If someone asked you how your city got its name, would you know the answer?
I wouldn’t have – until now.
I was never a big history fan. But as I dug into the origin of these 15 Northeast Wisconsin city names, I was intrigued. Learning about real people who came hundreds of years before us is actually pretty exciting! Maybe you’ll think so too.
1. Green Bay, Wisconsin
The exact details of how Green Bay, Wisconsin’s oldest and third largest city, got its name are somewhat of a mystery. Thankfully, Jesuit missionaries left behind some good clues in their diaries.
Explorers like Samuel Champlain – who founded what’s now Canada, and Jean Nicolet – the first to land in Green Bay, translated the Indian word Winnebago or ouinipeg, to Baye des Puans. That means “the bay of stinkards” in French.
Some historians believe the French translation was an expression of dislike for the Indians. Since the French also nicknamed the tribe Les Pauns, or “stinkards.” They also called the area the “nation of stinkards.”
Explorers who came after Nicolet, and many historians, say La Bay des Pauns meant the algae-filled, muddy and stagnant waters of the bay.
Either way – Green Bay was known as “The Bay of Stinkards” on early maps – thanks to the French. When the British gained control, they changed it to Green Bay because of its dark green waters. I’m just glad it’s home to the Green Bay Packers and not to the Bay of Stinking Packers.
2. Appleton, Wisconsin
All of what is now Appleton, and beyond, was named after the Fox River’s rushing rapids. It was called Grand Chute.
In 1847, Amos Lawrence – a Boston merchant – chartered and funded the construction of Lawrence University. His relative, Samuel Appleton – a wealthy businessman – donated $10,000 to the institution, and the city was named Appleton in his honor.
For years, books in the Lawrence library were marked with a portrait of Mr. Appleton. The original painting that was used to make the bookplates still hangs in the Boston Atheneum.
3. De Pere, Wisconsin
Someone told me De Pere got its name because two men who stood in the Fox river shouted, “It’s deep here!” Turns out someone told good jokes.
French Jesuit priests on a mission led by Father Claude Allouez named the city. On the Fox River’s rough rapids, they named the area Rapides Des Peres. That translates to “rapids of the fathers.”
The city eventually became known as De Pere, and was just the community on the east side of the river. It wasn’t until 1890 that West De Pere joined in and became one community. That’s probably why there’s a rivalry between the two. At least it seemed like there was as a “Redbird” highschooler.
4. Kaukauna, Wisconsin
Kaukauna, pronounced “Kakalin” by early French settlers came from the Menominee word, Ogag-kane or O-Gau-Gau-Ning, which means “the place where the fish stop.”
Menominee Indians gave it that name because of the massive amounts of fish they found beneath the falls. The area was also known as the Grand Kakalin. It’s where the river fell 52-feet. Because of the forceful rushing rapids, travelers were forced to carry their canoes around it.
In 1851, when George Lawe built the street system and one of the first bridges over the Fox River, the name changed to Kaukauna.
5. Egg Harbor, Wisconsin
On a mission to deliver furs, traders coming from Green Bay – on their way to Mackinac Island – decided to make a stop at the harbor to rest for the night. Suddenly, all the men, in a small fleet of six trading ships, started racing to see who could reach the shore first – just for fun. They actually had fun back then. As they got closer to the shore, they began throwing hardtack at each other. Hardtack is like a cracker – and was a necessary staple back then.
As the fun got fierce, and hardtack was running low, they switched their ammo to eggs! The men couldn’t stop laughing and the egg battle became so intense that the shore was literally covered in eggshells. The next morning, they named the “battlefield” Egg Harbor.
6. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Mahn-ah-wauk, or Milwaukee as we know it, was an Indian word that meant common council grounds. It was the sacred and neutral spot by the river where tribes met once a year to talk out problems, pig out and smoke together. It was a party that lasted weeks. They never fought there. It was an honored place.
Milwaukee has been referred to as the “gathering place by the water,” “the good land,” and “the beautiful, pleasant land.” Of course, when early white explorers got to Milwaukee, there were all sorts of funky pronunciations. Milwacky is one of my favorites. For years, it was written Milwaukie. Then at some point during the 1800s a newspaper printed it Milwaukee – and the spelling stuck.
7. Madison, Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s second largest city was once known as the Four Lakes region.
Determined to build the city of the Four lakes, James Duane Doty, a federal judge, land speculator and governor, purchased more than 1,000 acres of land between lakes Mendota and Monona.
When it was developed in 1836, it was named Madison in honor our fourth president and founding father, James Madison who died that same year.
President Madison has had many towns and cities named after him. He was the Father of the Constitution. He helped organize the federal government under George Washington. And as secretary of state, under Thomas Jefferson, he engineered the Louisiana Purchase.
Doty also named the streets of Madison after the 39 other signers of the US Constitution. Before that year ended, Madison was voted Wisconsin’s capital.
8. Kenosha, Wisconsin
The Indian word Kee-neau-sha-Kau-ning means “place of the pike.” It was the southernmost part of the lake and a jackpot for catching fish. Enough to supply food for months.
When white settlers arrived, they took over the land and the community became known as Pike. When the area turned into an important Great Lakes shipping port, the name switched to Southport. On the southeast side of Kenosha, you’ll still see a school, park and businesses with Southport still in their names.
In 1850, its name changed one last time to Kenosha. “K-Town” – as locals call it – once again represents the Indian’s word for pike – but with an English twist.
