How Medicine Hat Got Its Name


Medicine Hat inherited its name from the Blackfoot word “Saamis” which is loosely translated as “medicine man’s hat.”

Several legends tell this story, one of which is beautifully depicted in a sculptured brick mural at City Hall. The legend tells of a winter with great famine and hardship for the Blackfoot nation. The elders of the Council chose a young man to save his tribe from starvation.

After many arduous days he made his way to the “breathing hole”, an opening in the ice of the South Saskatchewan River believed to be the place of the Great Spirit. The young hunter made camp and summoned the spirits who appeared in the form of a serpent.

The Great Spirit told the man to spend the night on the small island (Strathcona Island Park) and “in the morning when the sun lights the cut-banks, go to the base of the great cliffs and there you will find a bag containing medicines and a Saamis (holy bohnet)”. The hat, he was told, was to be worn only in war, and would ensure victory to the wearer.

Aided by the magic of his Saamis, the young hunter located the much-needed game, saved his people, and eventually became a great Medicine Man. 

Thus, the first “medicine hat”; a symbol of leadership, prowess, and mysticism on the western plains, came into existence. The city which was destined to perpetuate with its name was founded at the location of the ancient legend.

In 1883, the Canadian Pacific Railway stopped to build a train bridge across the South Saskatchewan River. With the construction, a tent town was born taking the name from the numerous legends. A nearby hill was marked by the name Medicine Hat on a map of the Department of Interior the same year. In the CPR’s search for water, their drills accidentally struck natural gas west of town, heralding the exploration that mapped out one of the largest gas fields in North America, providing Medicine Hat with its moniker “The Gas City”.

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