Dr. Dawson’s job was to survey in the broadest sense. That is, he was to study and record the rocks, minerals, soil, vegetation, plants and animal life and to give an assessment of the possibilities of those resources as they would affect the choice of route which the Canadian Pacific Railway might take to the Coast. Railways must have payloads to finance the expenditure for tracks and rolling stock. Dr. Dawson was a scientist to who surveying, as such, was only incidental to his notes for the purpose of fixing locations on a map for reference.
His party, consisting of over a hundred horses and mules, with all the technical personnel, packers and guides had come over the Pine Pass, entering our area by way of East Pine. A couple of years before, John Hunter had discovered Pine Pass near Azouzetta Lake, late in the autumn. Dr. Dawson knew the results of Hunter’s explorations so he could avoid some of the difficulties.
At East Pine, the confluence of the Murray and Pine Rivers, he turned up the valley of the Coal Brook (now called Coldstream). If you look southeast from near the Lookout on the John Hart Highway, over the service station buildings you will see a deep, steep-sided canyon that marks the mouth of Coldstream Creek. From this point on we are greatly indebted to Mr. Don Watson, B.C. Land Surveyor of Dawson Creek. From a reconstruction of Dawson’s field notes greatly enlarged, and a study of the contour maps of the area Mr. Watson has pinpointed the night camps and a close approximation of the path the party followed.
Coldstream angles more east than south for seven or eight miles, and then turns south. A little stream runs in from the east in the general direction that Dr. Dawson wished to go. The party followed it for some miles, and camped for the evening of August 10th a few miles above the junction of Buffalo Creek (Tremblay Creek) which rises about four or five miles west of Progress and nine miles south. Since this is now part of the “pasture reserve” it is a natural place to stop to feed the packtrain. Near this place Dr. Dawson noted signs of a fairly recent visit by Indians with horses, but no natives to speak to.
Near this point Mr. Hunter, years earlier, had turned north towards Fort St. John, after getting into rough, burned over or heavily timbered country across the Kiskatenaw River. If he had not been afraid of the approach of winter he would have pressed on to Dunvegan, and possibly would have been the first white man to record the valley of Dawson Creek.
On the morning of August 11th, Dawson’s party traveled on for ten miles. Then they seem to have made a “morning camp” two miles from the Mud (Kiskatinaw) River. This spot is near where the John Hart Highway, a short distance west of the steel bridge at Arras, winds down a hill to a wooden bridge over a small stream. The new portion of the John Hart Highway in 1972 bypassed both of these bridges. Dawson could see the canyon of the Mud River ahead, and he knew he was close to the area that Joseph Hunter had found to be impenetrable. It would be reasonable to feed the hundred animals here, as well as the men.
We must remember that the object of this trip was not to proceed from “here” to “there” in the shortest possible time. Dr. Dawson was examining rock strata, soil types and depths, fertility, possible coal seams or other minerals, also making notes on the trees and plants, especially stands of timber or prairies suitable for grazing or ranching. His work would be consulted by the railway surveyors to see whether there would be possible tonnage to make the line pay. This was slow, painstaking business, probably making it necessary to send riders off in all directions to bring in samples, make measurements and record observations. In this new area riders would be sent ahead to scout a good crossing of a river that was later called the Cut-Bank, not without reason. So we have the “morning camp” that was noted in the Journal.
At this point Dawson decided to turn northward to avoid the bad country beyond the Mud River. At a distance of two miles he crossed the river where its cutbanks were fifty feet high in the bottom of the wide valley which it follows with many bends and twists to the North. Where it turns north westward, contrary to the “compass course” to Dunvegan which he had set for himself, Dawson climbed out onto the plateau about a mile south and a mile west of Willowbrook school. On the topographical map of the area from the aerial photography of 1945, a dry-weather trail is seen to lead to this area towards a lightly wooded area where they pitched an evening camp in an area where it was hard to find water. Dawson gives us the latitude 55o 46’ 54″ and the altitude 2605 feet.
Mr. Watson has pinpointed the spot for us. Take the road allowance that marks the north boundary of the City limits of Dawson Creek on the Northwest corner. Follow it west about ten miles to Section 23, Township 78, Range 17, and there a couple of miles north of the Arras bridge is an arm of a valley that fits the altitude exactly. It had been a hard day!
