book anything but a beginning. There are still many names for which no information has been found. There are still many gaps yet to be filled. Over the years many records have been lost or misplaced and are no longer available. It is my earnest hope that any readers who possess any part of this missing information will share it with the Yukon Archives or with me: it will be received with appreciation. With this help, in time a new and more comprehensive work can be prepared.

R.C. Coutts
Atlin, B.C.

Almost ten years have passed since writing the above. In this time more information has accumulated from various sources. Much from interested people who have read the book and found that they had information to add. A few corrections have been made in light of new evidence. A number of new names have been designated. A great number of native names have and are being saved by the dedicated work of the Native Languages Project, ably headed by John Ritter.

There are still names I am curious about. Perhaps the coming years will reveal the information.

R.C. Coutts
Atlin, B.C.