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Native American Geographic Names in Great Lakes Region

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This post explores a little different topic. It’s about Great Lakes destinations. But not about attractions that you can find there, but rather about local names and their origins.

Often, when looking at the map of the region, I have wondered, what were the places named after… What’s the history behind them? How the places’ name originated?… How many of them where Native American Indian in origin?… What do they mean?…

Since the Great Lakes region was discovered and first settled by French, there are many French names… Detroit, La Salle, Au Sable, Pointe-aux-Barque, Sault Ste Marie, Fond du Lac, St. Catharines, etc. These are easy to spot.

Later came the British, and finally American settlers. Therefore, there are many English names. Again, it is easy to recognize those.

But which ones are of Native American origin?… Well, after researching the subject for a while, I found out that there are many more than I thought. So, let’s take a look…

 

The Great Lakes

 

Let’s start with the Great Lakes. So, interestingly, only Lake Superior, has the English version of the original French name – Lac Superiour. However, the names of other four lakes have Native American origins, to some degree. What I mean by “some degree” is that for example Lake Huron name comes from a French name of Native American Indian tribe inhabiting the area. More about it below…

Lake Ontario – In the Huron – language, the name Ontarí’io means “Lake of Shining Waters”.

Lake Erie – The lake was named after the Erie people – a Native American group who lived along lake’s southern shore. The tribal name “Erie” is a shortened form of the Iroquoian word erielhonan, meaning “long tail”.

 

Native American Geographic Names

Lake Huron.

 

Lake Huron – Named after the French name of the lake – Lac des Hurons. The French named it for the Native American tribe they called “hure” (Hurons – meaning “head”- which refers to the strange way they dressed their hair. The tribe referred to itself as Wendat (Wyandotte), meaning “dwellers on a peninsula.”

 

Native American Geographic Names

Lake Michigan.

 

Lake Michigan – from Ottawa (Odawa) – meaning “large water” or “large lake”.

However, it will be no surprise when you learn the history of exploration of the Great Lakes region. White explorers learned about the Great Lakes from Native Americans, long before they actually visited them. So it is understandable, that they used the Native American names when referring to them. And then names stuck.

 

The States/Provinces

 

So, let’s continue our investigation with names of states surrounding the lakes… Again, the process of how the names persisted is the same here. The area references came from Indian stories long before any of the white explorers had seen them. Then when the explorers and, later, settlers got there, they were in use for so long already, that it would be hard to change the name…

Illinois – comes from the French version of an Algonquian, or possibly, Miami word meaning “she/he speaks normally”.

Michigan – as in Lake Michigan name, from Ottawa mishigami, meaning “large water” or “large lake”.

Minnesota – from Dakota phrase – mni-sota, “turbid water”.

Ohio – name derived from Seneca ohi:yo’ – “beautiful river”.

Wisconsin – originally “Mescousing”, from an Algonquian language, though the source and meaning is not clear.

Ontario – From the Lake Ontario, as mentioned above. In the Huron language, the name Ontarí’io means “Lake of Shining Waters”.

 

Now, let us look at the names of some local towns, rivers, counties in each state/province…

 

Michigan

 

Cheboygan –   This Native American word was first applied to the river. The original word may have been Chabwegan –  “a place of ore.”

Escanaba – Escanaba was the name of an Ojibwa village in this area in the early 19th century. The word Escanaba roughly translates from Ojibwe to “land of the red buck”.

Genesse – derived from a Seneca word, je-nis-hi-yeh, meaning “beautiful valley”: The county was named after the valley in western New York State, which many area settlers originally came from.

Gogebic – This name probably comes from the Chippewa bic which most references interpret as “rock.”

Hiawatha National Forest – According to the Forest Service, it was named after the Mohawk chief, Hiawatha, who brought about the confederation known as the Five Nations of the Iroquois.

Kalamazoo – Named for the river that runs through it. The Native American phrase was probably Ke-Ken-a-ma-zoo. A widely accepted translation is “boiling water.” Other versions are “otter tail” or “reflected river.”

Keweenaw – A Native American word, Kee-wi-wai-non-ing meaning “portage” or “place where portage is made”.

Lanawee – From a Native American word meaning “man,” either from the Delaware leno or lenno or the Shawnee lenawai.

Mackinac Island – Some references claim the word was the French interpretion of a Native American word that meant “great turtle,” the shape of the island from a distance. Others claim it came from “place of the Mishinimaki”, an ancient tribe that inhabited the island.

 

Native American Geographic Names

Manistee River, Michigan.

 

Manistee – This Native American name was first applied to the county’s principal river. It means “river at whose mouth there are islands.”

Menominee – This is the name of the Menominee tribe who lived in the vicinity. The word means “rice men” or “rice gatherers.”

Muskegon – The county and city took its name from the river running through it, that empties into Lake Michigan. The word comes from the Ojibwa/Chippewa word mashkig meaning “swamp” or “marsh.”

