Slocan is one of the few First Nations place names in common use in our area.

One-hundred eightieth in an alphabetical series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names by local historian, Greg Nesteroff

Slocan is one of the few First Nations place names in common use in our area but also one of the most popular and versatile, based on the number of geographical features that have adopted it.

Officially it’s a village, railway point, two communities, two rivers, several lakes, a whirlpool, mountain, ridge, provincial historic site, and mining division.

Unofficially, it’s also a valley.

A few other Slocan-related names are no longer on the map, including Slocan Crossing, Slocan Junction, and Slocan Creek.

Slocan is the anglicized version of the Sinixt word slhu7kíń. Explorer John Palliser first recorded the Shlogan River on a map in 1859. Secondary sources attribute a wide variety of other spellings to him including shlocan, sloghan, schlocan, scholocan, slok-ken and shlokum.

In an 1865 letter, trail builder Edgar Dewdney called it slokén, while on an 1866 map, surveyor Walter Moberly wrote slocken. In the 1930s, ethnographer James Teit used sloke’n while Verne Ray went with slo’kan.

None of these sources provided a translation, but Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy, in their Lakes Indian Ethnography and History (1985) found three Sinixt informants — Mary Marchand, Julia Quintasket, and Joe Barr — who said slhu7kíń means “to pierce, strike on the head.”

According to Marchand, that referred to their ancestors’ practice of spearing salmon, which were once plentiful in the region. Bouchard and Kennedy added that slhu7kíń “is in fact derived from the Okanagan-Colville term lhum̀ín meaning ‘harpoon.” Prior to that, a variety of false and fanciful etymologies had been suggested:

• The Kaslo Claim of May 12, 1893: “Kaslo and Slocan are Indian names and are bestowed in honor of ancient families of the Kootenays. They are proper names and have no interpretation.”

• The Slocan Enterprise of Oct. 16, 1929: “Citizens of Slocan as well as other people of the district have recently become interested in the origin and meaning of the word Slocan … One of the suggestions was ‘bright waters.’”

• Fern Cooper writing in the Arrow Lakes News in December 1952: “Prospectors inquiring of some Indians as to directions to travel were informed, but they said Slo-Can-Go, meaning it was slow travelling in these parts. Thus Slocan was told how it got its name.” This bit of folklore gained quite a bit of traction, and even appears in Joy Kogawa’s acclaimed novel Obasan. Fern’s mother Phyllis, however, wrote in My Dad: The Family of Walter and Ada Clough (1986) that “Slocan is an Indian name meaning either ‘deep water’ or ‘stormy water.’”

• The Secwepemc word for frog is slleq̓wqнn̓, transcribed by John Mary Le Jeune in Studies on Shuswap (1925) as slok-ken. Clara Graham speculated in This Was the Kootenay (1963) that Slocan was derived from this word, and other sources followed suit.

For instance, Beautiful British Columbia Magazine, summer 1981: “If you forgot you were in the Slocan, you could find enough reminders as you cycle south: Slocan Lake, Slocan River, Slocan Park, Slocan City, South Slocan. Perhaps it’s all explained by the fact that Slocan meant frogs in the Indian language of the region. Then again, South Frogs?”

• The Kootenaian, June 8, 1967: “The great Slocan got its name from a pioneer of the district by the same name.”

• History of the West Kootenay, a report prepared by Joy Smith of the BC Parks Branch in 1974: “A more carefully documented source of Slocan credits the word to the Indian tribe known as the Sloghans, encountered by David Thompson during his explorations at the beginning of the 19th century.”

• Several sources were closer to the truth in suggesting Slocan meant “catch salmon.” They included Cecil Clark in a 1964 note contained in the A.G. Harvey papers at the BC Archives, Craig Weir writing in the Castlegar News of Nov. 29, 1973, and John Norris in Old Silverton (1985).

The earliest known use of the present spelling of Slocan was in Gilbert Malcolm Sproat’s Jan. 7, 1884 Report on Kootenay, published in the BC government sessional papers: “On the western side of this depression, particularly between the great Kootenay lake and Slocan Lake, or the Columbia River, the mountains form a broad mass … The Indians say there is a quantity of white pine on Slocan Lake, but that is a long way beyond the 6-mile reserve, the Slocan River itself being about 30 miles in length.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the several places that have adopted the name, including the Village of Slocan (nee Slocan City), Slocan Park, South Slocan, and Slocan Valley.

— With thanks to Peter Smith