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GO Chicago Etymology


Rewriting the Earliest Cartographic History
of the Heartland of North America

 Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter
for the Chicago Tribune, the late William Mullen:

     Carl and I have communicated numerous times about this research, by phone, email, and in person. Between assignments for the Chicago Tribune, I've been carefully reviewing 17 nth century documents and what later historians have had to say about them - at times in consultation with Professor Weber.
     Using his core work in this area, my intention is to publish a piece about French colonial America, inquiring into some of the inaccuracies that have long been considered established fact regarding the foundational histories of the regions of the Mississippi Valley, the Illinois Valley and the Chicago area. In my evaluation, and in that of some distinguished experts, his pursuit of historical truth has resulted in some very unusual discoveries. They will merit some basic revisions in the historical record.

The Chicago Etymology Page

After four years of casting a wide and ambitious net of anxious curiosity, from 1997 to 2001, I could not escape the disquieting conclusion that everything that had been written of the earliest history of the Chicago-word, as a place-name, was open to a serious critical review. I gave a presentation at the Newberry Library, Chicago, in 2001, that the prevailing explanation, the Smelly Onion Theory, could not hold up. But it took another 13 years before the disambiguated truth became clear that Checagou was named as the Gateway to the River of de Soto.

A New Line of Investigation for Chicago Etymology
& uprooting the folk etymology of the Smelly Onion Thesis

The history of the Chicago-word most markedly begins with the publication in Paris, in 1670, of a translation from Spanish into French of one of the narratives concerning the Hernando (or Ferdinand) de Soto expedition.

This Spanish exploration of the south east quadrant of North America, 1539-43, resulted in four narratives. The de Soto narrative at issue here is the one written by Garcilaso de la Vega. The 1670 French translation of de la Vega was the work of Pierre Richelet.




Above: left image, Fernando de Soto; right image, Pierre Richelet.

Right: Title page of 1670 translation by Pierre Richelet of the Garcilaso de la Vega narrative of the de Soto New World expedition, 1539-43. (I had examined a copy of an actual original edition about 20 years ago).

The river by which the survivors of the de Soto expedition exited the continental interior, de la Vega wrote, was the Chucagua. This was, as I am calling it, the River of de Soto, the mightiest river in the de Soto narrative. It discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. On this waterway La Salle set his vision of where the Mississippi would lead.

Earliest French Document with the Predecessor of the Chicago-Word

After the 1670 Richelet translation, the Chucagua word made its earliest lasting documented appearance on the 1674 Sanson-Jaillot Map.

Richelet's translation had no small impact on the thinking of exploration-conscious Frenchmen in the 1670s. Before it was learned otherwise, namely, before La Salle had descended the Mississippi in 1682, it had been contemplated that there was a strong likelihood that the terminal bay of de la Vega's Chucagua, on the Sanson-Jaillot Map, was the bay into which the Mississippi would discharge.

Details of 1674 Sanson-Jaillot Map with the Chucagua River flowing into a large bay in the Gulf of Mexico.
This was the bay that La Salle expected to find.

Earliest use of the Chicago-word,
for its present location, in a text and on a map -- both must be credited to La Salle


In a text
1n 1680, two years before he descended the Mississippi, La Salle used Checagou as a place name for today's Chicago area. It was the stepping-off place to reach the river/bay as depicted on the Sanson-Jaillot Map at the Gulf of Mexico.

...at the bottom of the Lake of the Illinois (Lake Michigan) where the navigation ends at the place called Checagou, to condense the things that were brought in the barques (masted ships) and to transport them...
La Salle: 1680, earliest known use by anyone of the Chicago-word applying at the Chicago location.

On a map

La Salle: 1683, earliest known use by anyone of the Chicago-word on a map. The terminal -u is lost on the eastern coastline.

1n 1683, La Salle's Checagou appears on his map, La Louisiane, the earliest use of the Chicago-word on a map. It was as a place name for today's Chicago area. Formerly this map was known as the 1685 map by Minet (this linked colorized version is my much enlarged rendition -- I have revised both the authorship and date). La Salle had been the first (with an entourage of 55) to descend the Mississippi in 1682. Chicago was the stepping-off place, as had been envisioned, to reach the river/bay as depicted on the Sanson-Jaillot Map detail above. Chicago, the continental watershed, was the Gateway to the River of DeSoto.

