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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Wisconsin Place Names: Hometowns and History

Wisconsin was made a state of the union in 1848. One of the requirements of becoming a state is a certain population/land area ratio. Helping Wisconsin to reach its population was a huge growth in population during 1840-1850. The population went from 30,749-304,756; a drastic increase but it is easily understood when it is also shown that only 17.82 percent of the 1850 population were born in Wisconsin (Smith 287). Wisconsin was a frontier with a lot of opportunities for people willing to work for them. Wisconsin was flooded by many different cultures wising to take advantage of those opportunities during this time. Russians, French, Swedes, Finns, Croats, Czechs, Lithuanians, Italians, Icelanders, Lettish, Irish, Slovaks, Belgians, Swiss, Slovenes, Doles, Welch, Germans, Hollanders, Norwegians, Moravians, Cornish, and Serbians are some of the groups that came to Wisconsin (Holmes 8). These different cultures and where they settled is shown on the first map at the end of this paper.

But before any of those people came here there were the Many different tribes of Native Americans (see map 2). The influence of the Native American culture on the map of Wisconsin is undeniable. Wisconsin place names from Native American words are as, if not more, abundant than names from other cultures. A humorous example is the town of Mishicot, WI. The most accepted explanation for this name is that it is from the Ottawa Chief of the same name. The word translates as "hairy legs" (Mishicot). Other names with Native American roots are Suamico, an ancient Menomonee word meaning "sand bar" or "yellow sand" from the word sumakosa; Oconto, another Menomonee word that means "pike place," "boat paddle," "red ground," "river full of fish," or "black bass" from the word okato; and Pensaukee, a corruption of a Chippewa word meaning "inside the mouth of a river" (Oconto).

The topic of this paper, Wisconsin place names, was picked with little thought as to how to approach the topic. It quickly became clear that the topic was too broad to cover in a 300-page book and wouldn’t even be scratched by a five-page paper. To limit the size of this paper it has been "localized." That is, it has been made applicable to the members of the History of the English Language class (Eng. 396-01, spring semester 1999) by focusing on their hometowns or places of interest to them. The first town to look at is Oxford, WI, my hometown.

Oxford, Wisconsin—Carney Lentz
Oxford is in the lower middle part of Wisconsin in Marquette County. The county was formed in 1836. Before the European settlers came to the area, it was inhabited by the Winnebago, Menomonee, and Mascoutin Indian tribes (Marquette). Oxford was built on the Neenah creek. This creek is why Oxford exists. The oxen used to pull wagons and transport people had to cross or "ford" the river at its narrowest point. This narrowest point became known as Oxford (where the oxen ford the creek) and a town grew up around that spot.

Marquette County (named after Father Marquette) is one of 14 counties with French names. The counties are: Calumet, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Juneau, La Crosse, Lafayette, Langlade, Marinette, Marquette, Pepin, Portage, Racine, St. Croix, and Trempleau (Kellogg 441). There are many cities with French names: Racine, Superior, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Marinette, Fond du Lac, Baraboo, De Pere, Juneau, Prarie du Sac, St. Croix Falls, Tomah, and Trempleau are some (Kellogg 441). There are also many rivers with French names. One of these rivers is the St. Croix in the far north of Wisconsin. There are two theories as to how the St. Croix got its name. One, is that the first explorers through the river-way had a crewmember named St. Croix; the other possibility is that LaSueur, the explorer, saw a rock formation that looked like a cross so he named the river "Croix" after the French word for "cross" (Lickel).

Ripon, Wisconsin—Eric Whittaker
There is a story behind every place name in Wisconsin. Here we are lucky to have it directly from one of the founders of the city. "In 1849, the present town of Ripon, the post office and what is now the First Ward of the city, was called Cresco….Cresco was the name given to the entire town by the Wisconsin Phalanx, an association that had settled in the valley in 1844 and who had control of all town matters in its earliest days….Ripon was at first the name of what is not only part of the city. It originated in this way: At the time I purchase of Gov. Horner, he asked the privilege of giving the name to our village. This I granted with these restrictions: First, that is should not be a personal name; second, that is should not be like any other name in the United States; third, that it should not be an Indian name: and lastly, that the name should be short. Horner’s ancestors came from Ripon, England. That name he selected; and as it was not open to any of the objections I had mentioned, it was adopted" (Mapes).