It would be interesting to know whether Dr. Dawson, geologist as he was, noted the fossils, which we now know, abound in the strata in the banks of the Kiskatinaw. Many of them are leaf fossils of comparatively recent times. Just a few miles downstream, Mr. and Mrs. A. Olsen of Dawson Creek have found the exposed stratum where fossils of very ancient warm salt-sea creatures like ammonites and pinnas abounded. Dawson did not mark “fossils” on his map.
On August 12th, the party cut its way through the heavy windfall in which they had camped and came upon the headwaters of North Dawson Creek, although the Journal does not name it. Here to the Dawson’s delight they came upon “the first prairie country we had seen which contrasts very pleasantly with the dense forests” through which they had been “groping their way”. The grass was as high as the horse’s bellies and the hillsides bright with Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, and asters. “It is a valley with gently sloping sides one to two miles wide.” We can easily recognize it as the country between the railroad and the John Hart Highway west of town.
Here we must take to the field notes for his course. In those times the marshy willow flat land west of the golf course must have extended east to the junction of the North and South Dawson in the west end of town near 17th Street, for it is below that point where the stream has been cutting a deeper channel. Even in the early 1940’s, there was a swampy area where the Dawson Creek Elementary School, the Arena and Curling Rink, and the Central Junior Secondary School, with all their grounds, are now situated. In fact, old-timers who were here in the early 1930 have all asserted that the diagonal ridges that crossed the present townsite, were old beaver dams. Before it was levelled, a very prominent one passed just west of 14th Street at 102nd Avenue, angling away on both sides. The soil between the ridges was gumbo. On the ridges it was different and does not to this day support native poplar trees well. A hundred years ago, such ridges could have held back shallow beaver ponds and willow flats. The name of this area in the Indian language was “Beaver Plains” and the translation of “Pouce Coupe” [Pooscapee] refers to an abandoned beaver dam.
One place which the field notes indicate as a spot noted by Dr. Dawson is identifiable today. North of a willow flat where the creek floods every spring, and where the wild swans rest, a side road turns north up a sharp little hill. To the west is a virgin-sod prairie quarter section where the “crocuses” abound in earliest spring. Until it recently became a pasture in 1970, one could see the prairie as Dawson saw and admired it, for “crocuses” of this sort do not grow well on land that has ever been forested or broken by plow. Here the ridge juts out to show a wide panorama far across to Bear Mountain (which Dawson, oddly, does not mention, although it is geologically interesting) and southeast to the Pouce Coupe hills. The spot is known as “Crocus Hill”, and when it is laid to the plow, a unique piece of ecology will have vanished like all the rest.
The party seems to have followed along the hills north of the present City. Here may we digress a little?
On Dr. Dawson’s map is shown a line which may be only a record of an Indian trail, pointed out by their guides. On the other hand, it may give some indication of truth to a story told to the writer by a very old man who revisited our valley back in the 1950’s. He said that he had been a rider with the H. Y. Jones cattle outfit from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where he farmed and ranched for many years. The cattle were being driven to the Klondike when the Trail of ‘98 passed here. After the tough going south and east where muskegs and heavy timber were hard on the animals, both pack horses and cattle, they stopped to feed along the creek and made camp about where the 10th Street bridge to the hospital area is now. These grassy well-watered fields were known as the Beaver Plains, and were covered with lush peavine and grass pasturage. He said they were told that Dr. Dawson had also camped here. Obviously, from Dr. Dawson’s field notes, it was not an overnight camp. Was it, perhaps another “morning” one like the one beyond Arras — a feed and watering stop for the pack-train? Mules can do without water if they have to, but they won’t if they can reach it. Our friend identified a place where the cattle were fed as the first easy ford west of the gully that the creek had cut. If the dotted line on Dawson’s map indicates a side-jaunt, it cut across the creek somewhere between the junction of North and South Dawson creeks in the neighborhood of the Canalta Subdivision quite close to “Old Dawson Creek” and the 10th Street crossing to the hospital area. Mr. Watson is reluctant to believe the story.