From the 1683 La Salle Map to the great 1684 Franquelin Map

Leaving Canada at the end of 1683, he would bring a map like the one linked above, with his discoveries on it -- the lower Mississippi and the Ohio Valley -- to the King in France. Accompanying La Salle on the ship was cartographer Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin. The 1684 Franquelin Map was created. (The image in the link -- the best we have -- is a copy of a copy. The original lost, the copy of that, which I have examined, is moldering in the Harvard archives. A much reduced copy, in the link, of the Harvard was published in Jesuit Relations, about 1900.)

Paying homage to La Salle, and relevant to the first exploration of a huge swath of the continental interior, the cartouche is translated below.


LEFT: Cartouche of 1684 Franquelin Map: "Map of La Louisiane, or, the voyages of Sr. de La Salle, and the countries that he discovered from New France to the Gulf of Mexico, the years 1679, 80, 81, & 82. By Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin, the year 1684, Paris."

RIGHT: The vast addition to the French Colonial Empire that La Salle incorporated into the European
Dominion, when he reached the Gulf, April 9, 1682. Rendition of 1684 Franquelin by C. Weber, 2002.

This map was the culmination of the commission La Salle had received from the King, in Paris, in 1678. It was, specifically, to navigate the Mississippi. La Salle named Chicago in the process. France wanted a year-round warm water port and a Gulf fortification against Spanish incursion.

How de la Vega's Chucagua became La Salle's Checagou

From Marc van Oostendorp to Me, 2008
The following letter to me is an explanation how chu- becomes che- and how -agua (-agoua) becomes -agou.

To: "Carl Weber"
Marc van Oostendorp sent you a message
December 5, 2008
Re: Schwa and the search for the River of DeSoto

… I can say this. Your question involves both the first and the last vowel of chucagoua > checagou. As to the first vowel, a present-day speaker of French (and presumably also a speaker of many French varieties at the time) would pronounce the first vowel of chucagoua as a so-called lax mid rounded front vowel (if you excuse the technical terminology). This vowel sounds very similar to schwa, so it would not be strange if one would be replaced by the other.
As for the second vowel, the Spanish pronunciation probably had stress on 'ou'. Since in French stress is invariably on the last full vowel of the word, it would not be strange if French speakers deleted the final vowel or replaced it by schwa

Examples of use of de la Vega's Chucagua by La Salle as Choucagoua prior to his using de la Vega's Chucagua as Checagou, at the location of future Chicago

The transformation of Spanish Chucagua to French Choucagoua is not difficult. The "u" of Spanish directly transliterates to French "ou." And further, it is not difficult to reason that La Salle used the word Choucagoua on his maps during an earlier phase of his geographical thinking, earlier than his use of Checagou at the future city's location. Note the two examples of Choucagoua on the 1683 La Salle.


La Salle had set off on his first exploration in the summer of 1669. He navigated the Ohio, and, arguably, proceeded past its confluence with the Mississippi. He returned to Canada.

Pierre Richelet's translation of the de Soto narrative, published in 1670, with its Chucagua River, would have, within a year of two, been available to La Salle. Prior to 1682, La Salle might well have thought the Ohio (upper Choucagoua on above map) would become the Chucagua (the lower Choucagoua) on the 1674 Sanson-Jaillot Map. The time sequence is speculative. However, the La Salle map, with three derivative instances of de la Vega's Chucagua, can be interpreted to show the map as including a chronology of La Salle's thinking.

Old Lines of Investigation for Chicago Etymology
The long-lingering folk etymology: the Smelly Onion Thesis

The historically accurate etymology of the Chicago-word, deriving from the De Soto Chucagua, as detailed above, has for centuries been overshadowed by the folk etymology seen in the "Smelly Onion Thesis" of the origin of the city's name.

Notwithstanding it having had been much bloated to appear otherwise over the years, the Smelly Onion etymology is based exclusively on one anonymous comment. That comment was written down by a noteworthy Frenchman when passing through the Chicago area in the late 1680s.

