First Nations heroes and Spanish beauties: a history of Vancouver Island place names

Communities often named after explorers or because of pre-colonial characteristics

Lady Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith

A First Nations hero lying stricken on his side, a gaping hole ripped out of his chest.

A courageous young Spanish beauty beloved by the British army, who became an icon in the history of south Africa.

If not for these and a handful of other exceptions, one might think Vancouver Island towns were named strictly from an odd brew combining the pages of a navy quartermaster’s roster with a promotional brochure from the 19th-century Coast Salish chamber of commerce.

At least that’s the theme running through an examination of Island place names on the B.C. government website and a collection of other histories.

Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith — or Lady Smith as history came to call her — was a descendant of the legendary Ponce De Leon. Orphaned at 14 during the Napoleonic Wars, she found protection in the form of Major Harry Smith of the liberating British Army and married him a few days later.

Smith went on to accompany her husband in all his campaigns, including the now “Sir” Harry’s deployment as the governor of the Cape Colony in South Africa, where they named a town Ladysmith in her honour.

Fifty years later, Vancouver Island coal tycoon and British patriot James Dunsmuir was busy building a new coal port on the shores of Oyster Harbour when he got news of the lifting of the lengthy siege of Ladysmith in the Boer War.

Not only did he rename his new town Ladysmith in honour of the occasion, he named all the streets after British Boer War generals.

The history of the name Chemainus, meanwhile, is a little less clearly defined.

Some histories relate that the name means “bitten breast” in a Native dialect. Others state that it refers to “Tsiminnis” a legendary figure who led the migration of a tribe from the Alberni area to the head of Chemainus Bay.

Both those tales combine with additional details in W.H Olsen’s Chemainus history Water Over The Wheel.

Olsen writes of a range of nearby hills, seen in silhouette, that resembles a man lying prone with a deep cleft in his chest. Local First Nations people identified this cleft with wounds inflicted by cannibal dancers. The cleft was “Tsa-mee-nis.”

Beyond these intriguing tales, the stories behind the names of a majority of Island communities seem to fit one of two categories.

The first is those communities bearing a name given that location by its First Nations people, names that typically signify what was attractive about the area, names like Esquimalt, Nanaimo and Comox.

Historian Patrick Dunae said he never before realized the pattern of the place names reflecting positive characteristics of those places, but said it fit with what respected Snuneymuxw Elder Ellen White told him about First Nations naming conventions for people.

First Nations nomenclature also appears to have stuck more readily in locations not identified by the early European chart makers, the people responsible for the second popular source category of popular community names.

These communities have names given by explorers in honour of British or Spanish officials, names like Port Hardy, Alberni and Tofino.

Dunae said explorers followed a protocol of first naming things after a sovereign, then high-ranking officials in the fleet, or company, before finally settling on ship’s officers.

He chuckles over the image of Baker looking smugly at Puget after he got the mountain and Puget was left to be satisfied with the sound.

The mix of Spanish and British names comes from the early competition for the territory between the two nations. A negotiation between Britain’s George Vancouver and Spain’s Juan Francisco Quadra led to peaceful co-existence and an island originally named “Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island.”

The current absence of Quadra tells you which colonial power stuck around.

 

Some of the names with First Nations roots include:

Saanich: some reports indicate it means “land of plenty” in a First Nations dialect. But in a dialect of the Salish language which the indigenous people of Saanich speak, it means “emerging,” and refers to the sight of Mt. Newton “rising” as flood waters receded.

Esquimalt: The name Esquimalt comes from “Es-whoy-malth” meaning “place of gradually shoaling water” in recognition of its shoreline.

Cowichan: “the warm land.” Cowichan Lake was originally known as ”Kaatza” meaning simply “the lake.”

Nanaimo: “meeting place” or ”group of many people” or “gathering place.” It was originally called Colvilletown after Andrew Colvile, a governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Ucluelet: after the First Nations people of the area, “the people with the safe landing place.”

Qualicum: from a Snuneymuxw First Nation term for “place of the dog [chum] salmon.”

Comox: meaning “plenty,” “abundance,” or “riches” for the abundance of berries and game.

Malahat: “the place where one gets bait.”

Sooke: said to originate from the stickleback fish once found at the river mouth, a name by which its First Nations people became known.

Metchosin: an exception of the flattering name trend, Metchosin is said to date back to a time when a dead whale was cast up on a local beach, causing the local First Nations to refer to the area as “Smets-Shosin”, the “place of stinking fish.”

 

Some names tied to explorers include:

Sidney: the survey vessel HMS Plumper surveyed Sidney Island and Sidney Channel, naming each after Lt Frederick William Sidney of the Royal Navy. When the nearby town site was established in 1891, the settlement shared the name.

Langford: named for Captain Edward Langford, an impoverished English gentleman farmer. He established one of the four Hudson’s Bay Company farms in the Victoria area before sailing back to England in disgrace.

Colwood: shares more than just geography with Langford. It was the name Captain Langford gave his farm, after his home in Sussex, England.

Tofino: in honour of Don Vicente Tofiño, rear admiral in the Spanish navy.

Port Alberni: from the canal, which was named after Dom Pedro Alberni, commander of the soldiers taking part in the Spanish expedition sent by the Viceroy of Mexico to occupy the coast in 1790.

Courtenay: after Captain (later Rear Admiral) George William Conway Courtenay, a member of a noted family of the British aristocracy.

Campbell River: Named by the captain of the HMS Plumper, after the ship’s surgeon, Samuel Campbell.

Port Hardy: after Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who held the dying Lord Nelson in his arms during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Port McNeill: after Captain William Henry McNeill, an American agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

 

Other name origins include:

Victoria: Needing a new Pacific headquarters as the treaty establishing the 49th parallel as the new border loomed, the Hudson’s Bay company chose a site called Camosack by the local First Nations. Briefly Fort Albert, it was quickly renamed Fort Victoria in honour of her majesty.

Oak Bay: the Garry oak tree, which flourished in the location, gave rise to Sir Charles Piers’ phrase, “a veritable bay of oaks.” The name appears on Captain Henry Kellet’s chart of 1847, prior to the community being established.

Port Renfrew: originally named Port San Juan, the settlers changed the name to honour Lord Renfrew who planned to settle crofters there. The change was made in part due to mail confusion tied to the San Juan Islands.

Mesachie Lake: Mesachie is a word in the pidgin Chinook dialect of the Pacific Northwest meaning “bad” or “evil.”

Duncan: Originally Duncan’s Crossing, it was named after William Chalmers Duncan, whose farm, Alderlea, was the site of the railway station at the crossing of the Cowichan River.

Crofton: after Henry Croft, a mining engineer who was a brother-in-law of James Dunsmuir. He founded the smelter the town grew up around.

Parksville: after the early settlers Nelson, Frank, George T. and James E. Parks

Cumberland: originally called Union after James Dunsmuir’s Union Coal Company. Many of Dunsmuir’s miners had come from Cumberland in England.

— sources include GeoBC, British Columbia Coast Names, British Columbia Place Names, and a variety of community and municipal websites