Which well-known Michigan landmark was actually the pen name of America’s first Native American literary writer? Find the answer in this word history list for Michigan’s most unusual names.
MICHIGAN—Whether it’s the “ree” in Lake Orion, the “lot” in Charlotte, or the “my” in Milan, Michigan’s geographic names can certainly get unexpected with pronunciation.
Indigenous tribes such as the Ojibwe, the Odawa, and the Potawatomi are credited with the names for many of Michigan’s earliest landmarks. However, over history, meanings have gotten lost in translation, and other languages such as French, Latin, and even Arabic have changed pronunciation and spelling. Other names may sound indigenous, but come from a different place entirely.
Ready to brush up on your Michigan etymology? Here are some of Michigan’s most unusual names, what they mean, and where they came from.
Alpena is the second most populated city in northern Michigan. Native American agent Henry Schoolcraft (1793-1864) created the name Alpena in 1840, combining “Al,” a Native American syllable meaning “the,” and “pena” which was either derived from “pinai,” an Arabic word for “partridge,” or the French word “peanaisse” which means “bird.” This name was thought to be inspired by the Odawa name for a nearby point in Lake Huron, called “Aw-pe-na-sing” or “Partridge Point.”
This northern Michigan town on the shores of Lake Michigan was named after a French Jesuit explorer and historian, Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761). Charlevoix’s famous voyage had him investigating North America for King Louis XV, with the bulk of his investigation taking place around the Great Lakes. Charlevoix is believed to have sheltered for a night on present-day Fisherman’s Island, located within the Michigan township bearing his namesake.
Cheboygan is a small town in northern Michigan situated on a river of the same name. The town was named after the river, which was named by the original indigenous tribes of the area. The precise etymology of Cheboygan, though, has been lost to history. The name likely comes from the Ojibwe language. Some possible derivations are from “zhaabonigan” meaning “sewing needle” or “chabwegan” meaning “a place of ore”. Other possible meanings include “big pipe,” “through passage,” or “river that comes out of the ground.”
Dowagiac is a southwestern Michigan town that houses the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi indigenous tribe. Fittingly, Dowagiac’s name is also derived from the Potawatomi language. The Potawatomi word “dewje’og” has been cited to mean either “fishing waters” or “foraging ground.”
This coastal Upper Peninsula town may be most enjoyable “in da moonlight” according to actor and Michigander Jeff Daniels, but its name refers to its other natural features. Escanaba was named after its river, which the Ojibwe tribe called “Escanawba.” Two possible translations exist. The most likely is the meaning “flat rock,” after the limestone river bed that made the area optimal for fishing. Another possible meaning is “land of the red buck,” though the whitetail deer population was not as prevalent in Escanaba during its founding.
Surrounded by Detroit but still not Detroit, the Polish-American cultural hub of Hamtramck is known for its cultural pastries known as paczki. Hamtramck’s name, though, contrary to belief, is nowhere near as Polish as its history. The namesake of the Polish town was a Revolutionary War military leader of French-Canadian descent, Jean François Hamtramck (1756–1803). Colonel Hamtramck was a commander of Fort Lernoult from when the Americans captured it from the British in 1796 until his death in 1805. Colonel Hamtramck served beneath George Washington and Anthony Wayne. The former Fort Lernoult was located where present-day downtown Detroit stands, at the intersection of Fort Street and Shelby Street.
This southern Michigan city may be eccentric, but perhaps the most eccentric thing about it is the amount of attributed meanings for the town’s name. Originally known as Bronson after the city’s founder, the citizens changed the name to Kalamazoo in 1836, using the original indigenous name for the area. The name’s true meaning likely has something to do with water, but the possibilities of the actual word and derived meaning are numerous. The name could be derived from Potawatomi word “kikalamezo” meaning “boiling water,” “boiling pot,” “where the water boils,” “reflecting river,” “mirage,” or even “smothered.”
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One legend claims that the “boiling water” version of the name comes from an annual footrace the local indigenous tribes held. Participants ran to the river and back, with the time limit of the duration it took to boil a pot of water. Another legend claims that a specific Potawatomi man named Fleet Foot had to embark on the aforementioned footrace to the water and back to win his bride. The name could also be derived from negikanamazo, meaning either “stones like otters” or “otter tail.” Other possible meanings come from the Ojibwe language, including “kikikamagad” meaning “it goes fast,” or “kikanamsoso” meaning “it smokes” or “he is troubled with smoke.”