In 1688, Henri Joutel, innocent enough about the whole thing, wrote in his journal the particular information about Chicago's name that soon became widely accepted in France and Canada. It should be known that through Joutel the fate and the last few years of the life of La Salle became known. La Salle's adventures and exploits for his King and the greater glory of France were commonly acknowledged, particularly through the book published in 1683 by Louis Hennepin, who had spent a few years at La Salle's side. And then La Salle's adventures were additionally acknowledged through the history as related by Joutel.

An abridgement of the Joutel's journal was published in France in 1713, and translated into English the following year. Incidentally, a spurious thread of Chicago etymology developed out of this 1714 English translation. The word Chicagou was misspelled as Chicagon, a typographical error resulting in an -n on the end of the word. This mistake gave rise to the "place of..." etymology. (The typo was corrected in a 1906 edition.)

1713, Joutel's French edition of La Salle's Last Voyage

                Joutel wrote:

...at the foot. We continued to walk until Thursday, the 25th, when we arrived at the place called Chicagou, which, according to what we learned, was named after the amount of garlic that grows in the canton, in the woods. There is...

That's all Joutel wrote! Based on Joutel's (actually Joutel's informant's) sparse comment, the spelling and origin of the word became de rigueur by the early 1700s, and gave spawn to The Smelly Onion Thesis!

What will be developed and presented below and shown with a cut-and-paste from the 1720 Miami-Illinois/French dictionary by Le Boulanger, the word for skunk was misused (an "abusive" use) as a malapropism to refer to the plant. The wild onions, at a certain time of the year, were known for their repulsive smell. The arrestive characteristic of the skunk was its repulsive defensive smelling spray. Knowingly or unknowingly, Joutel's informant used the skunk-word, chicac8o (-- read 8 as w), which was very similar to La Salle's word Checagou, to name the region.

Enter John Kirkland

The Allium is a genus that includes the onion, garlic, and leek, among others. John Kirkland, in 1892, The Story of Chicago, was the first to identify Joutel's "etymology" of Chicago's name with the Allium tricoccum, the plant Kirkland and others were to call Chicagou. Kirkland's book is on line. The Allium tricoccum is on the cover of his book, seen below.


Kirkland's Chicagou

Kirkland describes the plant:

This plant and spelling association, of the skunk-word with the "wild onions," had been leveraged into the lexicon after being used by Joutel, whose reports on La Salle and the New World were very popular among the French speaking public. Kirkland had refined Joutel's chicagou to specify the Allium tricoccum.

Enter John F. Swenson

John F. Swenson, the current popular proponent of the Smelly Onion Thesis, is of one mind with John Kirkland regarding Joutel's Chicagou-word as the Allium tricoccum.

In 1991 he wrote, Chicagoua/Chicago: the Origin, Meaning and Etymology of a Place name In the opening line he writes, "Chicago has the dubious distinction of attributing its name to the wrong plant." However, apparently he was unaware that Kirkland had a century earlier identified and made an association of the Chicago name with the Allium tricoccum.

Swenson posits the term Chicagoua instead of Kirkland's Chicagou, the difference being the final -a, which Swenson says, "was conventionally dropped," thus becoming the same spelling as Kirkland's. This "conventional dropping" was not explained, by analogical instances, for example.

Swenson says, 1991, "The earliest, most reliable, and in fact the only known record of a competent field investigation of the origin of Chicago's name is in Henri Joutel's memoirs..." To put it kindly, this is hugely exaggerated. Joutel merely noted that someone, ostensibly a native, told him the area was named after the plants that grew in the woods, the chicagou. That's all. That hardly affords to Joutel the credit, for which, however, he nowhere claims, of having conducted a reliable, competent field investigation.

Swenson says that Joutel's Chicagou is actually the word Chicagoua. Swenson's spelling is unequivocally the "phonetic shape" of the Indian word for "skunk" (beste puant). As I stated above, and will show below, the plant word for Allium tricoccum, is a different word, with a totally different spelling, than Chicagou.

