What does the word “Chicago” mean?
The official origin is that “Chicago” is the French version of the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (“Stinky Onion”), named for the garlic plant (not onion) Allium tricoccum common along the Chicago River.
However there have been many theories over the years, and here are some of them:
Chicagoua—Miami and Illinois word for “skunk”
Chi-cago—Indian word for “thunder”
Chicagou—Jesuit mission and French army post at the site of Marquette`s 1675 camp along the south branch
Chief Chicagou, also known as Agapit Chicagou—Native American leader of the Mitchigamea
Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1897
The first mention of the word Che-cau-gou, the Chicago of modern times, is in Hennepin’s account of La Salle’s expedition to the Illinois River by way of the St. Joseph and Kankakee in 1680. The title of one of his chapters has been translated “An Account of the Building of a New Fort on the River of the Illinois Named by the Savages Che-cau-gou and by US Fort Creveceur.” The river indicated by La Salle is now known as the Desplaines River.1
E. A. Haines in an article written for Blanchard’s History of Illinois2 says regarding the word:
The word Chicago is understood to be an Indian word; at least it is derived from that source. What its precise meaning is, or whether it has any particular meaning at all in its present form as now applied, is a matter of considerable dispute among those who have given the subject attention. The word comes to us through the early French explorers of the West as an Indian word from tho language of the Algonquin group. Whilst this group of the North American tribes had one general or generic language by which they were distinguished each tribe had its dialect differing more or less from that of other tribes of thie same group. The standard or parent language, however, since ite people came known to the whites was that spoken by the Ojibways (Chippeways), the most powerful and numerous of tie various tribes of this group
Those who pretend to make any positive assertion as to the correct meaning of this word, as an Indian word, seem to have confined their investigations on the subject to the Indian language as spoken by the Ojibways without reference to other dialects, seeming to ignore the fact that it could come from any other source, whereupon they reached the conclusion and so assert that it means onions, garlic, leek, or skunk. So far as appears at this day there seems to have been no special inquiry into the origin or meaning of this word until about the time of the rebuilding of Fort Dearborn in 1816.
The year following that event Colonel Samuel A. Starront visited this place, and in a letter to General Jacob Brown of the United States army referred to the river here as ‘The River Chicago, or in the English, ‘Wild Onion River.’ The definition of the onion by the Rev. Edward Welson in his dictionary of the Ojibway language is keche-she-gaug-vh-wunzh. He defines skunk as zhe-gang. John Tanner, for thirty years a captive among the Ojibways and many years United States Indian interpreter, in a ‘Catalogue of Plants and Animals Found In the Country of the Ojibways with English Names,’ appended to the narrative of his captivity, defines skunk as she-gang. He defines onion as she-gau-ga- (skunk weed). In a note thereto by Dr. James, editor of Tanner’s narrative, it is added: From shih-gau-ga-winzhe, this word in the singular number, some derive the name Chicago.’ It is noticed that all who contend that the word Chicago as applied to the river and city of that name means skunk, onion. or the like, derive their convictions on the subject from one or more of the authorities which are before cited, or from some one familiar with the Ojibway language who forms his convictions to the same effect from the coincidence of sounds.
History is so unsatisfactory and varied in regard to this word that we are left to this day to determine its meaning solely on the basis on the similarity of sounds. For there seems to be no fact or incident narrated or mentioned in history that leads with any degree of certainty either to the original meaning of this word or to the dialect from which it is derived, And it is to be confessed on the theory aforesaid, conceding that the word comes from the Ojlbway language or dialect, no one is prepared to dispute the assertion so generally made that the word is derived from ‘skunk.’ The word skunk being in the Indian tongue simply she-kang, in order to make Chicago the theory adopted Is that ong, an Ojlbway local termination, is added which makes Chi-cag- ong, meaning at the skunk, the sound ng being dropped In common speech, leaving the word in the form now used. Whilst this is not inconsistent in practice in dealing with Indian names there is another theory. It is suggested. which may be adopted in this connection that would seem to be equally consistent. The word Chi-ca-go without adding ‘ng’ would be a fair Ojlbway expression. The sound ‘o’ added would denote the genitive and might be rendered thus, ‘Him of the skunk,’ In case it would probably be the name of an Individual, and it is stated that this word is the name not only of some one Indian chief, but the name also of a line of chiefs during several generatIons.