Near here two Indians were seen fleeing for their lives over a hill. They were followed to their camp and brought to Dr. Dawson’s evening camp further east, along with other members of the band. Dr. Dawson was intensely interested in native peoples, and was recording all that he could learn about them. Except that they did not appear physically strong (naturally, because the buffalo were already nearing extinction) Dawson spoke very highly of the local Indians. Just why these were “hungry” when Saskatoons were ripe, he doesn’t explain. Perhaps the cook’s frying salt pork and browning bannock would make them hungry at any time.
Dr. Dawson did not speak the Beaver language. One of the packers from Stuart Lake, probably a Sikanni, understood their language imperfectly, for both spoke dialects of the Athabascan tongue. It may have been from these Indians that Dr. Dawson got the name that appears in his Journal as “Pouce Coupee’s”. As an extremely well-educated man who spent all of his early years in Montreal, it is curious that he should have used the feminine form of “Coupe” with the masculine “pouce”, if in his mind “pouce” meant “thumb” (a masculine noun in French). But is it not possible that Dr. Dawson was trying to render phonetically the name of the chief of this area? The map maker used the French “Coupe” but it is noteworthy that neither did they or Dawson name the river that is now officially recorded as “Pouce Coupe”. They retained instead the old name D’Echafaud. The village of the similar name (officially Pouce Coupe without the acute “e”) was not inhabited until 1911. On Dr. Dawson’s Journal, he does not mark it, but does show Bissette Creek on his map where Pouce Coupe is now.
Referring again to the story that Dr. Dawson’s party rested on or near the site of Dawson Creek we can easily believe that the Indians would not forget the tiny misshapen “white chief”. They believed that deformed persons had some special power or “medicine spirit” that possessed them, and they held them in awe. His surveyor’s transit “the-eye-with-legs”, as it was called by Poundmaker, would seem like some magic “medicine” object in a shaman’s sacred bundle. Undoubtedly, then, Dawson was a shaman.
More memorable would be their recollection of their first encounter with such a large pack train, so many of the animals being mules. Especially so would be the terrifying, raucous, ear-shattering mule’s bray. When heard the first time unexpectedly, it brings the least superstitious white man’s hair prickling up on his scalp. Take a rusty wheel on an ungreased axle, intermittent with the wail of a fire-siren one tone lower pitched, put a loud-speaker on, and keep turning the volume up and down, and you will have the general idea. If you can produce a sound effect as the animal is being tortured to death you could use it for background music for the whole journey, night and day. This devil’s chorus of many indignant protests as the mules became hungry, tired, or fly-bitten would seem to the natives like the wails of some demented legendary monsters. No wonder the Indians took off like scared rabbits! What a tale to tell as Indians did with sound effects and dances in the teepees around the council fires of the great summer gatherings at Saskatoon Lake, Swan or Sundance Lakes. Some the local Indians could have been still alive twenty years later when the huge herd of Jones’ cattle came in from the east. They could have told Jones’ Indian guides and packers of the doings of the mysterious party from the west a few years before.
While not presenting our old friend’s story as a proven fact, his memory was still so keen and his delight at recognizing a known spot so great, that the writer wishes to record it as a bit of folklore of the area. It is difficult to dismiss it as obviously untrue.
There is no questioning that the Dawson party pressed on around the hillside until they reached a spot a mile and a half from the junction of Dawson Creek with the Pouce Coupe. They turned northeast here across country to a spot on the bank of the Pouce Coupe near what we now know as Riley’s Crossing. Dr. Dawson’s diary shows that he did not know the name of the river at the time, nor did he give any name to our creek.
In the morning they followed the river north until they found a crossing that an Indian told them would lead to Dunvegan. It was not a very distinct trail, and petered out in a burnt-over patch after about fourteen miles. Doubtless those who live on the Alberta side at latitude 55° 53’ 54″ could identify the “little brown sluggish stream surrounded by wide swampy meadows”. Locally it is known as “Bear Creek”.
Near their camping place, they met the MacLeod party of railway engineers, and also found another Indian guide who could direct the party through the maze of many “indistinct Indian trails”. The party followed the base of the range which we call the Pouce Coupe Hills, and which merges further east with the Saddle and Burnt Hills.