In the two dictionaries of the ancien régime, one by Le Boulanger, the other by Gravier, the word for the plant (ail, garlic) is 8inissisi8a (read 8 as w).

From Swenson's own Allium chart, the top word left is Gravier's word for the ail (garlic, Allium tricoccum)
The lower two words on the left are Le Boulanger's words, the lower of the two being the same as Gravier's.

Consequently the dictionaries, should they be considered the authorities of ultimate appeal, do not thus far support the Kirkland/Swenson Allium tricoccum etymology for the naming of Chicago.

Again, the word for "garlic," in both dictionaries, is 8inissisi8a, and has no relation to Kirkland's Chicagou, nor to Swenson's Chicagoua (which is the word for "skunk"). But, there is the abusive caveat, making the story more interestingly quirky.

Shown below, in an image from Le Boulanger's dictionary, the skunk-word is a malapropism, an "abusive," wrong, or inappropriate usage of the skunk word, when that word is referring to the plant.

From Le Boulanger's dictionary:

 garlic          8anissi/-sia, -si8a  chicac8o      abusive
Allium tricoccum    Miami-Illinois word the "skunk" word and abusive                        

Entry in Le Boulanger for de l'ail (garlic), with its Indian name, which is the plant Allium tricoccum.
When the skunk-word is used to name the Allium tricoccum, it is an abusive use of the word, a misuse/malapropism.

This was a repulsively smelling place is what the intent was, because the Allium tricoccum, at certain times of the year had a repulsive smell. Now, modern linguists have been inveigled into the word play, and will aver that in the Indian language, the garlic and the skunk were called, coequally, by the same word, or, perhaps, two different words with the same spelling. But, more in accord with the data, the skunk word was used in a non-standard way, "ab-/miss-usively," to name the "wild onions." The result was the folk etymology.

From Swenson's Chart:

Massaging the data.

Sourced from Joutel's informant, the first line misleadingly says that chicagou was the name for ail, garlic. Again, it was the ab-use, a malapropism, of the skunk-word by the inform at to "mean" garlic (Allium tricoccum).

Sourced from Gravier, the second line says chicag8a and chicag8eia. They relate to the bete puante (skunk) and the skunk pelt. Swenson's chicagoua is the phonetic equivalent of the first term in this second line, chicag8a (read 8 as w).anisiss Its meaning is skunk.

Sourced from Le Boulanger's dictionary, the third line shows chicac8o for the plant. This is misleading. (Gravier uses the equally acceptable spelling chicag8a.) Misleading because Swenson divested chicac8o's modifying "abusive" from Le Boulanger's "skunk" word, when the chicac8o skunk word is used for the plant. This makes an apples and oranges difference for the etymological study of the Chicago-word. The correct word for garlic is 8inissisi8a. Chicac8o, is the skunk word. To repeat, again, when the skunk word was used to mean garlic, the result was the folk etymology of the Smelly Onion Thesis. Garlic and skunk are not the same word, nor coincidentally the same spelling used for two different things.

Consequently, Swenson's statement, in the first line of a current article, and in past articles, a statement in agreement with Kirkland, 1892, is not a correct statement. Namely, "The name Chicago is derived from the local Indian word Chicagoua for the native garlic plant (not onion) Allium tricoccum." There is no record in the ancient French/Indians dictionaries of Chicagoua, in its standard use, as meaning anything but the "skunk."

Recall, as in the introductory section above, La Salle's Checagou is a transliteration into French of the name of the River of de Soto, the Chucagua. And again, the spelling and sound-changes to get to Checagou from Chucagua are given in the explanation above by Marc van Oostendorp.

Chicagoua-looking words from Jacques Gravier
The "Chicagoua-looking" words used by dictionary writer Gravier, in his written correspondence, included Chicag8a, Chicagoua, Chikag8a, and Chikagoüa. Swenson says, "Father Gravier, a thorough student of the local Miami language, introduced the spelling chicagoua, or chicagou8 [plus the others I listed], in the 1690`s..." It would be better to say that he "used" these spellings, rather than "introduced" them. It was not uncommon for writers in past centuries to use phonetically equivalent different spellings, even on the same page.

