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See Illinois (unpublished)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. ●
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