The most interesting thing in this story is the limitation on Indian names. This is interesting because ten years later Ripon produced the Republican Party. On March 20, 1854 the Republican Party was founded in Ripon, Wisconsin (Byrne 188). The party was formed to help the disadvantaged farmers win political battles in the unfair one-party system. Such a contribution to democracy from a town that didn’t want and Indian name is surprising. One redeeming fact is that there is no reason given for this restriction; so, maybe it was for a legitimate reason.

Menomonie, Wisconsin—Peter Klitzke
Menomonie is from an Algonquin word meaning "wild rice people." It was spelled Menomonee when the village was established in 1857 and platted in 1859. Then in the mid 1880’s the post office pushed to have an alternate spelling used to avoid confusion; the spelling they pushed for was "Menomonie" (which was used on British Explorer Jonathan Carver’s 1767 map), this spelling was adopted by city officials to avoid confusion with other towns. (Dunn)
Menomonie grew up from the lumber industry. The town was originally settled by the Irish but as early as 1844 Germans began to purchase land in the area (McDonald 58). In 1860 there were 300 mill laborers; 55 of those were Irish-born and the remainder were Norwegian, German, and French (McDonald 116-117). The Irish made up about 20 percent of the population, which is a considerable number. And even though the Irish in Menomonie didn’t affect the name of the city there are many other places that do owe their names to an Irish heritage. Some of the towns are: McFarland, Dancy, Sullivan, Downing, O’Conomowoc and Wild (Irish) Rose (MJSS).

Rhinelander, Wisconsin—Tony DePalo, Dr. Grant Smith
Rhinelander is another Wisconsin town that grew up out of the lumbering industry. First called Pelican Rapids, Rhinelander was settled in 1880. The name was changed to Rhinelander when F.W. Rhinelander of New York, then president of the Milwaukee, Lake Shore and Western Railroad, decided to bring the railroad to the town (Rhinelander). Rhinelander is also the home of the Hodag. The Hodag is like a hairy alligator and it was part of a photograph hoax carried out by Gene Shepard, a pioneer to Rhinelander and a timber worker (Rhinelander). The Hodag is still associated with the town and they even have an annual Hodag Country Music Festival that draws many stars and thousands of fans.

"Rhinelander" demonstrates the importance of the story behind the name. The Rhinelander area was settled by Finns and Lithuanians (Holmes 8). The name implies though that it was settled by Germans. The Rhine is a river in Germany and according to Webster’s Dictionary on-line Rhineland is "a picturesque region of Germany around the Rhine River." But the town is not of German ancestry only the person the town is named after.

Onalaska, Wisconsin—Sue Fisher
Onalaska, Wisconsin is situated along the bank of the Mississippi River between La Crosse, WI and Holmen, WI. Onalaska was founded in 1851 by Thomas G. Rowe of New York. Onalaska is another lumbering town. The name comes from a poem titled "The Pleasures of Hope" by Thomas Campbell. "The wolf’s long howl from Oonalaska’s shore" was one of Rowe’s favorite lines so he took the name and dropped one of the O’s to name his town. A later resident, William A. Carlisle, took the name with him when he moved to Texas and then again when he moved to Washington state. The word "oonalaska" is an Aleut word meaning "dwelling together harmoniously." (Onalaska)

Wisconsin has a rich heritage of pioneers and explorers. This is easily seen by looking at the names that are on Wisconsin’s map. From Native Americans to Germans everyone has left a mark. But what is most interesting is the stories behind the names. This is because they are about people making decisions and working to form a life for their families. Every one must make decisions but very few get to make decisions that will have consequences that reach 100’s of years into the future and affect so many people. The histories and hometowns of Wisconsin are special because that is where we are from. And to those not from Wisconsin the names and stories are still intriguing because they are human stories of exploration and growth.


Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce. "History of the Area."
http://www.ashlandchamber.org/history.htm (22 Apr. 1999)

Bieder, Robert E. Native American Communities in Wisconsin, 1600-1960. Madison: U
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Byrne, Frank L. "Republicans and Prohibition." The Badger State: A Documentary
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Dunn County Historical Society. "Dunn County Place Names."
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