The Keweenaw Peninsula is known not only for its legendary lakeshore beauty, but also as the Upper Peninsula’s oldest rock formation and the heart of Copper Country. The Keweenaw name, however, is most likely derived from the water formations of the Keweenaw Waterway, where freighters traversed the waters to bring copper to the rest of the world. The name is derived from the Ojibwe word “gakiiwe-wewaning” which means “portage” or “where portage is made.” Considering the heart of the Keweenaw Waterway is Portage Lake, it’s likely these names have been used for hundreds of years, even pre-dating the European settlers.
Today, the word Leelanau is used for both the Leelanau Peninsula and Leelanau County. Both geographical features are associated with both Traverse City’s “wine country” and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The namesake of the Sleeping Bear Dunes is well-known, with the Anishinaabe legend having persisted through oral history. The name of its peninsular home, however, is less known.
Traditionally, Leelanau was associated with indigenous language, not unlike the Sleeping Bear Dunes. The meaning is said to be “delight of life.” The Odawa and Ojibwe languages, though, did not use phonemes represented by the letter L. Realistically, the word “Leelanau” was most likely invented by Native American agent Henry Schoolcraft (1793-1864) after he used the name for Native American women in his stories. More recently, scholars have found the derived name “Leelinau” was the pen name of Schoolcraft’s wife and first known Native American literary writer, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.
Michigan’s favorite homophone is definitely Mackinac. Or is it Mackinaw? The spelling differences may have been done to distinguish the city from the island for postal carriers, but the meaning of the name has been processed through multiple languages.
The origin of the name may be derived from the Ojibwe word “mishimikinaak” meaning “big turtle,” which is what the indigenous people of the area believed the island looked like. An alternate meaning is the Ojibwe word “missilimaahkinaank” meaning “at the territory of the Mishinimaki,” with the Mishinimaki being a division of the Ojibwe people who called the Mackinac region home. A third interpretation is the Ojibwe word “michinnimakinong” meaning “great connecting sound fault land or place” describing the Straits of Mackinac area.
Whichever the case, French-Canadians built Fort Michilimackinac as a trading post on the present-day site of Mackinaw City in 1715. The name had been translated from the Ojibwe word into something more fit for the French language. The trademark “aw” sound represented by the letter “c” is a convention of the French language. The French relinquished the fort to the British in 1761, and by 1781, the British had torn down the old fort and rebuilt the fort out of limestone on present-day Mackinac Island. By the end of the War of 1812, the names of both the fort and the island it inhabited had been shortened to “Mackinac.” Present-day Mackinaw City was founded in 1857 as Michilimackinac, but shortened to Mackinaw in 1894.
The Upper Peninsula’s largest city and home of Northern Michigan University has a name which echoes its early history as an area known to French missionaries. Originally, Marquette was named New Worcester, after the Massachusetts city affiliated with the founders of the Marquette Iron Company. In 1850, the name was changed to posthumously honor French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette (1637-1675), also known as Père Marquette. Father Marquette was most well-known as an explorer of the St. Lawrence River. He also founded Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan’s first European settlement, as well as St. Ignace and La Pointe, located in present-day Wisconsin. Scholars suspect Father Marquette may have been in the area in 1671, when he is believed to have delivered a sermon to indigenous Ojibwe at present-day Lighthouse Point.
As the state with the longest freshwater shoreline in the world, Michigan’s indigenous namesake is fitting. The names for both the Mitten State and its accompanying Great Lake come from the Ojibwe word mishigami, which translates to “large lake.”
The gateway to Michigan’s legendary Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the small Upper Peninsula town of Munising. The name is derived from the Ojibwe word “minnising” which means “at the island” or “island in the lake.” The Chippewa tribe had a village on the Anna River as late as 1820, and the Sault Tribe is still active in the region today.
This western Michigan port town may be better known as “The Skee” or “Skeetown,” but before it was a hub for boats of all types, it was a village for indigenous Odawa. Muskegon’s namesake is the Muskegon River. French fur trappers explored the river as early as the 1600s. The river’s name was derived from the Odawa word “mashkiigong“, meaning either “marshy river or swamp” or “river of marshes.”
This unincorporated community immediately east of East Lansing is a popular bedroom community for the employees of Michigan State University. Before it was an affordable housing hotspot, though, it was a farming community named after an Ojibwe chief. Chief Okemos (1788-1858) represented the Ojibwe people at the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw, where he gave six million acres of southern Michigan land to the United States via General Lewis Cass. Following the treaty, Chief Okemos led his people to the present-day Ingham County area. Among his tribe’s many homes were the area of present-day Central Elementary School in Okemos.
