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RE: Chicago Etymology

Open Letter to John F. Swenson from From Carl J. Weber




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.

RE: Chicago Etymology

Open Letter to John F. Swenson from From Carl J. Weber

November 21, 2019

Re: Chicago Etymology — Open Letter to John F. Swenson from Carl J. Weber

Twenty-two years ago I sat down with then-curator Bob Karrow of the Newberry Library Map Collection. I told him I wanted to learn what the etymology of the Chicago-word was — by researching the maps, the linguistics, and the history.

I'm preparing an article for publication. I made a presentation in 2001 at the Newberry Library, called, "Chicago Still Ain't the Onion." I pointed out (1.) the Onion Theory for Chicago's name, with its "chi-" spelling, was dubious, and (2.) La Salle, with his original "che-" spelling, was the first to use the Chicago-word in a text and on a map, as Checagou.

My main finding since then is that La Salle named Chicago, as I phrase it —as The Gateway to the River of De Soto.

La Salle's Checagou as a transliteration from original De Soto Chucagua, is based in the 1670 French translation by Pierre Richelet of the 1605 publication of Garcilaso de la Vega's, La Florida del Inca. It was a narrative of the De Soto exploration (1539-43) of the region north of the Gulf of Mexico. The book leveraged big new ideas into the exploration and discovery in the Heartland of America that was under way since the mid-1660s, and French confidence in knowledge of the mid-latitudes of the Mississippi, even though not there yet.

I argue that La Salle named, founded, and "purposed" the location that became the future city. All the more noble and astounding is La Salle's Checagou than the Smelly Onion Theory because it is well documented with primary sources.

Consequently, academic protocol urges me to consider other threads of historical etymological development, particularly the contradictory ones.



1. There is no evidence for your place name Chicagoua appearing on a map. There seems to be no map on which it is found. Is there an explanation for this oddity?

La Salle's Checagou, a transliteration of De Soto's Chucagua, appears on numerous maps — even the Chicago Map Society website banner map uses La Salle's Checagou.

2. You've said that "The name Chicago is derived from the local Indian word chicagoua, for the native garlic plant (not onion) Allium tricoccum… Father Gravier… introduced the spelling chicagoua or chicagou8…"

This is not correct. The local Indian word for the particular plant is listed for the dictionary entries of the Le Boulanger, Gravier, and St. Jerome bi-lingual ancien régime dictionaries is 8isissisi8a (read "8" as "w"), or other near-spellings.

Your Chicagoua means specifically "skunk." It is the standard word in the local Miami-Illinois Indian language for that animal. You know that. If the skunk-word, chicagoua, is used for the Allium tricoccum, it is used as a slang metonym, the plant being referenced for the smelliness of the skunk. The Le Boulanger and St. Jerome Miami-Illinois/French dictionaries write "abusive" next to the skunk word when used for the plant. On analogy, "cannabis" can be called "skunk," because of the smell reference, but it is a slang, non-standard use of the animal-word for cannabis.

Father Gravier seems to have never introduced the spellings "chicagoua or chicagou8" for a plant, as you imply. This latter spelling, "Chicagou8," with a "-ou8" ending, seems to be ahistorical.

Father Gravier did use Chicag8a for the "skunk." He never used it for the the wild onion.

3. You've written, "as a name for a place where people lived, the simple Chicagou was first used by the French about 1685…" Or, you've also said, "The French who began arriving here in 1673… usually wrote it Chicagou."

There doesn't seem to be documentary evidence for the French who "began arriving here in 1673… usually wrote it Chicagou." You have incorrectly used the "Chi-" Smelly Onion Theory spelling, a number of times; whereas, instead, it should be La Salle's "Che-" Gateway to the River of De Soto spelling, to wit:

For the words: Chicagoumeman, Fort Chicagou, Chicagou (used by Zénobe Membré), Chicagou (used by La Salle at the portage) — you have not used the primary source spellings. These words in the primary sources used La Salle's spelling, with "Che-," not "Chi-", as you state.

The Smelly Onion Theory, that proposes Chicago's name (as you wrote in Wikipedia and elsewhere) is derived from an indigenous Indian word, "chicagoua," for "a wild relative of the onion," is based merely on one anonymous anecdotal comment written by Henri Joutel in 1688. Joutel's "chicagou" was the word the skunk. Used as slang for the plant, it was leveraged into the French lexicon because of the importance of Joutel's journal to French officials wanting to know of La Salle's explorations and discoveries. And then, an abbreviated version of his journal was published in 1713, and in English in 1714. The Smelly Onion Theory is not supported by the Miami-Illinois/French dictionaries of the era. Joutel's "chicagou" (which you say the French incorrectly wrote for the more correctly spelled, "chicagoua," with the -a on the end), to repeat, is the word for the "skunk." The word for the wild onion is 8isissisi8a (read "8" as "w").

La Salle's Checagou, a transliteration into French of the River of De Soto, Chucagua, was used by La Salle to name a place, a river, and a portage. La Salle, the arguably true founder of Chicago, named and purposed the location as the Gateway to the River of De Soto. All early uses in texts and maps used La Salle's word, Checagou, such as, unbeknownst to them, on the banner map for the Chicago Map Society's Face Book page. La Salle's noble and heroic legacy.



Carl J. Weber, Music by Ray Lynch.