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The Lewes River

by Darrell Hookey

Click on the photo of Miles Canyon to greatly enlarge it

    "I don't care what the map says, Whitehorse sits on the Lewes River." Just an old timer looking for a good argument? Or is this the venting of some anti-American sentiment? Either way, Whitehorse sits on the Yukon River. It's been official since May 5, 1949. But not first without 100 years of politics, grandstanding and earnest mistakes.

Running a boat through Miles Canyon, on the Yukon River     The federal government knew as early as 1892 there would be trouble all over the expanding country. Explorers and traders were tripping over each other naming geological features. Some mountains had three names while some lakes shared a name with another 1,000 kilometres away. Often the choices ignored the names preferred by the locals and were based instead on incomplete data, over-inflated egos or just sycophantic explorers seeking to honour benefactors. So, a Board of Geographical Nomenclature was formed to standardize names used on all maps and correspondence among government departments.

    Before a name would be approved, it had to pass a test: Has it been used before? Is it entrenched in common usage? Is it the first name published? Does it conform to English or French rules of spelling?

    The board was set up to be similar to American and British systems. Its members represented the Geological Survey, Railways and Canals, Post Office, Marine and Fisheries, Indian Affairs and Interior Departments. Unfortunately the board was voluntary, had no budget, no authority and was so large meetings were impossible to schedule. There were no meetings until November of 1897, when the Surveyor-General sounded an alarm. He pointed out that the Americans were tired of Ottawa's inaction and had started to assign names to Canadian geological features. The rest of the world was following suit more and more as news of the gold rush spread. Case in point: That stretch of river between Marsh Lake and Lake Laberge and further downstream north to Pelly River.

    On June 16, 1843, Hudson Bay Company's Robert Campbell (a sycophantic explorer?) assumed the river upstream from the Pelly was just a tributary (based on incomplete data?) deserving of a new name. He named it Lewes River for John Lee Lewes, the chief factor of the HBC (honouring a benefactor?) to its headwaters, reported to be near the sea.

    Three years later another HBC explorer, John Bell, came upon the same stretch of river hundreds of kilometres further north. He named it the Youcon River from the Gwich'in name Yuchoo, meaning the greatest river (or big river). This new name replaced "Kwikhpak", the name given the river by the Russians 10 years earlier based on the Aleut Eskimo word meaning great river.

    And so it was for the next 40 years. The river was known as the Yukon upstream to the Pelly River until local usage extended it to Lake Laberge. From Lake Laberge to the headwaters it was called Lewes River.

    Then in 1883 along came Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka -- "a dapper, arrogant little man" according to Allen Wright in his book Prelude to Bonanza - in the service of the American army. He was to collect information on the land and people that may be of military interest. Based on observation, Schwatka decided the Lewes River moved much more water towards the Yukon River than to the Pelly River. He concluded the Lewes River was much more than a tributary to the Pelly River, it was the Yukon River. Ignoring local preference, he changed the name to Yukon River from Lewes River.

    Although his information was correct, there was no real reason to change the name of the river. Maintaining a name popular with the local population, native or otherwise, was an ideal protected by the boards of geographic names from the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany and France. Indeed, 15 years after Schwatka's trip the Geographic Board of Canada dismissed the American's opinion and ruled the river shall remain the Lewes.

    That decision was likely based on the report of Dr. George M. Dawson of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada. In it he calls Schwatka's decision to rename Lewes River "a quite arbitrary and unjustifiable proceeding". But this was 1898 and the world press was already reporting on the rush for gold in the Klondike ... just off the now world-famous Yukon River.

    The deluge of new people to the Yukon and the attention of the world, all calling the Lewes River the Yukon River, decided the matter once and for all. On May 5, 1949, the Geographic Board of Canada relented and officially erased the name of Lewes River from all maps.

    Reaction to the name change in Whitehorse was underwhelming. It was reported in the Whitehorse Star in just 18 lines. Anyone who knew about the change may have simply remarked that it was about time Ottawa got it right. By 1949 local preferred usage was "Yukon River". The tourism industry could sell Whitehorse as a vacation destination easier if it was on the famous Yukon River. And canoeists and kayakers took more pride in telling their friends they travelled 3,200 km on "the Yukon River" instead of saying "a series of rivers".

    But why was Schwatka so determined to change the name in the first place? And if Lewes River had its name before the Yukon River was named further downstream and it flows from the headwaters itself, why not name the whole stretch Lewes River? Possibly the answers lie in the fact that it is called the Yukon River in Alaska (politics?); that Schwatka would boast for years he traversed the entire length of the Yukon River, "the longest raft journey ever made in the interest of geographic science" (grandstanding?); and that Schwatka believed his observations gave him the right to change the name (earnest mistake?).

    The writer wishes to thank Josee Bonhomme, of Natural Resources' Legal Surveys Division, for giving up her coffee breaks to assist with this article. Another person who offered an incredible amount of assistance was Keith McCourt, a map expert in Ottawa who is in charge of topographic mapping quality control. Their dedication to serving the public, by sharing their expertise, was greatly appreciated.

    This article was first published by "The Yukoner" magazine, and their permission to re-publish it here is gratefully acknowledged.

A Guide to the Yukon River