This story was originally published on Dec. 3, 2015.

Calgary at a Crossroads

Calgary was incorporated as a town in 1884, but it was known by many names before that.

Many of the indigenous names for Calgary refer to where the Elbow River turns abruptly north into the Bow River, making an "elbow-like" curve.

Elbow River map

The Elbow River gets its name from the distinctive "crook" as it flows towards the Bow River, which gets its name from the reeds that grew along its banks. They were used by local First Nations to make bows. (Google Maps)

Moh-kíns-tsis

The Blackfoot word for "elbow." Another name, Moh-kíns-tsis-aká-piyoyis, meaning "elbow many houses" was also used in 1875.

Blackfoot Chiefs

The chiefs of the Blackfoot Confederacy, as pictured in 1885. The Alberta government says the term "Blackfoot" actually refers to three tribes — the Blackfoot proper (Siksika), the Bloods (Kainai), and the Peigan (Pekuni). Each tribe was independent, but they all spoke the same language and regarded themselves as allies. They lived in southern Alberta and northern Montana. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

Wincheesh-pah

The Stoney word for "elbow," referring, again, to the area's waterways.

Stoney family pictured in 1889

A Stoney family pictured in 1889. The name literally means “Stone people” or “people who cook with stones.” They were also known as the "Mountain People" who traditionally lived on lands west of Calgary. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

Otos-kwunee

The Cree also referred to the region by its rivers, using their word for "elbow."

Cree people in central Alberta.

A group of Cree people pictured in central Alberta in 1890. The Cree are the largest group of aboriginal people in Canada today. They migrated to the Prairies during the early 1700s, becoming known as the Plains Cree. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

Kootsisáw

The T'suu T'ina word for — surprise! — "elbow."

Tsuut’ina

Land belonging to the Tsuut’ina — meaning a "great number of people" — borders Calgary's western edge. Formerly Sarcee, their traditional territory was far more expansive. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

Klincho-tinay-indihay

The Slavey name for Calgary focused on another popular description of the area — "horse town."

Slavey people in Alberta

Pictured above is a conference of Slavey people at Fort Vermilion, Alta., in 1900. The Slaveys lived in northern Alberta, and are a major group of Athapaskan-speaking (or Dene) people. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

Fort Brisebois

The year was 1875, not too long after the Mounties made their famous march west to Alberta, when they built a fort near the meeting of the Bow and Elbow.

In a show of what could only be called pure egotism, the officer in charge of the fort — Insp. Ephrem Brisebois — named the post after himself.

The name would have probably worked out better had his men not hated their leader. The decision also rankled Brisebois' superiors as he hadn't asked for permission to name the fort after himself. The senior officers took it upon themselves to change the name of the fort. 

North-West Mounted Police in Calgary

The "F" Troop of North-West Mounted Police in Calgary in 1876. (Glenbow Museum photo archives)

Fort Calgary

A year later, in 1876, the post name changed to Fort Calgary at the suggestion of Lt.-Col. James Farquharson Macleod with the North West Mounted Police. He named it after the ancestral estate of his cousins on the picturesque Scottish Isle of Mull, which he had recently visited.

Calgary had lots of different spellings in the early days — in the 1600s, Calligourie, Callagorie, and Calligory were all seen in written records. While it was first thought to be Gaelic for "clear running water," it's now generally agreed that it means "bay farm," an apt description of the original Calgary House that overlooked the ocean on the Isle of Mull.

Calgary dropped "Fort" from its name when it was incorporated a city in 1884.

Fort Calgary

Learn about the city's history with a visit to Fort Calgary in downtown Calgary. (Fort Calgary/Facebook)


CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. It's called Calgary at a Crossroads.