Newaygo – The term was derived from then name of a Chippewa chief who signed the Saginaw Treaty of 1819, or from a Native American word meaning “much water.”

 

Native American Geographic Names

Petoskey, MI.

 

Petoskey – “Petoskey” is said to mean “where the light shines through the clouds” in the language of the Odawa.

Pontiac – the name of the Ottawa Chief, Pontiac.

Porcupine Mountains – The Indian name for these highlands, like those of other prominent Great Lakes’ landform features, such as Mackinaw Island (“Turtle Island”), the Beaver Islands, and the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, originates from their imagined resemblance, when seen across the water, to the animal named. Evidence supporting this theory was recorded by Henry Schoolcraft during his 1831 trip along the Lake Superior shoreline. He asked a Chippewa chief of the origin of their name for the Porcupine Mountains: “I asked Konteka their Indian name. He replied Kaug Wudju. I asked him why they were so called. He said from their resemblance to a crouching porcupine.”

Saginaw – There are two possible derivations: from Sace-nong or Sak-e-nong (Sauk Town) because the Sauk (Sac) once lived there, or from Chippewa words meaning “place of the outlet” from sag – an opening, and ong – place of.

Sanilac – named for Sanilac, a chief, according to Wyandotte Indian traditions.

Shiawassee – named for the river. Suggestions have included: “now it is light,” “straight running river,” “twisting river,” “sparkling waters,” green river” and “it runs backward and forward.”

 

Native American Geographic Names

Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan.

 

Tahquamenon – From the Ojibwe for “this is a short route” (Ou – this + takou – it is short + minan – trail or path).  This name refers originally to Tahquamenon Bay, which the Indians used as a shortcut while traveling.   The bay has a small island in it that facilitated the “shortcut” from Whitefish Point across the open and at times dangerous bay. The name ywas later given to the River that enters into the bay.

Tawas City – named for the Chief O-ta-was.

Washtenaw – Native Americans called the area west of Detroit, Wash-ten-ong, meaning “further district” or “land beyond.” Another explanation is that it was a name for the Grand River and referred to the areas along and near the river.

Wyandotte – named for the Huron Nation tribe known as Wyandot or Wendat.

 

Illinois

 

Native American Geographic Names

Chicago, IL.

 

Chicago – for the Miami-Illinois word Shikaakwa, meaning wild leek.

Peoria – named after the Peoria tribe which used to live in the area.

Kankakee – The city’s name is probably derived from the Miami-Illinois word teeyaahkiki, which means: “Open country/exposed land/land in open/land exposed to view,” in reference to the area originally being a marsh.

Waukegan – The name Waukegance and then Waukegan (meaning “little fort”; from Potawatomi wakaigin “fort” or “fortress”).

 

Indiana

 

Mishawaka – named after Shawnee princess Mishawaka.

 

Minnesota

 

Minnetonka – The name comes from the Dakota Indian mni tanka, meaning “great water” for Mississippi River. The word Mississippi itself comes from Messipi, the French rendering of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) name for the river, Misi-ziibi (Great River).

Minnesota River – The name Minnesota comes from the Dakota language phrase, Mnisota Makoce which is translated to “land where the waters reflect the sky”, as a reference to the many lakes in Minnesota.

 

New York

 

Native American Geographic Names

Canandaigua, NY.

 

Canandaigua – The name Canandaigua is derived from the Seneca name of its historic village here, spelled variously Kanandarque, Ganandogan, Ga-nun-da-gwa, or Konondaigua. The village was established long before any European Americans came to the area. In a modern transcription, the historic village is rendered as tganǫdæ:gwęh, which means “the chosen spot”, or “at the chosen town”.

 

Native American Geographic Names

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

 

Niagara Falls – Theories differ as to the origin of the name of the falls. However, according to Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger, Niagara is derived from the name given to a branch of the local native Neutral Confederacy. They were described as being called the Niagagarega people on several late 1700’s French maps of the area. Then, according to George R. Stewart, the name comes from the name of an Iroquois town called Ongniaahra, meaning “point of land cut in two”.

Henry Schoolcraft wrote:”… Niagara Falls. This name is Mohawk. It means, according to Mrs. Kerr, the neck; the term being first applied to the portage or neck of land, between lakes Erie and Ontario. By referring to Mr. Elliott’s vocabulary, (chapter xi) it will be seen that the human neck, that is, according to the concrete vocabulary, his neck, is onyara. Red Jacket pronounced the word Niagara to me, in the spring of 1820, as if written O-ne-au-ga-rah…”

Oneida – The city, and also Oneida County, were named for the Oneida tribe, which inhibited a large territory here around Oneida Lake during the colonial period.

 

Native American Geographic Names

Seneca Lake, NY.

 

Seneca Lake – The lake takes its name from the Seneca nation of Native Americans.

