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“Heathen names”

Indian places names in central Illinois

See Illinois (unpublished)


A sampling of Indian-inspired place names in central and east central Illinois, prepared (I feel compelled to explain) for the casual tourist and not the historian. A probably overworked theme, and some of these examples I used in other places, but still fun, if you like this sort of thing.

This material is taken from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (See Publications for more about that project.) Some of it appears in my book, Corn Kings & One-Hose Thieves.


The Native Americans’ only obvious legacy to the Grand Prairie region of east central Illinois is on its maps. Many of the local rail stops founded by the Illinois Central Railroad were given Indian names. Maroa, in Macon County is a shortened form of Tamaroa, which was one of the six nations of the Illinois. A stop on the Kankakee-Iroquois County line was christened Chebanse (“Little Duck”) after a Potawatomi chief. The names of Minonk in Woodford County, Onarga in Iroquois County, Muncie in Vermilion County, Pesotum in Champaign County, Tuscola in Douglas County, and Wauponsee in Grundy County are all of Indian origin, although the exact source of several is disputable.


The wise scholar will not attempt to infer a history of Illinois’s Indian era from its modern place names. The town of Pontiac in Livingston County indisputably owes its name to the Ottawa chief of that name, but not because he came anywhere near the place; it was given that name by homesick settlers from Pontiac, Michigan. Cayuga in that county was named for a lake in western New York that was the original home of the  pioneers who founded its Illinois namesake; the lake had been named for one of the six Nations of the Iroquois confederacy in that part of the world. The founders of Niantic in Macon County did the same in naming their new home after the Algonquian tribe they knew from Rhode Island and Connecticut. Ashkum, the village in Iroquois County, bears the name of a Pottawatomi chief of a village in Miami County, Indiana; Potomac, the village in Vermilion County, honors a Virginian tribe. There are many other examples.


Historian Virgil Vogel published a definitive glossary of Indian place names in 1963. In it he noted that such names can leave etymologists tearing their hair. The record (mainly maps) is filled with names taken from many languages and dialects of languages which had no standard spelling or pronunciation; worse, these names often were misrecorded or misheard by whites.


And, as was true elsewhere in Illinois, by the time some Grand Prairie towns were named, Illinois Indian past was already shrouded by fogs of legend. About Tonica, the name it gave one of its stops in LaSalle County, the president of the Illinois Central Railroad said it came from the Tonicas or Tunicas, a tribe inhabiting the lower Mississippi in the eighteenth century whose extinct language was unrelated to any other. Vogel for one suggests that the name may have come instead from an apocryphal story published in an 1851 magazine about the elopement of ‘Tonika,’ a daughter of a Natchez chief and chief Chikagou of the Illinois.


The Euro-American inventors of local names were ardent but not always accurate anthropologists. Vogel gave us a good example:


The legend of Watch-e-kee was obtained by Gurdon S. Hubbard, trader for the American Fur Company, who took as a wife, according to the Indian custom, the Potawatomi girl bearing this name, who was a niece of chief Tamin. The legend of her name, as given to Hiram Beckwith by Hubbard, relates that the Iroquois once attacked an Indian village on the banks of Iroquois River and drove out the occupants with great slaughter. When the refugees gathered at night some distance away, a courageous woman exhorted the men to attack the Iroquois. since the latter were celebrating victory and would not anticipate danger. When the warriors demurred, the woman said she would organize the women to counterattack, since they might as well die fighting as be killed by the Iroquois next day. When the women responded in large numbers, the men were shamed into marching against the Iroquois, whom they took by surprise and routed. A council of the tribe then decreed that whenever the heroic woman died, her name, Watch-e-kee, [according to one authority, the meaning of her name was “pretty woman.”] would be bestowed on the most accomplished maiden of the tribe, and in this way handed down from one generation to another.


Whether the Potawatomi had such a battle with the Iroquois is questionable, since no invasions of the latter tribe occurred in Illinois after the arrival of the Potawatomi.


When it came to names, even an Indian name was not exotic enough for some of the Grand Prairie. Mahomet in Champaign County (established as Middletown in 1836) most likely was named for a noted Mohegan Indian but one local tale insisted it honors the prophet of Islam, named by a pioneer who believed the place to be “as heathenish a country as he knew of and ought to have a heathen name.”


In Lincoln, the Logan County Chamber of Commerce maintains its office on Kickapoo Street. Indian Field Cemetery in McLean County’s Lexington Township was named after a nearby Indian cornfield noted in an 1824 land survey. The town of Manito in Mason County took its name from the Algonquin word for “Great Spirit.” An early settler named Moweaqua using the Indian word by which the local people referred to nearby Flat Branch Creek. It has been translated variously to mean weeping woman, wolf woman, or muddy water; the name was misspelled by the recording clerk in 1890, and the error has been perpetuated. The name Macoupin comes from the Indian word macupiana, or "white potato," for the wild artichoke that grew along the banks of the county’s waterways. Shick Shack Hill in Menard County was named for a local Potawatomi chief; Edgar Lee Masters reported that he used chants and incantations to protect the white man’s crops from corn borers, which was neighborly.


Not all the region’s places names of Native American origin trace to local peoples. The town of Nokomis was named for the storyteller of Longfellow’s narrative poem Hiawatha, a poem that also inspired the namers of Wenonah in Montgomery County. Wapella, a De Witt County town, was named for a Fox chief from northern Illinois. Tallula in Menard County took a common Southern Indian name derived from the Choctaw, who never set foot near it. Typical. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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