Regina: from Pile o’ Bones to provincial capital

pile-of-bones saskatchewan

The transformation of the Canadian provincial capital of Regina, Saskatchewan, over the past 130 years has been nothing short of remarkable.

Today, it is a city of nearly 200,000 individuals, and features more than 350,000 hand-planted trees, an extensive park system and an array of museums, cathedrals and other elegant structures.

But back in 1882, it was little more than a pile of bones – literally.

The location, near a creek, had been a stopping point for buffalo hunters and gotten its name from remains left at the site.

The mounds of buffalo bones, some left by Cree Indians, were staggering, according to information from the Regina Library.

“The bones resulting from the slaughter were carefully assembled into cylindrical piles about six feet high and about 40 feet in diameter at the base, with the shin and other long bones radiating from the center to make stable and artistic piles,” according to the library’s website. “During the second half of the 19th century, the Métis also slaughtered large numbers of buffalo in this area, and the creek was littered with countless bones.”

Hence, the locale was called “Pile o’ Bones.” However, it was sometimes also referred to by the equally delightful names “Manybones,” “Bone Creek” and  “Tas d’Os” – all of which would have taxed the abilities of even the most fervent chamber of commerce official trying to promote the locale.

So how does a provincial capital wind up in a place called Pile ‘o Bones?

Apparently, Edgar Dewdney, who was head of an area called the North-West Territory, which initially comprised all of non-confederation Canada west of the Great Lakes except British Columbia, just happened to own land adjacent to the route of the future Canadian Pacific Railway line through Pile-of-Bones.

The Saskachewan Provincial Legislature Building in Regina.

The Saskatchewan Provincial Legislature Building in Regina.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he decided Pile o’ Bones would be a good place to move the territorial capital.

Despite the obvious conflict of interest and resulting public uproar over Dewdney’s decision, it appears there was little legitimate means of challenging the move outside of action by federal officials in Ottawa.

That was unlikely to happen because Dewdney had been appointed by Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald.

Eventually, those with an eye to marketing realized the burg needed a more palatable moniker.

In 1882 Pile o’ Bones was renamed Regina, after Queen Victoria, by Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, wife of the Marquess of Lorne, then the Governor General of Canada, according to the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan.

In the long run, the name change was undoubtedly positive, as it would have been difficult to lure immigrants to a setting with the rather macabre designation “Pile o’ Bones.”

On the other hand, the appellation Pile o’ Bones is the sort that is tailor-made for one heck of a modern-day tourism campaign.

(Above: A pile of buffalo skulls at the site of the future city of Regina, Saskatchewan in the 1880s.)

(HT: Bite Size Canada)


11 thoughts on “Regina: from Pile o’ Bones to provincial capital

    • The bones were used as phosphate fertilizer and, according to a Bloomberg article I came across recently, were a key component in the refining of sugar. In addition, they were used to produce something called bone black, which made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.”

  1. Just a note. The photo of the pile of buffalo bones you use was NOT located in Regina, and has nothing to do with Regina, actually. It is from another location. The original bone pile in the Regina area, which you reference, was actually a dozen or so miles downstream of the city, on the banks of then wild Wascana Creek. No buildings were located at the bone site, unlike the buildings shown in the background of your photo.

    I am sure you would like to correct this mistake. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your note, Regina Girl. But, no, this post has been up for five-plus years, so you’re mistaken in being certain that I want to correct my mistake.

      Perhaps when the Pats get around to breaking their nearly 40-year WHL title drought …

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