Planting the seed to name Calgary

The seeds of naming our city Calgary were planted 143 years ago this week. In 1876, a disagreement over what to call the newly constructed fort at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers led to a rather terse letter from North-West Mounted Police Colonel A.G. Irvine to Canada’s Justice Minister.

Six months earlier, the first detachment of the North-West Mounted Police arrived at the site and oversaw the construction of a fort to be used as a base to conduct efforts to maintain law and order in the area. It was initially referred to as “The Elbow” but by January 1876, it was designated as “Fort Brisebois” by Inspector Ephrem-A Brisebois, the officer in charge of the troop stationed at the fort. Shortly after, the order was countermanded by Assistant Commissioner of the N.W.M.P., Colonel A.G. Irvine. On Feb. 29, 1876, Irvine wrote to Ottawa stating that, without his authority, the N.W.M.P. post on the Bow River had been named Fort Brisebois. The 25-year-old Brisebois reportedly clashed with his direct superior, Colonel James Farquharson Macleod, on a regular basis. In his letter, Irvine stated that the people in the area did not want the name Fort Brisebois and Colonel Macleod had suggested “Fort Calgary” instead. By some accounts, it appears that from February 29th, 1876 the name Calgary was used for the settlement, while Fort Calgary was reserved for the actual N.W.M.P. post. The name Calgary was approved by Ottawa and confirmed officially in April. Brisebois quit the N.W.M.P. in August of that year and the rest, as they say, is history!

Below is the transcript of the full letter:

29 February 1876


As we have now a Post or Fort at Bow River it would be as well if it was known by some name, I visited the Post about a fortnight ago with Colonel Macleod and when we were there Inspector Brisebois (who is in command of the Station) issued an order without consulting either Col. Macleod or myself, stating that all public documents sent from his Fort were to be headed Fort Brisebois. I of course cancelled the order at once, as in the first place Inspector Brisebois had no authority to issue such an order and in the second place the Fort was not built by Inspector Brisebois’ troop and neither the troop or the people about there wish the place called Brisebois.

Colonel Macleod has supported the name of Calgary which I believe in Scotch means clear running water, a very appropriate name I think. Should the Minister be pleased to approve of this name I will issue an order to that effect.

I have the honour to be Your [Humble] Servant.

A.G. Irvine
Assistant Commissioner

Lieut H. Bernard C.M.G.
Dept Minister of Justice
Ottawa, Canada




- The City of Calgary Archives