Two hundred fifth in an alphabetical series on West Kootenay/Boundary place names
Waneta is at the junction of the Pend d’Oreille and Columbia rivers, just north of the US border. Despite the name’s simplicity and ubiquity, its origin defies explanation. Several theories exist but none are wholly convincing.
Waneta is supposedly an old English name meaning “pale-skinned.” Or it’s a Native American name (but of which language?) that means “shape-shifter.” Juanita, meanwhile, is a Spanish name, from Juana, the feminine form of Juan. Juanita was also a love song published in 1853 — noteworthy as the first hit ballad composed by a woman.
The earliest mention of our Waneta wasn’t in a local source, but rather the Denver Daily News of May 10, 1892 which reported: “The Kootinai [sic] Placer Mining company was incorporated yesterday to operate near the Pend de O’Reille [sic] river, British Columbia. The company’s principal office is at the town of Waneta, BC. Capital stock, $200,000. The stockholders and officers are eastern men.”
The first local mention of the town, in the Nelson Miner of Nov. 19, 1892, used a different spelling: “Captain Fitzstubbs is at Juanita on official business.” The Miner also used Wanita for a while before finally settling on Waneta.
The Spokane Review of May 11, 1893 used two spellings: “The little town of Juanita, or as it is commonly spelled, Waneta, on the British Columbia frontier, bids fair to rival some of the older towns on this side of the line for its deeds of wickedness.” (The story went on to report a horrifying case of domestic violence.)
The earliest comment on the name appeared in the 1897 Year Book of British Columbia, compiled by R.E. Gosnell. It stated that Waneta was a “corruption of Juaneta,” but didn’t elaborate.
The matter wasn’t raised again until the May 1956 edition of Cominco Magazine: “The origin of the name Waneta … has stumped local researchers. However, a popular theory suggests that a sultry siren who called herself Juanita became attached to a party of prospectors — and their gold — at the spot. Juanita’s conquests soon brought her geographical fame although subsequent mapmakers settled for anglicized spelling.”
Jim Partridge of Fruitvale heard something similar from his father Bill, a longtime railway employee who discussed it with Pete Vereschagin, another old-timer: “She was a prostitute. The labourers on the Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway said they were going to Juanita’s, but didn’t know how to spell it. I don’t know how much truth there was to it, but I remember my dad and old Pete laughing about it. When I asked my dad, he said she had a house there.”
Could Waneta be named after a mine? There was a Waneta claim, but it was almost certainly named for the community, not vice versa.
Could it be from a First Nations word? The November 1962 issue of Cominco Magazine suggested it is “a corrupted Indian word, Wah-ne-tah, but that its meaning has been forgotten.” Seven years later the magazine stated it was “from an Indian word meaning rushing waters” but didn’t suggest in what language.
In British Columbia Place Names, G.P.V. and Helen Akrigg said the name “is derived from an Okanagan Indian word possibly meaning ‘burned area.’” However, this was based on a misreading of Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy’s Lakes Indian Ethnography and History. They noted a Sinixt village near the mouth of the Pend d’Oreille was called nkw’lila7, which might have meant burned area, but they didn’t suggest Waneta was derived from this term. (Another document prepared for the Confederated Colville Tribes gives the translation as “rolling waves.”)
Waneta (also spelled Wanata, Wahneta, and Wa-na-ta) was a Yanktonai Dakota chief who was commemorated with two US Navy ships and a residence at South Dakota State University. But what possible connection could he have to BC?
We’ll also throw this out: the earliest references to Waneta are associated with the Kootenai Placer Mining Co. and its sister firm, the Kootenai Hydraulic Mining Co. The latter issued beautiful stock certificates in 1893 that prominently featured the word Waneta. Two company executives were brothers George Jervis Goodhue and Henry More Goodhue of Rochester, New York. About 120 km south of Rochester is Waneta Lake, formerly known as Little Lake, but renamed in 1881 because it was “more euphonious.”
Its namesake was not Chief Waneta but supposedly the daughter of Mahtoree, a Seneca chief. A story published in 1901 called “The Tragic Legend of a Fair New York Lake,” read like Romeo and Juliet. Waneta fell in love with Kayuta, chief of a rival clan. They met secretly, but once discovered, Kayuta was attacked by Waneta’s tribe. Attempting to guide him to safety, she slipped from her canoe and drowned. A mortally wounded Kayuta cried her name for a day before he too died. Kayuta was buried on the shore of the lake where he and Waneta perished, which subsequently bore her name.
Did the Goodhues transplant Waneta Lake’s name to BC? There’s no way of knowing, but it’s not unprecedented: the town of Erie and the Shenango Canyon were both named by mining men after places in the eastern US.
The Waneta post office closed in 1950, but the name remains widely used. It’s a border crossing, a locality, a dam, and a shopping mall. The latter, Waneta Plaza, stretched the boundaries of Waneta about 12 km north when it opened in 1978, although that area is more properly called Waneta Junction. The name has also spread to Washington state: the Waneta Quick Stop store is one kilometre south of the border.