There is an unsolved mystery in the naming of Mount Ethelbert. According to the story, “Mt Ethelbert [was] named by Captain Armstrong for the first nun to ascend the river. She died on board the Captain’s boat, Ptarmigan, and was buried as Sister Ethelbert.”1 …I have found absolutely no evidence to support this story.
The Mystery of Ethelbert
This week’s post is somewhat different. Usually I do research about a person, put that research together, and tell a story about that person and how a place was named after them. The problem is that this week I don’t know who the place was named after or how it was named. There is an unsolved mystery attached to the naming of Mount Ethelbert, and this week’s post lays out my attempts to solve that mystery.
According to the accepted origin story for the naming of Mount Ethelbert, first described in 1910/1911: “Mt Ethelbert [was] named by Captain Armstrong for the first nun to ascend the river. She died on board the Captain’s boat, Ptarmigan, and was buried as Sister Ethelbert.”1 It is next to impossible for a historian to prove a negative – to prove that something didn’t happen – but despite every effort on my part, I have found absolutely no evidence to support this story.
Given how compelling the story about the naming of Mount Ethelbert is, I started researching the story with a great deal of confidence. I figured that this would be an easy research quest: establish the details about Sister Ethelbert’s death, perhaps chase down an obituary or newspaper notice, and write up the results.
My first step was to find evidence for Sister Ethelbert having died in the Windermere Valley. The easiest way to find information about deaths is through death certificates, so I started with a search through British Columbia death certificates for the area. I found nothing. So I expanded my query, searching for any Ethelbert having died in British Columbia before 1911. Again nothing. I expanded the search again, ignoring the name, to look through all death certificates issued in the Windermere Valley before 1911 for a woman who might have been a nun. Again, no promising results. I searched again, sure I had missed something. Nothing.
I tried another source: if our nun was “buried as Sister Ethelbert,” as the story states, then perhaps her name appears on a grave somewhere. I went to the “Find a Grave” website, however there is no grave for a “Sister Ethelbert” recorded anywhere in the province.
Unfortunately, neither of these results is proof that a death didn’t happen. I have found examples of deaths that have gone unreported in the official record – we’ll get to a very specific example later in this post – and there are many graves not recorded on Find a Grave. Nonetheless, the generic search was a dead end.
What About the Name
Somewhat stumped, I decided to backtrack a bit. Ethelbert is quite a unique name today, and I wondered if that were the case back when the mountain was named. Ethelbert, it turns out, is an Anglo-Saxon name. King Ethelbert was revered as the first English King to convert to Christianity, which he did sometime at the end of the 6th century (c.597). I was surprised to find in an open search of various sources that the name Ethelbert appeared throughout the Victorian era (1800s) in various directories, primarily as a man’s name. This makes sense in hind sight as Ethelbert is king’s name, however the idea of a man named Ethelbert still amuses me.
If Ethelbert was a dominantly male name, however, perhaps it was an unusual name for a nun. The authors of the 1969 book 1001 British Columbia Place Names agree, editorializing that Ethelbert was, “a surprising name for a nun–one wonders if Armstrong got it wrong.”2 Far from this being the case, the name ‘Ethelbert’ was present in multiple convents. I found Sister Ethelberts (often Sister Mary Ethelbert) in the years between 1900 and 1902 in Philadelphia,3 Windsor, Ontario,4 Minnesota,5 and Utah6 to name a few. So a Sister Ethelbert is certainly possible.
Seems Pretty Bleak
Finding no success with a generic search, and having established that there being a Sister Ethelbert isn’t out of the question, I went back to the books to approach the question in a different way. I started by finding the earliest printed mention that I could of Mount Ethelbert. The mountain is prominent and would have been hard not to notice on the slow steamboat trip up the Columbia River. There are a number of detailed accounts of this trip, and I half expected one of these authors to share the story of Sister Ethelbert tragically passing away. They did not.
The first mention I was able to find of Mount Ethelbert was in March 1904, then described as, “soaring far above its companions, its turret-shaped head never yet scaled, and owing to its great altitude too frequently hid in mist.”7 This first account does not make any mention of the origins of the name, even as elsewhere in the piece the author describes the naming inspiration for other peaks such as Mount Gilbert and Mount Farnham (interestingly, this is the only mention I could find for what is now Mt Nelson being named Mt Gilbert).
Still, at least I knew the mountain name was being used by March 1904 and if you recall, the 1911 story about Sister Ethelbert states that Captain Armstrong had named Mount Ethelbert in 1886.8 That gives a window.
That Sister Ethelbert died in 1886 date fits with the information that she was supposedly the first nun to ascend the river. This was the year that the first steamboat ran on the Upper Columbia River to the Windermere Valley. The year 1886 does not, however, fit with other details in the story. In 1886 Captain Armstrong was at the helm of the first steamboat, the Duchess, not the Ptarmigan as stated in the original story. I could go two directions with this.
