The Wind, the Snake and the Bonnet Plume…

How did these rivers get their names? This excerpt from Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, reveals some of the intriguing people behind the history (© Juri Peepre & Sarah Locke, 2008).

The Enigmatic Bonnetplume

“Somewhere in the Ogilvie Mountains, in an unmarked grave, lie the remains of Andrew Flett Bonnetplume, the Gwich’in man after whom the Bonnet Plume River is named. While never a chief, he is the only aboriginal person in Canada whose name graces a Canadian Heritage River. But trying to pin down how that came to be, and how a Gwich’in man gained the French-sounding name of Bonnetplume— can be a bit like grabbing at a leaf floating on fast water—it remains just out of reach.

Bonnetplume shows up regularly in the historical record, but the man remains an enigma. He had many different names— Scottish, French and Gwich’in. And even among his own people, noted for their epic journeys through challenging country, he was known as a wanderer. But there is one theme that crops up again and again with this man—if people are talking about gold in the Peel river country, Bonnetplume seems to be somewhere in the picture.

But first the names: In Gwich’in genealogy documents, Bonnet Plume’s mother is known as Ch’ihwhiingah or Chigweenjaa, meaning “throwing things out of the house” or “sweeping or throwing dust away.” She worked as a cleaning woman at several different Hudson Bay posts in the Mackenzie District, and her children possibly had different fathers. In that era, when aboriginal children were baptized they were often given the names of local HBC employees, so the first part of Bonnetplume’s name can be traced to Andrew Flett, an Orkney man who served at Fort McPherson from 1863 to 1875. In HBC account books from Flett’s time at the post, the Gwich’in man is referred to as Bonnet de Plume, and the source of that name remains elusive.”

Canyon on the Bonnet Plume. © Juri Peepre

“Jane Charlie, one of Bonnetplume’s granddaughters, says she has often wondered about her French name. She was told that Bonnetplume had been adopted by a French couple working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but if a Frenchman named Bonnetplume worked for the HBC, the reference is buried deep in their well-kept records.

In 1893, the French count Edouard de Sainville, with the help of two Gwich’in guides, tracked a canoe up the Peel River to the mouth of the Bonnet Plume. Leaving their boat there, they walked about 40 kilometres up the tributary, crossed the mountains to the west and walked down the Wind River and back to their canoe.

De Sainville was following up on native reports of gold in the mountains. He found no precious metals, but he explored further up the Peel than any previous European and produced a map that was invaluable for the goldrushers who travelled that way five years later. On his map he did not name the Wind River, but the Snake is labelled the “Good Hope River,” and the Bonnet Plume River bears its current name.

De Sainville returned to France the following year, and published only a short account of his time in the North before dying a few years later. In it he describes his trip along the upper Peel as “one of the most perilous which I have ever undertaken.” One can only speculate whether the French count encountered a Gwich’in man prospecting for gold in the upper Peel River country, and decided to name the Bonnet Plume River after him.”

- Sarah Locke

For more information on the campaign to protect the Peel watershed, visit:  www.protectpeel.ca

Setting up camp on the Bonnet Plume. © Juri Peepre

Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed: A Traveller’s Guide

… is your complete source for planning a trip to the Yukon’s vast north-eastern wilderness – and learning more about the natural and cultural history of this inspiring landscape. Published in 2008 by Juri Peepre and Sarah Locke, the book is available from Yukon outdoor and bookstores (Mac’s Fireweed, Up North Adventures), Mountain Equipment Co-op (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto), and on-line from www.yukonbooks.com.

Wild Rivers is an essential companion to help you navigate the Three Rivers country (the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume), as well as the Peel, Hart, Ogilvie, Blackstone and Rat rivers. This well illustrated field reference will be a welcome gift for your friends or family who are thinking about a future northern canoeing or hiking trip.

The book features detailed river descriptions, maps, landscape and historic photos, tips on river travel in the Peel region, and engaging descriptions of the flora, fauna, geology, human history and conservation story. For more information, see About Our Book posted in the right margin.

Contact Us

To order the book directly from the authors, send a cheque or money order payable to Juri Peepre, 1575 Windermere Loop Road, Windermere, BC, V0B 2L2. Price: $24.95 + $1.19 GST + Shipping = $32.00 CDN. For more information, phone 250-688-1005, or post your comment or question in this blog.

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5 Responses to “The Wind, the Snake and the Bonnet Plume…”

  1. Nora Lande says:

    What a great bit of history, considering Andrew Flett HBC employee was my gg grand father. This story was delightful considering I’m into geneology.TY,nora

  2. [...] Snake is one of three majestic paddling rivers, along with the Wind and Bonnet Plume, whose waters flow north into the Peel River en route to the [...]

  3. admin says:

    Alex,
    Thanks for your excellent article on the Snake River in the New York Times. You have captured the spirit of the river and the northern Canadian wilds very well – and helped draw attention to the urgent need to protect this remarkable landscape. It sounds like you had fabulous trip – I recall paddling on the Snake for days through the thick smoke of a big forest fire …it does create an eerie sense of uncertainty with its own beauty, but is at the heart of what it means to be in untrammeled wilderness. Best regards, Juri Peepre.

  4. Vince says:

    Did there not used to be a ferry named “Bonnet Plume” on the Dempster Hwy? I seem to recall that name from my road trip in 2001.

  5. admin says:

    Interesting question – I don’t recall the names of the ferries at the two crossings on the Dempster Highway; a brief web search on the names of the ferries yielded no answer….but I would not be surprised if your recollection is correct.