What’s in a Name: Setting Lake

What’s in a Name: Setting Lake Itself

Setting Lake has had many other names. Over the past 250 years – at least a half dozen. Some names are even older. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of indigenous people, trappers, and traders, early explorers, and mapmakers.

In the late 1700s, in the space of twenty years, the lake was known by four different names. In 1778, Philip Turnor, the first servant of the Hudson’s Bay Company employed specifically to survey and map its vast empire, called it Pocutaho Lake.

David Thompson and other explorers and mapmakers who followed in Turnor’s footsteps, considered Pakwa and Setting Lake, which it drains into, to be one big lake. So, until they got that straightened out, Setting Lake was known as Pakwa Sakahigan.  “Pakwa” is Cree for “shallow” – “sakahigan” or “sakahikan” is Cree for “lake”.

Thompson also called the lake “Pukketowaggan”, “a place to fish with nets”.

On August 18, 1795, HBC trader Malcolm Ross sent a letter to the Chief and Council at York Factory, informing them that William Sinclair’s canoe party had just arrived at Sandy Beach to build Wegg’s Post.  He called the lake “Paqaquasakahagm”, an evident mis-pronunciation and mis-spelling of Pakwa Sagahigan.

Around the same time, the name “Setting Lake” appeared on a commercial map drawn by Aaron Arrowsmith, one of the finest mapmakers of his day. In his shop in London, he created the map from maps and notes made by Philip Turnor and other Hudson’s Bay Company traders, surveyors and explorers who had travelling through Rupert’s Land.

Aaron Arrowsmith’s 1796 Map of North America

The name “Lake Setting” appeared in Baldwin and Cradock’s ground-breaking atlas in 1834. It was a rather grand name since the word order normally applies to larger bodies of water like the five Great Lakes.

During the nineteenth century, Setting Lake became known as John Scot’s or John Scott’s Lake. Treaty 5, signed on September 24, 1875 refers to the lake by that name.  The treaty was signed on behalf of the Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) people by Chief Tapastanum (Donald  William  Sinclair  Ross), whose family wintered here.

So, who was John Scott, the man for whom the lake was named? Well, we’re not quite sure. There are at least four possibilities.

The country was young – just eight years into confederation. Stats Canada hadn’t been created and the census hadn’t been invented. So, for the first two John Scotts, we need to check baptismal records.

The first was a young man named John Scott Keslasti’iokanum. He was one of several people that were baptised at John Scott’s Lake in the summer of 1875 by a missionary from Norway House. Historian Raymond Sherritt-Beaumont speculates that he may simply have taken the name because he lived on John Scot’s Lake OR he may have been related to a second, older John Scott, a seventy-year-old man who was baptised at Cross Lake.

Although the second John Scott and his wife Mary were identified as Cross Lake residents, they may have lived at John Scott’s Lake, which was part of the Cross Lake trade area. We know there were other Scotts living here at the time, including James and Margaret Scott and their son John, possibly the elder John Scott’s grandson.

The third John Scott was a trader at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Split Lake post. In the fall of 1815, he travelled to White Owle Lake, northwest of modern-day Leaf Rapids. He spent the winter at White Owle but there’s evidence that he travelled to other lakes in the area. If Setting Lake was among them, it is possible he occupied Wegg’s House, the post abandoned by William Sinclair twenty years earlier. This story may have been passed down by local people, some of whom may even have been his descendants.

In support of the third John Scott, Achivist Researcher, Anne Lindsay writes, “Setting  Lake  had  been  an outpost of the Split Lake Post in the early 1800s when the Orkneyman John  Scott  traded  there.”

A fourth possibility exists. It may be that John Scott was actually an independent or North West Company trader. Former Wabowden resident, the late Roddy Garrick remembered his grandfather, Isaac Martin, telling him that Sandy Beach was the site of a trading post built by John Scott in the early 1800s.

Archaeologist Brian Smith says there’s evidence to support Isaac’s story. “The North West Company did, in fact, have a post on Setting Lake…Since the North West Company did not, in general, keep as accurate records as the Hudson’s Bay Company…Scott may have been an independent or an unknown Northwester”.

Throughout the 1800s “John Scott’s Lake” continued to be known by more than one name. It must have been confusing to say the least! In a letter to Archdeacon Cowley dated August 21,1873, Church of England minister, James Settee referred to the lake as  Pukatawagan or “Net Setting Lake.” At the same time, his relative, Tapastanum, who wintered here, called it John Scott’s Lake.

By the early twentieth century, Geological Survey of Canada records indicate Setting Lake had two names. In 1913 GSC geologist William McInnes wrote, “Setting lake, or as it is locally known, John Scotts lake (no apostrophe and lower case “L”), is a long and comparatively narrow body of light-brownish water”.

In 1915 geologist, explorer, and historian, Joseph Tyrell referred to the lake by its old Cree name, Pukitowa’gan Saka’higan and by the English translation – Fishing-with-a-net Lake.

Others reinforced the image of a lake where the people took fishing very seriously. In 1903, a Copp Clark map referred to it as Net-Setting Lake. Anne Lindsay says it was also called Nett Lake. And as recently as 1975 Aileen Garland referred to it as Pukitahawken.

The repeated references to fishing and the setting of nets ring true. We know that indigenous people in every part of Canada fished with nets made from natural fibres woven into cordage and twine, fitted with stone sinkers and carved wooden floats.  Nets were made from plants that Setting Lake has an abundance of – sweetgrass and other wild grasses, and spruce, willow, and other fibrous roots.