On the night of August 15th, the combined Dawson-MacLeod parties camped together. As the season was becoming late, Dr. Dawson, geologist, and MacLeod, engineer, decided to split up the work. The map attributed to Dr. Dawson seems to combine the results of the two parties’ work, for Dawson turned north to Dunvegan where he camped on the south side of the river on August 17th, near the end of the great modern suspension bridge. He made arrangements for a Mr. R. McConnell to meet him at Athabasca Landing, from which Dr. Dawson would proceed to Edmonton by cart. Mr. J. G. MacGregor says in Land of Twelve Foot Davis that the route of the old Edson Trail was chosen on the basis of his work there.
The night of August 18th-19th records two camps many miles apart. Dawson was on his way north of the Peace, destination Athabasca Landing. MacLeod’s party was looking for good railway grades and river crossings suitable for bridging. His was a fast moving wide-ranging party.
From Ka-toot (Kakut?) Lake on August 19th, he got away back by August 20th to Sus-mi-gi (Bear) Lake near Sis-tin on Ile de Montagne known today as Saskatoon Lake, where Saskatoon Island Provincial Park is now. He marked Klo-es-sa-ka or Fish River, and the Beaver Lodge or Uz-i-pa River. Somebody travelled the route of the present highway all the way back to Swan Lake, Tate Creek and the headwaters of the Bissette Creek that flows into Dawson Creek at Pouce Coupe. Back again, he went to criss-cross the Grande Prairie (where no white settlement existed at that time) locating the Kles-kun Lake. Dr. Dawson, geologist, would certainly have noted the curious geological formation known as the Kleskun Hills, a Provincial Park today a few miles east of Grande Prairie. They noted the Ma-atz-i-li-si-pi (Bad Heart) River, but evidently did not descend the nine hundred-foot banks to the mouth, where fossils of an ancient warm salt sea are exposed. Instead they pushed up the Simonette River. Eventually they came out around Lesser Slave Lake.
So we know the Indian and the modern names of most of the prominent features of our part of the Peace Country, but we still do not know how Dawson Creek or Pouce Coupe River got their names!
When all of the parties got together again at Ottawa, it seems that Dr. Dawson’s map combined the work of three separate groups: the one that came down the Peace by the old fur trade route; his own through Pine Pass and the MacLeod-Cambie party under Sir Sanford Fleming, C.P.R. engineer. Dawson’s map and Journal were published in the Report of Progress for 1879-80 under the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada. “Dawson’s Brook” and Pouce Coupe Prairie are marked on the map but not Pouce Coupe River. Dr. Dawson’s Journal notes that he did not know until later that the “small river” was actually the D’Echafaud named by Alexander Mackenzie about a hundred years earlier where it joined the Peace. (D’Echafaud means “scaffold”, either to cache meat or hold a dead body). The voyageurs called it “Riviere of the Scaffold”.
Another report, that of Sir Sanford Fleming, of the same year, probably put the name of Dawson Creek valley into print for the first time, but Fleming calls the stream Dawson’s River. The projected main line of the C.P.R. was to follow down the stream to the D’Echafaud, which it would cross on a bridge about six hundred feet long and eighty feet above the river. Probably many would have been high trestles like the one on the N.A.R. between Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe.
Just when Dawson’s River became Dawson Creek is not quite clear, but in 1912 when the Federal Department of Interior made a map of the Peace River Block, both “Dawson Creek” and “Pouce Coupe River” appear. We had arrived!
So it is necessary to lay the myth once and for all that Dr. Dawson named our small waterway.
Inquiries of the Federal Government archives brought a reply form Mr. G. B. Leech, geologist of the department of Energy Mines and Natural Resources. He thinks it very unlikely that Dr. Dawson named it for himself since it is “entirely out of keeping with his character and conduct” to do so. Without setting any precedent for self-praise or glorification, Dr. Dawson had already travelled the International Boundary to the Pacific. He had explored the Queen Charlotte Islands and the northern part of the Pacific watersheds. He had traversed the Rocky Mountain Trench from Vancouver via Quesnel, Prince George, and over the Pine Pass.