How Medicine Hat Got Its Name
Medicine Hat, Alberta is a city of many names.
Commonly referred to by locals as ‘The Hat’ or ‘Med Hat,’ the city is also known by several nicknames, including ‘The Gas City,’ ‘Hell’s Basement’ and ‘Canada’s Sunniest City.’
Fascinating tales lay behind each of the city’s names and nicknames, especially its official name ‘Medicine Hat.’ But before jumping into the tales behind the city’s name, there’s several important historical facts to know about it.
Medicine Hat History
Medicine Hat is a city located in the southeast prairie region of Alberta, Canada, and has a population of roughly 65,000 people, as of 2021, making it the seventh largest city in Alberta.
Development of the city officially began in 1883 when Canadian Pacific Railway workers set up a small tent town along banks of the South Saskatchewan River to live in while construction of a railway bridge was underway. But some workers chose not to leave when construction of the bridge came to a close, and instead began building a permanent settlement, which grew over time.
In 1894, the settlement became an official village. Then in 1898, the village became a town. And in 1906, was incorporated as a city.
But while European settlers were the first to lay claim to the land, they were not the first to traverse it. Indigenous Peoples have long lived, hunted and gathered in Medicine Hat and surrounding area, including the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakota, Tsuut’ina (Sacree) peoples, and the Cree, Sioux, Saulteaux bands of the Ojibwa peoples.
Unfortunately, much of the Indigenous Peoples history of Medicine Hat and surrounding area is unknown. Select tales survive, but details often vary from source-to-source; meaning that there are certain aspects of the city’s history which are simply lost to time, including how Medicine Hat’s got its name.
What’s In a Name? Where Did Medicine Hat Come From?
The name ‘Medicine Hat’ is derived from the Blackfoot word ‘saamis,’ which loosely translates to ‘medicine man’s hat.’ ‘
Due to this, the most widely agreed upon theory of how Medicine Hat got its name, is that it was inspired by an Indigenous tale involving a medicine man and his hat; though not all agree on details of the tale itself.
While countless versions of the tale exist, there are five main versions.
Medicine Hat’s Official Version: Tale of the Great Medicine Man
The tale officially recognized by the City of Medicine Hat comes from the Blackfoot peoples and tells of a young man who saved his people from starvation and became the Great Medicine Man.
It is said that, one winter, harsh conditions led to a shortage of food and medicine within the Blackfoot nation, causing many to succumb to starvation or illness. Fearing what may become of the nation if no action was taken, the nation’s elders selected a young man to venture out in search of food and medicine.
After several days of searching, with no success, the desperate young man traveled to the South Saskatchewan River, where it was believed the Great Spirit lived. Upon arriving, the young man found an opening in the ice called a breathing hole, and began praying to the Great Spirit, asking it for help in saving his people.
Hearing the young man’s prayers, the Great Spirit emerged from the opening in the form of a giant serpent. The Great Spirit agreed to help the young man save his people, so long as he followed the instructions given to him, which were to camp overnight on an island in the middle of the river, then at dawn travel to the cliffbase on the other side of the river. If he did so, a bag with medicine and a lucky saamis, medicine man’s hat, would be waiting for him there.
The young man did as told and the next morning found the bag with medicine and the lucky saamis. After placing the saamis on his head, the young man had great success hunting and soon returned to his nation with food and medicine sufficient to save his people. And equipped with the lucky saamis, the young man became the nation’s Great Medicine Man.
Medicine Hat’s Mural Version: Tale of the Medicine Man’s Sacrifice
While the tale officially recognized by the City of Medicine Hat is that of the Great Medicine Man, a different tale is depicted in a mural located at city hall. The mural, created by local sculpture James Marshall, shows a scene from another Blackfoot tale, that of the Medicine Man’s Sacrifice.
While the two tales share some similarities, there are also several differences. The Tale of the Medicine Man’s Sacrifice begins much the same as that of the Great Medicine Man, with the Blackfoot nation facing winter famine and sickness and a young man being chosen to venture out in search of food and medicine. But unlike the Tale of the Great Medicine Man, in the Tale of the Medicine Man’s Sacrifice the young man is accompanied by his wife and dog.
It is said, the trio hunted for many days after departing the nation, but were unable to capture any game. They eventually made their way to the South Saskatchewan river in hopes of better luck, and set up a camp near the river.
While walking along its bank alone, the young man saw a breathing hole in the river and approached it. As he drew close to the breathing hole, the Great Spirit emerged from it, again in the form of a giant serpent.
The young man told the Great Spirit of his people’s plight and asked the Great Spirit to assist him in finding food and medicine. The Great Spirit agreed to help, but only if the young man killed his wife and offered her body to the river as a sacrifice.
