History of Medicine Hat
Grasslands Naturalists acknowledges that the Scenic Views of Medicine Hat sit on the historic lands of the Siksikaitsitapi, otherwise known as the Blackfoot Confederacy or Blackfoot Nation. The City of Medicine Hat falls within Treaty 7, established in 1877, and the Metis Nation Alberta Region 3.
In 1869, Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company. This land covered northern Quebec, northern Ontario, much of the three prairie provinces, and most of southern Nunavut. To help pay for this significant investment and costs, lands such as south-east Alberta were developed. This process involved the bringing in of law and order (North West Mounted Police), settlement and agriculture, building of railroads and bridges, using the natural waterways (such as the South Saskatchewan River), and the building of towns and economy.
“NWMP barracks at Police Point, Medicine Hat, in 1884.” – Courtesy of Hammerson Peters, March 10, 2021. How Medicine Hat Got Its Name.
Our City writes in its website* that, “In 1883, a tent city sprang up in the valley of the South Saskatchewan River where Canadian Pacific Railway work crews were constructing a bridge (CPR). Early settlers, some Metis, others Ontario-born, were first to arrive in the area. By the 1890s, German-speaking immigrants occupied parts of the hinterland that were not previously set aside for farming and ranching. The discovery of natural gas, coal and clay deposits contributed to early industrial development. However, economic depression before and after the First World War, as well as severe drought conditions during the 1920s and 1930s, slowed economic development. During the post-war period, Medicine Hat saw a gradual restoration of economic prosperity and an increase in population.”
“Medicine Hat Tent Town, and CPR trestle bridge, June 18, 1883.” – Courtesy of the Esplanade Archives
Naming of Our City
The Canadian author Hammerson Peters (2021)** wrote that “Although Medicine Hat has spent time in the Canadian spotlight for a number of different reasons, perhaps its true and most timeless claim to fame is its strange name. As is the case with most things that deviate from the norm, Medicine Hat’s name wasn’t always unanimously accepted. In fact, some early Hatters – as Medicine Hat residents are sometimes called – considered the name to be so bizarre that in 1910, when natural gas was discovered in the area, they petitioned to change it. These disgruntled citizens believed that industries might be attracted to a city with a more conventional name like Gasburg (which would reflect the city’s newfound natural gas) or Smithville (in honour of the Canadian Pacific Railway co-founder Sir Donald Smith (a.k.a. Lord Strathcona). A number of old-school Hatters, however, strongly opposed this proposal and entreated the support of Rudyard Kipling, the famous English writer who had a special place in his heart for Medicine Hat. Kipling responded by advocating the old name in a letter written to Francis F. Fatt, the editor of the Medicine Hat News.
Medicine Hat inherited its name from the native word “saamis” which means medicine man’s hat. A number of legends tell the story of how this city was named. One of these legends is beautifully depicted in a sculptured brick mural at City Hall.”
“Saamis Legend City Hall Mural by Jim Marshall” – Courtesy of the Esplanade Archives
“Rudyard Kipling 1907 Quote, “ How Medicine Hat Got Its name” – Courtesy of Hammerson Peters, March 10, 2021
The City writes in its website that, “the legend tells of a winter of great famine and hardship for the Blackfoot nation. The elders of the Council chose a young man to save his tribe from starvation. Setting out with his new wife and favourite wolf dog, he journeyed down the ice-bound South Saskatchewan River. After many arduous days they made their way to the “breathing hole” an opening in the ice, located on the river between what is now Police Point and Strathcona Park in Medicine Hat. This location was a sacred place to the First Nations’ people: a place where the water spirits came to breathe.
They made camp and summoned the spirits to appear. A giant serpent rose from the misty waters and demanded the sacrifice of the woman in exchange for a “Saamis” or “holy bonnet” which would endow the owner with special powers and great hunting prowess. The young man tried to trick the serpent by throwing the body of his dog into the river, but the serpent was not fooled, and finally reluctantly, the woman was thrown into the frigid waters.
The man was told to spend the night on the small island (Strathcona) and “in the morning when the sun lights the cut-banks, go to the base of the great cliffs and there you will find your Medicine Hat”. And so, aided by the magic of his Saamis, the young hunter located the much-needed game, saved his people, and eventually became a great Medicine Man.’’
Today’s Medicine Hat
Statistics Canada (2020) reports Medicine Hat is a community of 65,527, an area of about 112 square km, and population density is about 585 people/square km. Between 2017 and 2020, the rate of population increase was about 0.37%. The City of Medicine Hat’s Municipal Development Plan and Recreation Master Plan (2020-2050) estimate that in 2050, the local population could reach 80,000 people.
Medicine Hat’s diverse economy is supported by agriculture, renewable and non-renewable energy, businesses and services including schools, Medicine Hat College, and the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital. In 2014, City Council reported their following visions for 2040: a growing economy, vibrant communities in a developing city; sustainable environment and infrastructure, and effective leadership and governance.
The 2020 to 2050 Municipal Development Plan identified 5 priority goals: a vibrant downtown, liveable neighbourhoods, a strong economy, efficient public services, and environmental stewardship.
Ross Creek Coulee Trail
*City of Medicine Hat ‘Our History’
**How Medicine Hat Got Its Name
- All photos by Len Moser except where indicated otherwise under photo.