The Ontonagon River, and the Michigan village and county named after it, may not be the most well-known name on its own, given its location in the far northwest corner of the Upper Peninsula. It is better known as part of the Porcupine Mountains area, otherwise known as the “Porkies.” The Ontonagon river which flows into Lake Superior was a known landmark in the early days of Michigan’s history, as the largest river flowing into southern Lake Superior. Its name is derived from the Ojibwe language, but the precise word and meaning is debated. The name may be derived from “noojitoon ziibi” meaning “hunting river,” “nintonaganing” meaning “the place of my dish,” or “onagon,” meaning “dish” or “bowl.”
The northern Michigan town of Oscoda is designated as the official home of Paul Bunyan by the State of Michigan. The hometown of the folktale-weaving Oscoda Press carries a name invented by Native American agent Henry Schoolcraft (1793-1864). Oscoda is believed to be the combination of two Ojibwe words “ossin” meaning “stone” and “muskoda” meaning “prairie.”
The name Petoskey is carried by both Michigan’s state stone and a northern Michigan resort community. The name “Petosegay” is from the Odawa language meaning “where the light shines through the clouds.” The bearer of the original name was Neyas Petosega (1787-1885), son of French fur trader Antoine Carre and grandson of an Odawa chief on his mother’s side. Petosega experienced some disagreements with the Jesuit Catholic missionaries in Michigan at the time. The Jesuits disagreed with Petosega’s decision to send his sons to a Protestant school. In response, Petosega and his family acquired the land of present-day Petoskey in the hopes of providing a refuge that would preserve the tribal lifestyle. After Michigan became a state, Petosega supported the expanding Presbyterian movement in the area. Shortly before his death, Petoskey received its namesake from the local residents. Neyas Petosega’s descendants still inhabit the Petoskey area today.
The original location of several car manufacturing plants by General Motors, Pontiac is a bustling northern Detroit suburb in Oakland County. The Pontiac car may have been named after the city, but the city’s original name came from an Odawa war chief. Chief Pontiac (1720?-1769) was the namesake and leader of Native American forces in Pontiac’s War, also known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, from 1763 to 1766. The present-day Pontiac area was a headquarters for Chief Pontiac during his lifetime. Chief Pontiac led an allied force of indigenous people against the British occupants of the Great Lakes region, including the Siege of Fort Detroit in 1763. Though the conflict was one of the most violent conflicts American soil has ever seen, Pontiac’s War resulted in the British government’s “Royal Proclamation,” which kept British colonies off indigenous lands. This also helped set the stage for Americans to fight for independence from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. Settlers arrived in present-day Pontiac in 1818 and named it after the great Odawa chief.
The former lumber capitol of Saginaw is located on the Lake Huron bay of the same name. The Saginaw region, though, was a place of importance for Michigan’s indigenous population, and its name reflects this. The name Saginaw is thought to originate from the Ojibwe word “sagenong” meaning “place of outlet.” It may also have meant “land of the Sauk” or “where the Sauk are,” after the Sauk tribe. Ojibwe oral histories place the Sauk in the Saginaw Valley area, but they may have been driven out by the Chippewa. The Saginaw region was a frequent meeting location for the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi indigenous tribes through the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is still active in the area.
Sault Sainte Marie
Pronunciation: soo saynt mr·ee
Michigan’s oldest city and second-most populated city in the Upper Peninsula is Sault Ste. Marie, or “The Soo.” Though Sault Ste. Marie is known for its strong indigenous foundation and culture, the namesake came from the French colonists. The region was named “Saulteaux” or “rapids” in French. When French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) founded the area, he named it after the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. The proper French pronunciation at the time was “Sault de Sainte Marie,” or the translation, “Saint Mary’s Rapids.” The “de” may have been dropped, but the French feminine version of the word “Saint” is kept intact, abbreviated as “Ste.”
Most of Michigan’s other namesakes come from indigenous tribes or French missionaries. For the Eastern Michigan University town of Ypsilanti, though, the namesake takes an entirely different dialect. While Ypsilanti was founded in 1823 as Woodruff’s Grove, halfway across the world in Europe, a Greek military officer named Demetrios Ypsilantis was fighting for Greece’s freedom from the Ottoman Empire and inspiring people back in Michigan. By 1829, Ypsilantis led the First Hellenic Republic to victory against the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Petra, thus ending the Greek War of Independence. The same year, Woodruff’s Grove changed its name to Ypsilanti, and the infamous city with a Y has carried the name ever since.