Reluctant to agree, the young man returned to his camp and told his wife of the Great Spirit’s message. His wife selflessly offered her life to save that of the Blackfoot people, but the young man was still hesitant.
Instead of killing his wife, the young man killed his dog and sacrificed its body to the river, in hopes of tricking the Great Spirit. But when the dog’s body met the water, the Great Spirit emerged unfooled, and repeated to the young man his offer.
The young man returned to his camp where his wife again offered her life. Seeing no other option, the young man agreed, killing her and sacrificing her to the river. Upon lowering her into the water, the Great Spirit emerged, thanked the young man and instructed him to move his camp to an island in the river overnight, then at dawn proceed to the cliffbase on the opposite side of the river and retrieve the bag left there for him.
The rest of the tale follows the same plot as that described in Tale of the Great Medicine Man, with the young man finding the bag full of medicine and a lucky saamis, successfully hunting enough food to save his people and subsequently becoming the nation’s medicine man.
Medicine Hat’s Saamis Tepee Version: Tale of Eagle Tail Feather Headdress
As well as being known for its unique name, Medicine Hat is also known as the home of the world’s largest teepee, the Saamis Tepee.
Originally constructed for the 1988 Calgary Olympic Winter Games, the teepee is a staggering 215 feet tall, weighing 800 metric tons.
Included in that weight are 10 unique storyboards which tell the story of the Indigenous plains people and the region they call home.
One of the storyboards, originally painted by Joseph Hind Bull, then repainted by Jeremy Ostrowski, depicts yet another story of how Medicine Hat got its name, with this story being passed down from the Blood Tribe.
Similarities can again be found in this tale when compared to the Tale of the Medicine Hat Man’s Sacrifice, though differences exist too.
The Tale of Eagle Tail Headfeather dress tells of a Blood man named Eagle Birth who fell in love with another man’s wife – a love she also felt. Wanting to be together but fearing the repercussions of such, the pair ran away from their tribe, deciding to build a new life together somewhere else.
The pair traveled to the area which is now Medicine Hat and attempted to settle, but hunting in the area was poor. Without such little food and knowing they could not return to their own tribe for help, they grew worried for their wellbeing.
However, one day the pair were walking when the woman spotted what appeared to be a headdress made of eagle tail feathers among the cliffs near the river. The pair grew excited at the sign, which they believed to be lucky, but when they looked closer, they realized it was not a headdress, but a giant sagebrush which only resembled a headdress.
Eagle Birth and the woman went to sleep hungry that night, but while asleep a merman visited Eagle Birth in a dream and told him that if he killed a human and brought it to the river for the merman to eat, the merman would bless Eagle Birth with special hunting powers.
Eagle Birth awoke the next morning and told the woman of his dream and the pair agreed he should offer the merman a human sacrifice in hopes of gaining special powers. However, the problem was that the only other human near to Eagle Birth was the woman.
Not wanting to kill the woman he loved, Eagle Birth found a dog and killed it instead, hoping to trick the merman. But when he placed the dog’s body in the river, the body was immediately thrown back out, the merman unfooled.
The merman appeared again in Eagle Birth’s dream that night, and relayed his message.
In the morning, Eagle Birth sat pondering his options when all of the sudden a stranger wearing a lynx hat appeared. Eagle Birth immediately killed the stranger and carried his body to the river for the merman.
Now desperate for food, Eagle Birth dove into the river with the stranger’s body and, upon spotting a large teepee sitting on the river’s floor, swam down towards it.
When he reached the teepee, the merman spoke from inside and instructed Eagle Birth to come in and deliver the body. Eagle Birth did so and the merman, happy with Eagle Birth’s gift, gave him powers over birds and animals.
Just then, an otter entered the teepee, so Eagle Birth gifted him the stranger’s lynx hat. Pleased with the gift, the otter gave Eagle Birth permission to draw a picture of an otter on his own teepee, when he returned to land.
With his new powers and the otter’s blessing, Eagle Birth emerged from the river and successfully hunted many animals, whose hides the woman helped tan and furs she helped sew.
Soon the pair had a great number of meats, hides and furs and felt confident they could return to their tribe and offer the items as gifts in exchange for the forgiveness and blessing of the woman’s husband.
The gifts were gladly accepted by the woman’s husband who, in return, released her so she could marry Eagle Birth instead.
Once married, the pair built their own teepee, which Eagle Birth drew an otter on the side of. He also continued successfully hunting many birds and animals, and eventually made a beautiful headdress of eagle tail feathers, like the one he and the woman thought they had seen among the river cliffs.
As the story of Eagle Birth’s magnificent headdress was passed on, the area he thought he had seen it became known as ‘Eagle Tail Feather Headdress,’ which was eventually translated into ‘Medicine Hat.’