In his dictionary, completed 20 years after these spellings, Gravier defined Chicag8a as beste puant (skunk). (Read 8 as w.) The other spellings are unmistakably phonetic equivalents, and introduce no complications.

Gravier's dictionary entry: Chicag8a__bete puante (skunk). The entry for garlic (d'ail) in Le Boulanger's dictionary, as shown above, with "abusive," is where the misuse of the skunk word for garlic is found.

Again, as stated, in his dictionary, Gravier, as well as Le Boulanger in that of his, translated 8inissisi8a with a plant/garlic designation. They translated Chicagoua-like words with a "skunk" designation.

Kirkland's Chicagou (which is Swenson's Chicagoua with an unexplained "dropped" terminal letter) is not in the ancient dictionaries. One can not argue what Gravier had in his mind, or what his motive was, when he wrote those various spellings. But one can know what was in his mind when he wrote his dictionary entry for the Chicagoua-word, as used by Swenson: bete puant (skunk).

Replacing La Salle's che- with chi-

The following examples from Swenson show there is a problem with how he used the spelling data. He uses chi- spellings for what should be che- (La Salle's Checagou) spellings. Evidence for the che- vs. chi- spellings is easily searchable.

Swenson says, "As a name for a place, as distinct from a river, Chicagou appears first in Chicagoumeman." This is not correct. The spelling should be with a "Che-" not a "Chi-."
Fort Chicagou

Swenson says, "As a name for a place where people lived, the simple Chicagou was first used by the French about 1685... French army post." The spelling should be with a "Che-" not a "Chi-."
Zénobe Membré used Chicagou...
Swenson says "opposite the mouth of what the chaplain, Father Zénobe Membré, called the Chicagou (Hickory Creek)." The spelling should be with a "Che-" not a "Chi-."
La Salle (at the “portage de Chicagou”)
Swenson says, "La Salle, in a letter from here (at the 'portage of Chicagou')..."  La Salle used "Che-" not "Chi-."

Although I doubt it can be found, I'm open to contrary information.



What makes a word a place name?

If a word is claimed to be a place name, wouldn't it be helpful evidence for it to be regarded as such if it were on a map? A place name never appearing on a map is counter-intuitive. Chicago, as a place name, first appeared in a letter from La Salle dated 1680. Repeated here from above,

...at the bottom of the Lake of the Illinois (Lake Michigan) where the navigation ends at the place called Checagou, to condense the things that were brought in the barques (masted ships) and to transport them...

and again, repeated from above, Checagou appeared on his map in 1683 (formerly known as the 1685 Minet Map).

La Salle: 1683, earliest known use by anyone of the Chicago-word on a map at the Chicago location. The terminal -u is lost on the eastern coastline.


La Salle's Checagou appears on numerous maps and in numerous texts in the formative years of Chicago place name development. Swenson's Chicagoua as a place name appears nowhere. The Chicagou spelling of Kirkland/Swenson (with Swenson's "conventionally dropped" final -a from chicagoua), seems to have found no expression as a place name in a text or on a map until subsequent to Joutel's journal entry.

There is no Chicagoua place name on any map. In the formative years, namely, before about 1700, the folk etymology of the Kirkland/Swenson place name Chicagou appears only on one map, in 1697, by Lavoisey. After 1700, when Joutel's "correct spelling" was leveraged into the lexicon, it began to be the dominant spelling. Prior to 1700, Swenson's claim of the Chi- spelling on various documents is contradicted by the evidence, as noted above, but I am open to stand corrected.

The original spelling of Chicago as a place name was La Salle's Checagou, a rendering into French of de Soto's Chucagua. La Salle named Chicago as the Gateway to the River of de Soto. 

Examples of La Salle's Checagou on maps

A Chicago Map Society banner image uses La Salle's Checagou for the river (1755 Bellin).


1683 La Salle
As posted above, the earliest surviving use of the Chicago-word on a map is on a 1683 map, originating with La Salle (formerly known as the 1685 Minet Map).


