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Discover Mid-America — July 2006

Native American Placenames of the United States by William Bright (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004); Hardcover, 608 pages; $59.95, 0-8061-3576-X;

A reference book that makes great reading

Reference books are a turn-on for every historian. From them, just as we use any other secondary source, we draw on their vast wealth of information to form and reform ideas that we call our own. We get lost in them, lose hours in the dusty aisles of libraries, and see in the leaves of such books the dreams of the past.

Occasionally, a reference book comes along with all the reading charm and interest of a dictionary. One word leads to another, and then to another; series of thoughts lead to things completely different from themselves, yet related by the mere walk of fingers across the pages.

Or, if you don’t like reading dictionaries or think such endeavor far too weird, there’s the Native American Placenames of the United States. The introduction is enough to keep one busy for an hour and, then, like any good reference book, to draw you back time and again as the names of familiar, very American places begin to reveal the complexities of their past.

American Indian placenames dot the United States. From Kansas City to Kenosha and back to Tonganoxie; the list of thousands of names in this book have fascinating origins, different spellings depending on where they are, and differing meanings depending on what time the name was drawn from a specific language.

So, for instance, Miami is the name originally given to a county in Ohio. It comes from the name of the Algonquin language and was the name of an Illinois people called the Miami. The placename was first recorded in the eighteenth century. “The Native American name was /myaamiawa, myaamia/, meaning ‘downstream person.’” Miami is also a placename in Illinois and Indiana. It was transferred to and names towns and counties in Iowa, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Miami is also the name of both and town and county in mid-Missouri and a county in eastern Kansas, as well as the city in Florida. Related to Miami is the Maumee River in mid-Ohio.

Now if that wasn’t exciting, how about this? Scholars can easily trace the origins of many of the Native American-derived placenames in the West, such as Lolo (a mountain pass in Idaho, town in Montana and butte in Oregon), Yolo (counties in California and Colorado), and Yosemite (the name of a national park).

All have differing origins, some of which are European. For instance, the Oregon butte called Lolo comes from either or both the colloquial Lower Chinook, “to pack” or formal Lower Chinook, “to carry on the back.” Lolo, the pass in Idaho, may be the Snake Indians’ pronunciation of the French name Laurent or Lawrence. It may also just be the French nickname, Lolo.

Some words may be directly translate-able but may have had numerous English spellings and pronunciations. Yolo has been recorded at different times as Yoloy, Yodoi, Ioleo and Dioleo. But however whites wrote it down, the words come from Patwin meaning “place abounding in cattails.”

Many placenames derive from Indian names for ethnic or identity groups. Miami is one such example. But so is Yosemite, from the Southern Sierra Miwok /yohhe’miti, yosse’miti/ meaning “they are killers” and given to the inhabitants of the valley of that name today. Natives outside the valley gave the Yosemite their name, obviously referring to what they thought of the Yosemite capable.

Difficulties arise in tracing the names of places whose native languages were extinguished in the pre-settlement plagues or from native languages that disappeared shortly after whites arrived en mass on this continent.

As soon as Columbus touched Hispaniola, smallpox devastated the island and spread throughout the Caribbean in local trade networks. The same was true of North America. Colonists, according to environmental historian William Cronon, arrived on the continent believing God had created perfect, inhabitable spaces for them.

In fact, smallpox, flu and other diseases had ravaged native villages, hunting areas and farm fields in advance of white settlement, leaving what looked to be nature perfectly built for the white man. What the newly arrived whites saw were places inhabited by natives for hundreds of years, and tended to much in the same manner — on a smaller scale — as their own gardens and farms.

Placenames in the East and Old South have indistinct etymologies; as if the fog of time has enveloped the people and languages they spoke. Names, such as Kennabunk (Maine), Otisco (New York) and Eno (North Carolina) probably derive from Iroquoian, Algonquin and Siouan languages. But the exact origins are unknown. The precise meanings of the names lost.

Bright has done a considerable amount of research. His searches of dictionaries, linguistic texts, history books and semiotic monographs have produced a reference with thousands of American placenames, representing geography, town and city, and states and regions. The thirteen-page bibliography is amazing, forming not only a profile of a scholar’s work but also maps of library, archival and historical text resources.

Bright’s work reveals the origins of traditional native placenames, as well as those derived from native/English/French pidgin, derivations of names as they were transferred from place to place, names that whites made to sound like native words and native language variations of European words.

It’s a pricey hardcover book, but one that’s fascinating not only for dictionary and reference-book readers like me, but for anyone who wonders, say, how the Loosahatchie River, the town of Oskaloosa or the state of Michigan got their names.*

Even better is to discover that places with English-sounding names are actually native in origin, such as several Long Lakes, a Long Butte, and at least one Long Point — all literal English translations of Indian terms.
*(Loosahatchie — Choctaw, meaning “black river”; Oskaloosa — Choctaw for the Seminole wife of Osceola; Michigan—Old Ojibway for “big lake.”)

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at

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