How Chicago Got Its Name

Chicago may be the third largest city in the United States, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has an odd name. The origin of New York’s moniker is obvious. Los Angeles, while not considered angelic now, was named the City of Angels. Chicago’s name, however, is a bit more obscure.

The Algonquins and the French

To understand the origin of the name Chicago you have to go back to the late 1600s. The area was populated by the Miami – Illinois tribes, part of the larger Algonquian language group that covered much of North America. During this time the French were exploring, including Missionary Jacques Gravier and explorer Robert de La Salle.

In maps and correspondence La Salle used the word “Chicagou” for this place at the southwest curve of Lake Michigan. Gravier spelled it chicagoua. The term came from the Native Americans who used it as a place name for the area.

Was Chicago named for someone?

While there was a rumor that Chicago was named after Chief Chicagou of the Mitchigamea, the first mention of him was during his visit to Paris in 1725, decades after La Salle and Gravier first used the word.

What Does Chicagou mean?

There is some debate about the definition of Chicagou, but the two most common definitions are striped skunk and wild leek, or wild onion. The site where the river emptied into the lake had a distinct smell to it, but researchers doubt that it was the scent of a polecat. Instead it’s most commonly seen to represent the wild leeks that grew along the banks of the river. This plant gave off a distinctive scent with a garlic-like odor. 

The City Named After a Stinky Plant

Technically the Allium tricoccum is not an onion but is instead a garlic plant. While it may seem odd to name a region and river after a plant that stinks, the wild leek was and is a delicious addition to the diet. It also was said to have medicinal properties and Native Americans would use it to make poultices and decoctions.

Chicagou, or Ramps, Today

Allium tricoccum has another name besides wild leek or chicagou. It is also known as ramps. This early spring vegetable has become popular in recent years, with many Chicago chefs developing seasonal menus around the flavorful, and fragrant, garlic. 

The origin of Chicago’s name may not be glamorous, but its reference to something delicious and helpful is something that the city relishes. Like its status as the “Second City”, being known as the wild onion or the wild leek is a matter of pride, no matter how stinky it may be.

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