Hauling Nets in Northern Manitoba - Historic Resources Branch

We also know that during the fur trade era, fish were an important source of food for traders. “Country food” – fresh and dried meat, birds, and fish – were much cheaper than imported food and when other animals were scarce, fish often ensured the survival of indigenous people and traders alike. Fish were not only consumed by people, they were also the main source of food for sled dogs. Post journals reveal that more time was spent repairing, setting and attending nets, and hauling fish than trading furs.

William Sinclair’s detailed account of the Wegg’s Post menu confirms fish “of sorts” were an important part of the diet. At Sandy Beach, fish were right at the doorstep. Tending nets and hauling fish were part of the daily routine.

But not all stories and theories about “setting” relate to fish and nets. Historian Raymond Shirritt-Beaumon says it’s all about the weather.

“Setting Lake is said to have received its name from freighter canoes that often had to stop and “set” on the shores of the lake to wait out stormy weather.”

Setting Lake was on a well-use portage between Nelson House and Cross Lake. Wind-bound  travellers from those communities called it “Sitting Lake”.

When the late Florence Hamilton of Wabowden was a girl, her family lived on the shore where today’s Setting Lake Campground is located. She recalled that her father, who trapped along the Grass River, would have to sit at the  mouth of the river and wait for the lake to calm before he could go home.

Wabowden’s Frances Hall agrees the name is all about waiting for calm waters. She says her grandfather told her it’s called Setting Lake because “if there was a really big wind, people couldn’t get their boats across the lake and they would have to set and wait.” 

The last word on “setting” goes to Andrea Nair, a blogger who vacationed here with her children in 2016. Andrea posted a photo on her blog and wrote, “This picture adequately demonstrates why this lake was named “Setting.”


Sunset at Setting Lake - Photo Credit - Patti Eastman

Setting Lake is all of that and more. So “set back”, relax and soak up the sunshine and the stories!


Next: Setting Lake Rocks!



The author, Donna Henry, is a former Parks Canada Superintendent of York Factory and Fort Prince of Wales National Historic Parks, a founding Director of the Grass River Corridor Tourism Association and a research associate with Sinora International.

Historic content editor, Vicki Fleming, was one of the founding directors of the Wabowden Historical Museum. She served on the museum’s board from 1990 to 1997, overseeing construction of the new log building. As curator, she acquired, organized and catalogued the museum’s growing collection of artifacts and documents.

Vicki directed the Setting Lake Chimney Site archaeology project from 1986 to 1991, securing and managing funding, working closely with the project archaeologist and the Historic Resources Branch. In the 1990s Vicki was involved in archaeological investigations along the Grass River, one at Chatham House on Wintering Lake, the other near Cranberry Portage.

As a founding director of the Grass River Corridor Tourism Association and Treasurer, Vicki worked with elected officials of towns, First Nations, and Northern Affairs communities, and with industry leaders to develop tourism products based on the region’s rich heritage. In partnership with museum curators in Thompson, Snow Lake, The Pas, Flin Flon and Cranberry Portage, Vicki has played a key role in preserving and protecting the region’s historic and cultural resources.


Holm, Gerald F.  Geographical Names of Manitoba. Manitoba Conservation (2000)


Gerald Holm was the Provincial Toponymist and Manitoba Member to the Geographical Names Board of Canada. The information is consistent with information on file with the Manitoba Geographical Names Program at the time of publication.

Holm included a brief glossary of indigenous words used as geographical names, noting that these languages were not written until recently, and therefore a given word may be spelled in a variety of ways. Geographic Names of Manitoba spelling variations do not necessarily represent “official” spellings.

Lindsay, Anne. “Tapastanum:  A Noted Conjurer for Many Years, Who Long Resisted the Teachings of Christianity.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, vol. 40, 2008, pp. 223-40. Carleton University, www.ojs.library.carleton.ca. Accessed 9 April 2021.

McCarthy, M. Setting Lake Chimney. Manuscript on file with Historic Resources Branch, Winnipeg, MB. 1986

McInnis, William. “The Basins of the Nelson and Churchill Rivers”. Canada Department of Mines – Geologic Survey. Government Printing. Ottawa, ON. (1913)

Nair, Andrea. “Craving Summer Fun? Take Your Family to This Oft Overlooked Province.” YMC. 4 July 2016, www.yummymummyclub.ca/blogs/andrea-nair-connect-four-parenting/20160628/northern-manitoba-a-fun-thrilling-and-beautiful Accessed 7 April 2021.

Ruggles, Richard I. “Mapping the Interior Plains of Rupert’s Land by the Hudson’s Bay Company To 1870.” Great Plains Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3, 1984, pp. 152–165. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23531223  Accessed 11 Apr. 2021.

Shirritt-Beaumont, Raymond. Wabowden: Mile 137. Frontier School Division. (2004)

Smith, Brian. Archaeological Investigations: The Setting Lake Chimney Site Chimney Site GgLp-1. Setting Lake. Manitoba. Edmonton, Alberta (1988)

Smith, Brian. Personal communication on site during several years of field work along the Grass River.

Tyrell, Joseph. Algonquian Indian Names of Places in Northern Canada.  Transactions of the Royal Canadian Institute Vol.10.  Toronto, ON. (1915)

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