9. Racine, Wisconsin
The city was originally called Chippecotton or Kipikawi, which means root. Indians named it that because the area of the river, that emptied into Lake Michigan, was all tangled up with snags and roots.
Racine is actually the French word for root.
In 1834, the original white settler, Captain Gilbert Knapp, claimed most of the land in the area. He and a couple guys from Chicago and New York helped build a town there. The area was called Port Gilbert in honor of Captain Knapp, but that name didn’t stick. In 1841 the community became known as Racine.
Racine is the Badger State’s 5th largest city and I’ve heard it’s where you can find the least expensive homes in Wisconsin. It’s also the place where malted milk balls and the first garbage disposal were invented!
10. Sheboygan, Wisconsin
An Indian chief who has many sons, wanted a daughter desperately. Everytime another son was born, he would say “ugh! She-boy-again.”
That’s just the local legend. The real theories behind the name, stem from the Indian word – Shawb-wa-way-kum.
Some people think it means the loud noise that was heard at the mouth of the Sheboygan River. Others argue that the loud noise was describing the cadence of the drums during tribal events.
A different theory says the Indian word meant “path between the lakes.” Since the city sits between Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan.
Either way – Cheboigan is the way it appeared on early maps until it was changed to “The City of Sheboygan.” Nowadays, it’s recognized as the bratwurst capital of the world as well as the place to find lots of cheese, chairs and children.
11. Oshkosh, Wisconsin
The city of Oshkosh was named after Oiscoss, or Oshkosh, the chief of the Menominee tribe. Oiscoss was also known as “Claw” or “the brave.” He was a peacemaker and a warrior with many skills.
He wanted his tribe to be treated fairly by the government. He fought in the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War of 1832. He also lead his people to the reservation after negotiating with the Americans to keep a portion of their land.
Oshkosh became a 400-pound overweight alcoholic later in life. Unfortunately, the alcohol got the best of him, and he died after a drunken brawl.
You’ll find a monument dedicated to Chief Oshkosh along Pratt Trail in Menominee Park, Oshkosh.
12. Waukesha, Wisconsin
The Indians first gave it the name Tchee-gas-cou-tak – meaning burnt, fire land. There were many forests and prairies along the Fox River and fires were frequent.
That’s probably why Waukesha was known as Prairieville or Prairie Village in the early days.
When Morris Cutler, the first white settler arrived in Waukesha, he met chief Leatherstrap or Wau-tsha – also spelled – Wauk-tsha. He was a friendly and dignified leader. He was tall, athletic and very proud of his wardrobe.
In 1847, Prariville was changed to Waukesha in honor of him. For years, people thought the origin of the name Waukesha meant fox, or little foxes. But, they were confusing the Indian word wagosh, meaning fox, with Wau-tsha.
Waukesha has also been nicknamed “spring city” because of its very clean and great tasting natural spring water, believed to have medicinal healing power. According to Wikipedia, the spring waters were what attracted Richard Sears, founder of Sears and Roebuck to live in Waukesha. Unfortunately, most of this wonderful water has been destroyed by pollution. But on the bright side, the city has been ranked #36 on Money Magazine’s list of 100 Best Places to Live in the U.S.
13. Kewaunee, Wisconsin
When the Indians were out fishing on Lake Michigan, they’d sometimes get caught in clouds of low fog.
That’s when they would yell, Ke-wau-nee – Ke-wau-nee, which means “we are lost!” Then, they’d listen to the response of others on shore to help direct them through the mist.
On early maps, navigators documented the Kewaunee River as the Woods River. But when land developer and civil engineer, Joshua Hathaway, came to lay out the town in the 1830s, he rescued the Indian name. He wrote Kewaunee on his maps and reference notes – and Kewaunee it stayed.
14. Manitowoc, Wisconsin
The Indians named Manitowoc after the mysterious spirit that they often saw near the mouth of the river. Manitou was the Indian word for spirit. And woe meant home, which is why it’s called “home of the spirit.” We just don’t know for sure if the natives thought the area was home to the good or the evil spirit.
Some say it meant “good spirit land” and others say it meant “devil’s den.”
Father Cosme’s wrote in his journal from 1699, that Father Marais and some Frenchmen planted a wooden cross on the bank of the river. A cross probably a good sign it’s a good spirit. Right?
In 1838, when legislature separated Manitowoc County from Brown County, they declared its meaning as the “home of the great spirit.” Let’s just hope in this case, “great” spirit means “good.”
15. Freedom, Wisconsin
If you happen to know the story of how your city was named – leave a comment and add it to our list! But, before you do – you have to see this video of Texans trying to pronounce Wisconsin city names. I crack up every time I watch it!
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- wikipedia.org – Ho-Chunk
- wikipedia.org – Lake Michigan
- eggharbordoorcounty.org – Image Credit
- wisconsinhistory.org – Image Credit
- History of Milwuakee Wisconsin – The Western Historical Company
- Wisconsin, A Guide to the Badger State
- History, Winnebago County, Wisconsin: Its Cities, Towns, Resources, People By Publius Virgilius Lawson
- The Wisconsin Archeologist, Volumes 1-2, Edited by Charles Edward Brown
- The Great Wisconsin Touring Book: 30 Spectacular Auto Trips, By Gary G. Knowles
- Origins of the French and English Names for the Bay of Green Bay