Medicine Hat’s Commonly-Known Version: Tale of the Medicine Man’s Lost Hat
While it’s surprisingly difficult to find a written version of this tale, the story about a Cree medicine man losing his hat, is perhaps one of the most commonly-known versions of how Medicine Hat got its name.
In this tale, it is said that one summer a large group of Cree people set up camp along the South Saskatchewan River, in what is now the north side of Medicine Hat.
Satisfied with the cool, clear water and abundance of fish the area provided, the group hadn’t realized how visible their camp was from atop the cliffs on the opposite side of the river, and had not noticed when a group of Blackfoot people spotted it from above.
The Blackfoot quietly made their way down the cliffs and, once close enough, launched a surprise attack on the Cree camp.
A fierce fight ensued, with warriors on both sides battling on foot and on horseback. But having had the element of surprise, the Blackfoot were able to kill or injure many Cree people, which impelled some of the Cree to try crossing the river as means of escape, including the Cree medicine man.
As the medicine man was crossing the river a great gust of wind blew and scooped his hat off his head and into the water.
With the medicine hat considered a symbol of luck by the Cree and Blackfoot people, its removal from the medicine man’s head was as frightening for the Cree people, as it was empowering for the Blackfoot.
Believing it a sign of impending doom, Cree people instantly turned and ran across the river, and continued running once they reached the other side. The victorious Blackfoot pursued them until they had driven them far away from the area, which was known from that day on as ‘the place the medicine man lost his hat.’
Other Versions Heard in Medicine Hat
Numerous other versions of the story exist, the majority of which have commonalities with the most notable versions shared above.
With most versions having been passed down by word-of-mouth, it’s unlikely anyone would be able to prove which version is most correct.
In his 1967 book ‘Saamis: The Medicine Hat,’ local author, historian and senator Frank William Gershaw describes this dilemma by stating: “There are many opinions expressed as to the origin of this rather historic name, but it is impossible to get convincing support for any one of them.”
Gershaw points out the only aspect every version shares is the presence of a saamis.
“Who used the word ‘saamis’ first, and why,” asked Gershaw. “These are questions that are wrapped in the mysteries of long ago and lost in the limbo of forgotten things.”
Medicine Hat’s Nicknames
The truth of which tale inspired Medicine Hat’s name may never be known, but the same cannot be said for the tales behind Medicine Hat’s many nicknames.
Medicine Hat’s First Nickname:
The Gas City
Origins of Medicine Hat’s first nickname, ‘The Gas City,’ can be traced to 1883 when rail workers discovered an abundance of natural gas in and around the area which is now Medicine Hat.
Unfortunately, the discovery also led to an explosion and fire, in which two workers were injured. However, it also led to the first reported use of natural gas for heating in Canada.
Medicine Hat’s Literary Nickname:
Years following the discovery of Medicine Hat’s natural gas field – one of the largest in North America – English novelist Rudyard Kipling visited Medicine Hat with his wife. Fascinated by the abundance of natural gas, Kipling wrote an article on the topic, which was printed on the front page of the city’s newspaper, the Medicine Hat News.
In the article, Kipling wrote: “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”
Locals quickly took to his phrase ‘all hell for a basement,’ though the phrase is not widely used by non-locals.
(It’s also interesting to note that three years after Kipling visited Medicine Hat, residents were entangled in a debate on whether to change the name, with popular suggestions being Gasburg, for the abundance of natural gas, or Smithville, in honour of Canadian Pacific Rail co-founder Sir Donald E. Smith. Hearing of this debate, Kipling actually wrote and published a letter in the local newspaper, the Medicine Hat News, advocating the name be left unchanged.)
The phrase gained popularity again in the early 2000s, when Canadian band Big Sugar released a song titled ‘All Hell for a Basement,’ sometimes called ‘Heaven in Alberta.’ The song was written by frontman Gordie Johnson who had spent a portion of his youth in Medicine Hat.
The song tells the story of a man who was unable to find work and felt hopeless as a result, but upon moving to Medicine Hat was able to find a job and regain a sense of purpose.
The phrase also inspired the name of Hell’s Basement Brewery in Medicine Hat.
Medicine Hat’s Promotional Nickname:
Canada’s Sunniest City
Those in the tourism industry will often refer to Medicine Hat by its nickname ‘Canada’s Sunniest City,’ as, out of all Canadian cities, Medicine Hat records the most hours of sunshine yearly – approximately 2,544.
Locals’ Nicknames: The Hat and Med Hat
There’s no elaborate tale or meaning behind the nicknames most-commonly used by locals, ‘The Hat’ or ‘Med Hat; they are simply shortened versions of ‘Medicine Hat.’
And there you have it some interesting facts about Canada\’s Best Kept Secret, Medicine Hat