Pelmewash Parkway is about to be devoted entirely to local traffic, providing Lake Country with the wonderful asset of seven kilometres of lakeshore for all manner of recreation. This seems to be an opportune time to discuss the origin and possible meaning of the name “Pelmewash.” I confess that I am likely reacting to a question from my friend, Richard Gibbons: “Why would anyone want a name that nobody can pronounce and nobody knows what it means?” Well Richard, in terms of pronunciation, it is already beginning to roll off the tongues of locals. What of the origin and meaning?
Pelmewash was the original name for Wood Lake. Mrs. W. R. Powley (née Gladys Adams), the author of the 1958 Winfield Centennial Committee’s book, Early Days of Winfield, BC, claimed that “Wood Lake was called Pelme-wash” by the early pioneers. Mrs. Powley is a credible source of information; she was raised in Oyama from the time of her family’s arrival there in 1907 and she resided in Winfield from the time of her marriage in 1914 until her death in 1966. In an era when she had few neighbours, she had close ties to Okanagan Indian mixed-ancestry folks such as Mrs. E. J. Swalwell, the daughter of G. W. Simpson and his Okanagan wife, and her sister, Mrs. Boriot. Others on the Duck Lake Reserve were Chief Enoch, an Okanagan man, and Dave McDougall whose mother was Okanagan. If anyone was an authority on the name for this lake it would be Mrs. Powley. Furthermore, the fact that she was invited to write the history of Winfield by the Winfield Centennial Committee and that her work was undoubtedly vetted by a committee comprised of other old-timers adds credence to her account.
Another reference to Pelmewash appears in the Vernon News on October 21, 1937. It reads “Local historians state that [Thomas] Wood settled in the Valley… at the south end of what was then known as Pelmewash Lake – known now as Wood Lake—and that he used the range on the east side of the Lake as grazing land for his cattle.”
But what does the name mean? Well, Pelmewash was undoubtedly Okanagan in origin, like many other of our place names such as Kelowna, Keremeos, Osoyoos and even the word Okanagan. Current Okanagan speakers do not recall the exact meaning of “Pelmewash” but they are able to offer clues. The term “yoos” (as in Cayuse or Osoyoos) refers to a body of water or “lake”. “Ewash” may be a different rendering of that word.
The term “pelme” is used elsewhere in the Okanagan. The S“pallum”cheen River, a meandering river on a flood plain employs the term, although it is rendered a little differently in English. Another clue comes from names of Okanagan chiefs. A significant line of chiefs were named “Pelkam” ū ‘láx,” a name meaning, according to James Teit, “Rolls over the earth.” (This name likely refers to the significant expansion of Okanagan territory that was accomplished under these war chiefs.) Again, English rendering makes the term a little different. Perhaps the name “Pelme” refers to a lake or river which floods over adjoining land.
Consider that Wood Lake prior to the canal being constructed in 1908 was four feet higher than it is today. During the spring freshet the high water might have been two or three feet higher than that. How far back up the valley would the annual flooding occur? Oyama pioneer Arnold Trewhitt remembers Bottom Wood Lake Road being impassable due to flooding in the 1920s, long after the lake level had been lowered. The area around Lodge Road still has water lying about. Perhaps Pelmewash means “the lake that rolled over the earth. “ Mrs. Powley, living on her dairy farm just south of Lodge Road, likely had the waters of Pelmewash lapping in her yard every Spring.