The most that can be said of the word with any degree of certainty is that it is of Indian origin and comes from some dialect of the Algonquin group, so called. It must be noted, however, that in the Ojibway dialect this word, or that which is essentially the same, is not confined in its meaning to that contended for as before mentioned. The word may mean also in that language, to forbear or avoid, from kah-go, forbear, and che, a prefix answering to our preposition to; or, it may mean something great from kago, something, and ‘chi,’ from git-che, great. Besides several other words or expressions which may be found in this dialect of the same sound, yet of different meanings, Chi-ca-gua was the name of a noted Sac chief, and means in that dialect ‘He that stands by the tree.’ In the Pottawatomie dialect the word choc-ca-go, without addition or abridgement, means destitute.
This map of North America, published in the Atlante Veneto, is widely considered to be one of Coronelli’s finest maps, and is cartographically similar to the scene depicted on his famous globe of 1688. Printed initially on two separate sheets, the present example has been carefully joined to form a unified image. The map is preserved in its uncolored state, as originally intended. Beyond its attractive aesthetic, in the present map Coronelli has rendered the continent with far greater geographical detail than his contemporaries, having benefited enormously from his favor at the French court, and his publishing partnership with Paris cartographer Jean-Baptiste Nolin. The Great Lakes are executed with unrivalled accuracy, drawing on information gleaned in 1673 by the Quebecois explorer Louis Jolliet, and his traveling companion, the French-born Jesuit Jacques Marquette. The Mississippi basin is rendered with great detail, reflecting French discoveries, most notably those by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle on his first expedition of 1679-82. This map depicts La Salle’s dramatic misplacement of the mouth of the Mississippi 600 miles to the west of its true location. Importantly, it is on the western portion of the map where Coronelli has added the most significant amount of new information, drawn mostly from a highly important manuscript map by Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa Briceño y Berdugo, which included numerous previously unrecorded place names and divided the Rio Grande into the Rio Norte and the Rio Bravo in the south. The most prominent geographical detail is California’s appearance as a massive island, this map being one of the best renderings of this beloved misconception.
Joliet’s Map of New France
First Printed Map featuring “Chekagou.”
Vincenzo Maria Coronelli
Carte d’Amerique (section)
Canada Louisiane et Terres Anglois (section)
Jean Baptiste Bourguignon D’Anville
1 Nouvelle Decouverte d’un Tres Grand Pays Situé dans l’Amérique (A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America), by Louis Hennepin, 1680
2 History of Illinois, by Rufus Blanchard, 1883
R Schneider says
I was told that the name came from the hot air ( wind came from politicians and all the hot air they were blowing around. Please tel me if there is any truth to that?
Yes. That is called “Bragging” as it is explained extensively in the article.
Carl J. Weber says
Chicago was named after the plant (Allium tricoccum), the problem is the name of that plant in the Miami-Illinois language was 8inissisi8a (read 8 as w). The entirety of the Smelly Onion Thesis for Chicago’s name traces back to an anonymous comment jotted down by one Henri Joutel in 1688. That’s all — a few anecdotal words from an anonymous informant. See the above website for a scholarly treatment that deals with the Smelly Onion Thesis, and deals with the historical source of Chicago’s name: LaSalle name Chicago as the Gateway to the River of DeSoto.
Carl J. says
(You can see my map library at for hi-res reference links.) The big colorful map of Jolliet, above, is a reasonable reproduction that appeared in the Jesuit Relations in about 1900. The original can be linked to in the John Carter Brown Library. You can always tell the original because the big words in the upper left corner are smudged on the original. HOWEVER, the map, “discovered” in 1879, in the Brown Library, and published the following year, is a huge historical fraud, on par with the Marquette Map historical fraud. Regarding the Jolliet, of 63 names on the 1674 Hughes Randin Map, of the Mississippi and its tributary names, 62 of those Randin names are plagiarized onto the fake Jolliet. And the general schematic of the Mississippi is plagiarized from (what I call) the 1674-75 Camel Maps. I wrote a piece about this on the website listed above. If anyone is interested in a study group about “The Exploration and Discovery in the Heartland of America, 1650-1700 — Map Intensive,” do tell. Regards, Carl
Carl J. Weber says
One more thing, regarding the way-way above, “The official origin is that “Chicago” is the French version of the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa (“Stinky Onion”), named for the garlic plant (not onion) Allium tricoccum common along the Chicago River”… That is not true according to primary sources.
The “shikaakwa” word is the name for the skunk. The name for the “Stinky Onion” is “wanissisia.” This is clear, and it’s from the Le Boulanger and St. Jerome ancient Miami-Illinois/French dictionaries. In those dictionaries, the “Stinky Onion” word, actually entered as “garlic” (french, d l’ail), can be used to refer to the plant as slang, and it is marked as “abusive” when so used. If you are of a scholarly bent of mind, let’s discuss, with primary sources.
La Salle named Chicago. He was earliest in a text (1680) and on a map (1683). His word was always “Checagou”. It was a transliteration of “Chucagua’, the River of De Soto.