On one hand, I can assume that the story date (1886) is incorrect, and that Sister Ethelbert passed away on the Ptarmigan. The Ptarmigan was launched in March 1903, and the first mention of Mount Ethelbert is in March 1904, so there’s a window of time during the 1903 season for any death or incident to occur.9 Unfortunately, 1903 is also a rather well documented year in the Windermere Valley. There were newspapers in print on both ends of the Valley, in Golden and in Wilmer, as well as doctors in both locations. If a nun passed away on the Ptarmigan during the 1903 season it is very unlikely that her death would have gone unreported in newspapers or passed by without a death certificate being issued.
On the other hand, I could assume that the story date (1886) is correct and that the steamboat name is wrong, with Sister Ethelbert passing away on the Duchess during her first year of operation. Such an event is more likely to have slipped through the official records, as it is reasonable for a death to have gone officially unreported at such an early date in the Valley’s history. On the other hand, if a nun passed away on the steamboat in 1886, given the difficulties in transportation, I might expect her grave to also be located in the Valley (or at least in Golden). To my knowledge, it is not.
I might also expect at least one of the many travellers on the river through subsequent seasons after 1886, who recorded stories of their trip, to make some mention of a nun passing away. It is hard to accept that none of these passengers asked after the name of the mountain, and once asked that they would not inquire further into a name such as “Ethelbert”. If Captain Armstrong commemorated the mountain after the 1886 death of a nun, it is strange that the first trace of the name Mount Ethelbert does not appear until 1904, and that her tragic story does not appear in print until 1911.
Looking for Any Trace
By this point I was feeling rather discouraged, but I believe in being thorough, and I kept hoping that I would find some mention of Ethelbert in the years after the steamboats began. I’ve read a lot of newspapers for this blog, many of them page by page as I don’t completely trust the search function, but even as I’ve learned other information about the goings on in the area, I have found no trace of a Sister Ethelbert even being on a steamboat. I even went back again to pay particular attention to 1886 newspapers with the thought that I may have missed something, combing through papers from Calgary, Victoria and even down in the American territories. No trace of a nun dying on a boat.
Again, it is very hard to prove a negative, but I would have thought that newspapers at the turn of the century would have gravitated towards this type of story. A nun passing away on a boat in a remote part of the Canadian wilderness and having a mountain named after her – that’s a juicy article. Even if the story didn’t spread very far, surely a trace of it would remain.
A Glimmer of… Something
This isn’t all to say that I found absolutely nothing during my research. Don’t get me wrong – our Ethelbert is still a mystery – but I did find a single trace of a Sister Ethelbert brushing alongside the vicinity of the Windermere Valley. At the end of August 1887, Sisters Ethelbert and Lercadia were recorded as being in Donald for the purpose of collecting funds for St Mary’s Hospital in New Westminster.10 There is no record of them taking a steamboat south from Golden, but this remains the closest connection I was able to make between the mountain and a Sister Ethelbert.
Curious, I went on to find that Sister Mary Ethelbert passed away at St Mary’s Hospital, New Westminster in 1894, where she had been involved since 1886.11 This is the death I alluded to earlier that I was unable to confirm with an official British Columbia death certificate.
Where To From Here?
This story has been incredibly frustrating to research. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, my typical response to hitting a research dead end is to let it sit in the background for awhile and wait for something to turn up. I’ve used that strategy multiple times with this one. In this case, however, even as I’ve gone through more and more resources, particularly ones that should contain a clue, I get more and more sceptical. I can’t say with 100% certainty that Captain Armstrong’s story did not happen, but…
There are parts of the story that I can buy into. Clearly the mountain was called Ethelbert for some reason, and it is very reasonable that Captain Armstrong was involved in the naming of it. He made countless trips up and down the Columbia River on a number of different steamboats in the years after 1886, and Mount Ethelbert is a prominent feature when viewed from the river. It would have been difficult for him not to give the peak a name.
I can also accept the possibility that a Sister Ethelbert at some time took a steamboat up the Columbia River, and even that she was the first nun to make the trip. Just because I found no evidence that a Sister Ethelbert died onboard does not necessarily mean she was never there. There is no proof that she was, but it is certainly possible.
It is also, of course, possible that Mount Ethelbert came about for reasons entirely unconnected to a nun. Nuns weren’t the only ones named Ethelbert, and it could be that the mountain was named after someone else entirely.
In any case, the events that led to such a prominent mountain being named Mount Ethelbert remain entirely (and frustratingly) unclear. I still hope that a research miracle will occur to shed more light on this story. In the meantime, when I hear the story of Mount Ethelbert being named after a nun dying on a steamboat, you will find find an incredulous look on my face. It’s a great story, and an absolutely phenomenal name for a mountain, but I have found absolutely nothing to back up the story of its origins.
UPDATE: Looks like our Sister Ethelbert from St Mary’s Hospital in New Westminster is the correct candidate! Thanks to Dorothy Blunden for pointing me to Sister Mary Madeleine “Ethelbert” Newlin. I’ll be digging into her story more within the next couple weeks, and will be updating this post accordingly. Check back here or follow my Facebook page In the Windermere for more.