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Reader curious about place-names
Jun 19, 2014

Iris and Bob Normand loved the place-name series. Bob wrote, “We drove to Vancouver last summer and stopped to visit Head-Smashed In and that got me thinking about Indian Head in Saskatchewan. What’s the story?”
Many Canadian places feature the word “head,” for example, Arrowhead, Steelhead, and Flathead in B.C. Cow Head, Red Head Cove, and Berry’s Head in Newfoundland.  Here, at home, we have Brokenhead, Cat Head, and Headingley as well as a dozen others with head in their names. Also, the Yellowhead Highway begins here in Manitoba.
Often, when found in a place-name, head suggests a nearby hill or slope. Tynehead, B.C., is at the headwaters of the Serpentine River with mountains hovering nearby.
Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near For MacLeod, Alberta, is where, for about 6,000 years, buffalo were stampeded over a cliff to be slaughtered by indigenous hunters. The Jump, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was called Estipah-Skikini-Koto by Blackfoot Indians.
There are several explanations for Indian Head’s name. All relate to an Algonquian burial ground in nearby hills. The Algonquians called this cemetery, “Many Skeletons Hills,” or, “Many Skulls Hills.” Original white settlers spoke of “Indian Head Hills.” Upon the CPR’s arrival in 1882, the station was formally named, “Indian Head.”
The references to heads and skulls in the various names tells us these skulls were readily visible. That may be because indigenous people, not understanding epidemics, were afraid of smallpox victims and left them unburied, and so their bones were still found many years later.
Some head place-names are lifted from Old Country locations. This is true of both Barrhead, Alberta, and Headingley, Manitoba.
Barrhead, on the famous Yukon Trail prospectors traveled en route to the Gold Rush, was named by a Scottish pioneer after his hometown. Headingley, founded by the Rev. Griffith O. Corbett in the mid-1800s, was called after his parish in Leeds, England.
Brokenhead takes its name from the Brokenhead River, so-named because it’s divided at its source into two separate heads or branches. Brokenhead, originally spelled Broken Head, is an 1857 translation of the French, Rivière à la Tête Ouverte.
A “pass” is a way, or passage, through a gap between mountains. The Yellowhead Pass, in use since the 1820s, was an important leg of a fur route. It’s equally important today, both to rail and highway transportation. In 1971, the pass was designated a national historic site.
In the 1940s, an all-weather road was built by Japanese internees. Then in 1970, the Yellowhead Highway from Manitoba to B.C. was completed. It is the same route those long-ago fur traders traveled but, in those days, it carried several names — The Portage Trail, The Carlton Trail, The Edmonton Trail, and the Hudson Bay Trail. 
The Yellowhead is named for an Iroquois Métis guide, Pierre Bostonais, who was nicknamed Tête Jaune (Yellow Head) because of his hair colour. Tête Jaune and his family were killed in 1828 on the B.C. side of the Rockies by members of the Beaver tribe (Dane-zaa) of First Nations people. But his name lives on.