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Sunday, March 3

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"Before the city, there was the land." --William Cronen, Nature's Metropolis.

This week's question was submitted by Brian. Thanks.

Q: What does the word Chicago mean? Was the city ever called anything else?

In May of 1673 Father Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit priest, and Louis Joliet, a Canadian-born fur trader, set out with five others from Marquette's mission of St. Ignace on the northeastern edge of Lake Michigan. They left to explore the territory of the Illini. Marquette wanted to preach the gospel to the Illinois Indians while Joliet left to find a fabled river that flowed west across the country to California, providing much-desired access to the riches of the Indies.

The group traveled south down the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to the Mississippi. In two birchbark canoes, they journeyed down the Mississippi about as far as present day Memphis. There they met a group of Arkansas Indians who informed them that the Mississippi flowed south into the Gulf of Mexico, not west as they had hoped. The Arkansas convinced the group of explorers to turn back by warning them also of dangerous and well-armed tribes making war further south. Lucky for us, they did turn back.

Thanks to a tip from a Native American guide, Marquette and Joliet took a shortcut up the Illinois River on their way back north to Canada. When they reached the Des Plaines River, Joliet, Marquette and their little party became the first documented white men to cross the Chicago portage between the Des Plaines River and Lake Michigan. Thus, Chicago is born. But, I say "documented" because historians agree that French fur traders had probably been through the area before, but we have no record of their passing.

Just a few years later, French explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de LaSalle passed through the "Portage de Checagou" in 1682. He is remembered as a visionary who immediately recognized the potential of the land saying, "This will be the gate of the empire." But, LaSalle was on his way south to trace the route of the Mississippi, claiming the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, and he never returned to the area.

During the era of these early expeditions, the land around here was already called Chicago by the Illini and other Native American groups. Nearly 40 different spellings are known including Checagou, Chekagou, and Chekakou. In addition, at least a dozen theories have been postulated regarding the etymology of the word. The prevailing opinion, which is supported by some early journal accounts, is that the word means "wild onion" or garlic. In 1701, for example, Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac, one of the first settlers of Detroit, wrote, "The post at Chicago comes next. The word means Garlic River because a garlic grows wild, without cultivation..." (Vogel 1962)

Yet despite the promise of the land, it would be another hundred years after LaSalle's visit before John-Baptiste Point du Sable became the first official settler in Chicago when he built his trading post near the Chicago River in 1782.

From there, the settlement of Chicago took off. Construction of Fort Dearborn began in 1803. A village grew, and the land was developed until, in 1833, a group of settlers met at the Sauganash Hotel at the corner of Lake and Wacker and signed papers incorporating the town of Chicago.

Somewhere in all that rambling, I hope I answered your question. The word Chicago is from a Native American word most likely meaning wild onion or garlic, and neither this city nor this land has gone by any other name since the recorded history of this area. And, it will keep on being Chicago long after you and I are gone. Comforting thought, no?

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the monument to Marquette and Joliet located on the site where the explorers arrived at the Chicago Portage. The statue is located near Harlem Ave. in Summit, IL, just north of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55 ahem). The monument is part of the Chicago Portage National Historic Site maintained by the Cook County Forest Preserve.


Chicago Portage National Historic Site. Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Quaife, Milo Milton. Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Vogel, Virgil J. Indian Place Names in Illinois. Pamphlet Series No. 4 of the Illinois State Historical Society. (1963).

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian"? Send your suggestions to librarian@gapersblock and it may be featured in a future column.

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Pete / February 2, 2004 10:58 AM

"Garlic River" would have made a wonderful name for a world-class city!


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