Skaneateles Lake – The name Skaneateles means “long lake” in one of the local Iroquoian languages.

Keuka Lake – Keuka means “canoe landing” in the Iroquois language and “lake with an elbow” in the Seneca language.

Cayuga Lake – named after Native American Tribe. The Cayuga (Cayuga: Guyohkohnyo or Gayogohó:no’, literally “People of the Great Swamp”) was one of the five original nations of the Iroquois, a confederacy of Native Americans in New York. The Cayuga homeland lay in the Finger Lakes region along Cayuga Lake, between their neighbors, the Onondaga to the east and the Seneca to the west.

 

Ohio

 

Cuyahoga – The Mohawk form of the name Cayagaga means ‘crooked river’, though it became assimilated to the Seneca name Cuyohaga, meaning ‘place of the jawbone’. The river is in an area mainly settled by the Seneca people in the 18th century, and the Seneca name stuck.

Ohio River – from Seneca Ohiyo – ‘the best river’ or ‘the big river’.

Sandusky – from Wyandot saandusti meaning water (within water-pools)” or from andusti – “cold water”.

 

Pennsylvania

 

Allegheny – probably from Lenape welhik hane or oolik hanna, which means “best flowing river of the hills” or “beautiful stream”. Originally the name of the Allegheny River, later used to name the Allegheny Mountains too.

Ohiopyle – from the Lenape phrase ahi opihəle, “it turns very white”, referring to the frothy waterfalls.

Poconos – from Lenape pokawaxne – “a creek between two hills”.

 

Native American Geographic Names

Youghiogeny River

 

Youghiogheny – from Lenape yuxwiakhane – “stream running a contrary or crooked course”.

Susquehanna River – Susquehanna comes from the Lenape (or Delaware Indian) term Sisa’we’hak’hanna, which means “Oyster River.” Oyster beds were widespread in the bay near the mouth of the river.

 

Wisconsin

 

Kenosha – The Potawatomi originally named the area ginoozhe (also transcribed kenozia, kinoje) – “place of the pike”.

Manitowoc  – city and county derived from Manitowoc (manidoowag), which is an Ojibwe word meaning spirits.

Milwaukee and Milwaukee County – Algonguin word Millioke which means “the good land”, or “gathering place by the water”. Another interpretation is “beautiful or pleasant lands”.

Oshkosh – for the Menominee Chief Oshkosh, whose name meant “claw” (from Ojibwe oshkanzh – “the claw”).

Winnebago County – named after the Winnebago people.

Sheboygan River – The name of the river is Native American in origin, meaning “noise underground” or “river disappearing underground”.

 

Ontario

 

Mississauga – The name Mississauga comes from the Anishinaabe word Misi-zaagiing, meaning “Those at the Great River-mouth”.

Toronto – The name Toronto is likely derived from the Iroquois word tkaronto, meaning “place where trees stand in the water”. This refers to the northern end of what is now Lake Simcoe, where the Huron had planted tree saplings to corral fish. However, the word Toronto, meaning “plenty” also appears in a French lexicon of the Huron language in 1632…

Oshawa – The name Oshawa originates from the Ojibwa term aazhaway, meaning “the crossing place” or just “(a)cross”.

Manitoulin Island – The current name of the island is the English version, from French, of the historic Odawa name Manidoowaaling, which means “cave of the spirit”. It was named for an underwater cave where a powerful spirit was said to live. By the 19th century, the Odawa “l” was pronounced as “n”. The same word with a newer pronunciation is used for the town Manitowaning (19th-century Odawa Manidoowaaning), which is located on Manitoulin Island near the underwater cave where legend has it that the spirit dwells.

Algonquin Provincial Park – The park is named after the Algonquin Nation. However, the origins of the name Algonquin are unclear. … Algonquin may have come from the Maliseet word elehgumoqik (“our allies,”) the Mi’kmaq word algoomaking (“of the fish-spearing-place”), or the Maliseet word elakanqin (“they are good dancers”).

 

 

I think it’s great that the names given by Wyandottes, Ottawas, Algonquins, Potawatomies and many other Native American nations to the geographical features around the Great Lakes persisted. Vast majority of the Native Americans that originally inhabited these lands are gone, but their legacy is left forever in the names of places around us.

 

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If you are interested in the history of the region and the history behind many of the geographic names mentioned above, there is an interesting book out there that provides the detailed account of the discovery, exploration and settlement of the Great Lakes region. The title of it is History of the Great Lakes (in two volumes) by John Brandt Mansfield. It was first published in 1899, but you can find one of many reprints of the book out there. There are also some digitized copies available.

 

 

Rich S. is a lifetime photographer and traveler based in Metro Detroit area. He has been traveling the Great Lakes area for over 30 years. Follow his blog about his trips, interesting activities and destinations in the Great Lakes region.

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