Dead Man's Flats: What's in a Name?
By Merrily K. Aubrey
Not every geographical name has a definitive origin, and Dead Man's Flats is one such example.
One story behind the origin of the name Dead Man Flats arises from an incident where two or three Aboriginal people were trapping beaver in the area. At the time, the area was part of the Rocky Mountain National Park (later Banff) whose boundary extended as far as Canmore in those days. The trappers spied the park warden approaching them, and knew there was no time to escape.
They quickly smeared themselves with beaver blood and played dead. When the warden ran for help, they arose and took their beaver pelts home. This story is suspect because no evidence is found in reports of the park wardens, nor does the name appear in a study of Nakoda (Stoney) names in the area.
The other story of origin version stems from a grisly incident in the early 1900s. The date was May 12, 1904. On the Calgary Daily Herald front page, the large type proclaimed: “Canmore Man Kills Brother With an Axe, Threw the Body in the River.”
In his confession at the coroner’s jury, François Marret related his story. He had come to Canmore in 1901 from France to work for his brother, Jean, who operated a dairy farm along the flats. François worked for Jean for 15 months. In the spring of 1902, François decided to try his hand at other occupations, and for the next two years worked at odd jobs in Canmore mines, occasionally returning to his brother’s to help out. It was during one of these visits that François killed Jean. He said he disposed of the body in the Bow River to prevent Jean’s ghost from haunting him.
What was François Marret’s motive? During the coroner’s hearing, a couple of reasons were cited for his actions.
To one of the witnesses, Marret explained that he had killed his brother because, for all his hard work, his brother had not paid him. He added that his deceased parents had ordered the killing from beyond the grave. François testified that he thought his brother was after him. He told the Coroner’s jury: “I wanted to kill my brother because John tried to kill me by a whirring electric machine. I never saw the machine, but I heard it several times.” François believed his brother Jean was the gift of evil, and that he, François, was the spirit of good.
The coroner’s trial was over in record time. The crime was committed on early Wednesday morning and by Thursday night the coroner’s jury had returned its verdict – premeditated murder. The defendant was held over for criminal trial three days later.
On May 19, a week after the murder, the verdict was in. The defense arguments and Marret’s testimony swayed the jury. The headlines of that day’s newspaper read “Married Acquitted of Brother’s Murder Because Jury Thought Him Insane.” He was to be sent to the mental asylum in Brandon, Manitoba.
From the evidence – or lack of evidence- presented in these two stories that date back to the turn of the twentieth century, the second story seems more likely than the first. Whatever the origin of the name, today the flats themselves are known as Dead Man Flats, and the locality as Dead Man’s Flats.
For more information, call Merrily Aubrey, Coordinator, Geographical Names Program