1684 Franquelin, detail.
In addition to La Salle's Chec(k)agou at the red thick line, corroboration is seen in the block quote words below of La Salle's Checagou on the Franquelin Map detail. This is from Christian le Clerq, The First Establishment of the Faith, 1691. La Salle's Checagou + memant.



1686 Franquelin



1688 Franquelin



1703 Delisle.



 1715 de Fer



1688 Coronelli.
In the French language of this era, the letters c and k were often interchangeable, as in my name, Carl/Karl.


1697 Lavoisey
The only map in the formative period of Chicago-word development with the Kirkland/Swenson Chicagou on it.




French maps, prior to Richelet's 1670 de Soto translation, had used the 1625 DeLaet Map configuration of the Gulf of Mexico (image below). DeLaet's was the typical European cartography of the period for the Gulf's continental waterway discharge. The Sanson-Jaillot 1674 map, informed by the 1670 Pierre Richelet translation of the Garcilaso de la Vega narrative of the 1539-43 de Soto expedition, radically changed the DeLaet Gulf perspective.

French maps, prior to Richelet's DeSoto translation, had used the 1625 DeLaet Map configuration of the Gulf of Mexico (image below). DeLaet's was the typical European cartography for the Gulf continental waterway discharge. The Sanson-Jaillot 1674 map of

1625 DeLaet Map. Standard Continental discharge image into the Gulf until the 1670s.


1650 Amerique Septentrionale (North America). N. Sanson. An early pre-exploration depiction of the Chicago area (at the third-down left blue line). The blue line segments underline Nouvelle France, the red line, Canad...

The original Louisiana. All the rivers encompassed in the red, the original Louisiana, drain into the Gulf of Mexico. Everything north of this was Canada. The modern city of Chicago was half in Louisiana and half in Canada. A certain geographical line in Chicago was the Continental Watershed. Everything south drained into the Gulf of Mexico; everything north drained into the Gulf of St. Lawrence (spelled <St. Laurence> on French maps). One could literally, at a line-boundary in today's Chicago, stand with one foot in Louisiana and one foot in Canada.


The range of Allium tricoccum,
the plant of the Smelly Onion Theory of the origin of "Chicago."

It could be argued, based on this image, that there was nothing special about the growth of the Allium triticum in the Chicago region. If there was such a figure/ground gestalt going on with the smell, why aren't other places named by the plant?



La Salle named the area Checagou as the Gateway to the River of DeSoto. He is the earliest known to have used it in a text (1680) and on a map (1683). It appears in the earliest years as a place name on numerous maps and in numerous texts. The spelling is with a "che-", not "chi-".

The Smelly Onions Thesis word, with a "chi-", was never used on a map or in a text in the earliest days. It is a folk etymology based on the misuse of the Indian word for skunk, when the skunk word was used as the word for the Allium tricoccum (garlic) -- it was a malapropism. The plant had its own, different word, 8inissisi8a (read 8 as w). This misuse was recorded by a Frenchman, Henri Joutel, in 1688 as credible. The malapropism was leveraged into the French lexicon as Joutel's writing became popular, displacing La Salle's Checagou.


How My Chicago-Word Study Began
My preoccupation with the etymology of  the Chicago-word began in 1997. I had been writing a newspaper column, "Linguistically Speaking..." for College News, a hardcopy publication for colleges and universities in the greater Chicagoland Area. Frequently writing on etymologies, I happened across the Chicago-word, and my academic interest took the plunge and was thenceforth plying the inland waterways, channeling into what I came to call the Exploration and Discovery in the Heartland of America, 1650-1700, Map Intensive.

In 1997 I had contacted and communicated with some of the following Amerindian specialists about my Chicago etymology plans. Some provided help and encouragement to launch my years of effort.

David H. Pentland (Dept. of Linguistics, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg);
Richard A. Rhodes ( Dept. of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley);
John Lawler (Dept. of Linguistics, University of Michigan);
John E. Koontz (Dept. of Linguistics, University of Colorado);
Dan Moonhawk Alford (1946-2002) (Anthropologist/Linguist, California State University, Hayward);
George F. Aubin (French/Linguistics, Assumption College)
John Davis (Former student of linguist Mary Haas)
John D. Nichols ( Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg)