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3 ways Waneta didn’t get its name

Updated: May 13, 2021

I’ve long written a weekly series for the local Black Press newspapers about West Kootenay/Boundary place names. In my installment on Waneta, I said its name defies explanation (although my own best guess is that it comes from Waneta Lake, New York and was bestowed by the Kootenay Hydraulic Mining Co.). But three times I have been led to believe there might be a definitive answer, only to have my hopes dashed.

Waneta Landing, ca. 1892-93 with what is presumably the SS Lytton in the distance. (Greg Nesteroff collection)

1. In British Columbia Place Names, 3rd Ed. (1997), G.P.V. and Helen Akrigg wrote: “The name of the district near the international boundary is derived from an Okanagan Indian word possibly meaning ‘burned area.’”

I accepted this for a long time until I realized it was a misreading of either Dorothy Kennedy and Randy Bouchard’s Lakes Indian Ethnography and History (1985) or the work of James Teit. They listed the name of the Sinixt village in the area as nquil’la’ or nkw’lila7 and said it might mean burned area. They did not, however, suggest Waneta was derived from this word, and I think it would be a stretch. (Another document prepared for the Confederated Colville Tribes gives the translation as “rolling waves.”)

2. Then I thought I was onto something when I read in Anna Reeves’ Beaver Valley & Pend Oreille (2002) that Waneta’s first teacher was “Waneta Bella Reith.” The Reith family were among the earliest white settlers in the area. But it was a typographical mistake: Reeves meant Bella Reith was the first teacher at Waneta, not that it was part of her name. The 1894 BC government sessional papers call her Bella Reith. No vital events or census data suggest Waneta was one of her given names. (Nor have I ever been able find anyone else by that name in the area.)

3. Later, my eyes bugged out when I read Patrick J. Graham’s Colville Collection Book Three: Steamboats on the Upper Columbia (2009). On p. 143 he wrote: “David Thompson, the explorer, in 1811 mentioned the ‘Waneta Rapids,’ which no doubt was the fast water around the prominent island to the west of New Boundary.” And on p. 151: “The name ‘Waneta’ was noted in the 1811 journal of the explorer, mapmaker David Thompson. His writing mentions ‘Waneta Rapids’ at that point.”

The next earliest reference to Waneta is from 1892. Could it have already been known by that name some 80 years earlier? Well, no. I checked Thompson’s journal and found no mention of Waneta. But I figured out where the error came from. On p. 122 of Mapmaker’s Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau (2005), Jack Nisbet writes of Thompson’s party: “They struggled through Waneta Rapid at the present Canadian-American border …” Graham assumed that was a direct quote, but it wasn’t.

Waneta’s true origin awaits a smoking gun.

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