Category: Ethnography and Areal Anthologies

Native American Place-Names of Indiana

By Michael McCafferty. 2008. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03268-4 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Della Collins Cook, Indiana University, Bloomington

[Review length: 1408 words • Review posted on September 3, 2008]


Anyone who is interested in native North America has likely felt regret at the lost worlds of meaning hidden in the place-names that come from Indian languages. In Native American Place-Names of Indiana, linguist Michael McCafferty restores that lost world. He has made an exhaustive collection of toponyms from French, Moravian German, British, and American manuscript and published sources for the past three centuries, as well as geographical terms elicited from native speakers. He then sorts through the orthographic maze created by speakers of European languages who spelled unfamiliar sounds with enormous variety and eccentricity, to reconstruct a plausible phonetic spelling of each place-name. Finally, he interprets what each place-name means in one or more of the many Indian languages once spoken in Indiana.

The scale of this linguistic analysis is daunting. Place-names are interpreted in the Algonquian languages of Miami-Illinois, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Ojibwa, Kickapoo, Munsee, Unami, and Ottawa, as well as the Iroquoian languages Seneca and Huron-Wyandot. There is also some resort to Siouan and Muskogean languages. In his introduction McCafferty gives a brief account of the historical processes that resulted in this complexity from the first French record of Lake Michigan in 1616 to the last contributions from native speakers of Miami-Illinois in the twentieth century. He presents a system of phonetic spelling clearly, if perhaps too briefly, in a technical preface. The eleven regional chapters that follow are densely packed with readings of hydronyms (names of rivers, lakes, and marshes), ethnonyms (names of groups of people), and eponyms (names of persons), attached to waterways and towns in Indiana. Vivid descriptions of each region's geographic features reflect his familiarity with the landscape and its transformations. The resulting 173-page text is a demanding read, even for a reader with some introduction to linguistics. The seventy-seven pages of notes that follow are enormously valuable for the reader who is not a linguist, and are so entertaining that one regrets that many of the notes were not integrated into the chapters.

Many of the place-names are descriptive phrases that offer glimpses of the world-view of native peoples. Perhaps the best example is Wabash, reconstructed here as waapaahshi(i)ki siipiiwi or "it shines white" and "river." This Miami-Illinois phrase applied to the present-day Wabash River, its tributaries, and the portion of the Ohio downstream from their confluence. McCafferty suggests that this is both a description of the white limestone bed of the river and a reference to the Algonquian deity Underwater Panther. One wishes he had used the term hagionym for this term, not just for the various geographical features named for Christian saints. This name is one of his richest readings, and requires the working out of complicated orthographic puzzles in its various renderings in French and English.

Many place-names refer to individuals or groups of people who lived there. Many important Native American figures in Indiana history are memorialized in this way, for example Turtle Creek for the late eighteenth-century Miami leader Little Turtle. McCafferty argues that the Miami and Shawnee tended to name places for alien groups who lived at a locality. A fascinating example is the Patoka River. This name may refer to the Comanche, who at one time lived as close as Oklahoma, or to a particular Comanche person far from home. He finds a French census record for a woman with the surname Patoka in Detroit. It is perhaps surprising that the most troublesome of the neighbors of the Miami and Shawnee, the Iroquois to the north and east and the Chickasaw to the southwest, are not more often reflected in place names.

It is also surprising that so many native place-names for which there is historical documentation have been translated directly into English and appear on modern maps as Raccoon Creek, Potato Creek, Fall Creek, Salt Creek, and so on. A particularly interesting example traces Big Raccoon Creek back through the French use of chat sauvage for both bobcats and raccoons to the Miami leader Pishewaw, or Bobcat. Such translations or borrowings also occurred among the Algonquian languages, as groups moved through the Midwest.

There are few confusions, errors, or omissions in this remarkably wide-ranging book. The late linguist Carl Voegelin is correctly named in the bibliography, but he is Charles in the text. The work of Carl Voegelin and Ermine Wheeler-Voegelin on Algonquian languages and ethnohistory is given less attention than seems appropriate. McCafferty has consumed a great deal of archaeological research, and some of it is incompletely digested. For example, Munson's argument that maple sugar cannot have been manufactured before the French introduced iron cooking pots is cited to argue that the various Sugar Creeks cannot be translations of prehistoric names. Munson shows that maple sap cannot have been reduced to dry, storable sugar using prehistoric technology; but this limitation does not preclude the manufacture of maple syrup or concentrated sap for short-term use. Perhaps the many Sugar Creeks were once sweet waters or syrup creeks in native tongues.

McCafferty is so focused on the linguistic features of place-names that he is often rather off-hand in the archaeological and historical inferences he draws from them. If, as he suggests, Angel Phase and Caborn-Welborn Phase, two late prehistoric cultures in southwestern Indiana, are identifiable as Dhegiha Sioux, this important claim needs evidence and serious discussion. It seems unlikely that the latter phase, which ends no more than two centuries before French colonial records begin, would not have been part of living memory in the seventeenth century, but McCafferty reports no southern Siouan linguistic evidence that would support his inference. On the other hand, McCafferty dismisses archaeologist Robert Hall's Winnebago--a northern Siouan language--readings of aspects of prehistory in the Midwest in a crabbed footnote that will be opaque to readers unfamiliar with Hall's work.

Ethnobotany is similarly slighted. McCafferty explains several place-names as describing locations where spatterdock was gathered, and there are similar claims for wild sweet potato, wild rice, and honey locust. He presents his identifications with a tone of certainty as to genus and species that may not be warranted, however tempting it may be to believe that native peoples collected a particular plant at a particular place. These claims would be stronger if there were some discussion of the specificity of botanical terms in the various languages, and this interesting aspect of toponyms deserves a fully detailed presentation of ethnobotanical and archaeobotanical evidence.

A minor problem is the artificial nature of boundaries of Indiana with respect to native place-names. McCafferty strays across the state border in discussing the Kankakee drainage and the streams that drain into the Great Lakes, but unaccountably he fails to relate the Embarras River, a tributary of the Wabash in Illinois named for its blockade of driftwood, to the Driftwood River, an old, translated name for the East Fork of the White River that likewise contributes to the more-extensive, native conception of the Wabash River.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the book is the lack of a summary chapter assessing the wider meanings of place-names. Many fascinating connections are indicated, particularly in the footnotes, but the text ends abruptly with the last linguistic dissection of a place-name. One looks in vain for where this elaborate geography leads.

Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and members of the public with passionate interest in these fields will find this book enormously valuable. That said, it would be much more accessible to readers who are not linguists if the introduction were a bit more generous. The book would reward these readers if the concepts of language family, language, and dialect were presented in a more didactic fashion. There are references to technical literature on these issues, but a brief account comparing the major features of Miami-Illinois, Shawnee, Munsee, and Seneca would be helpful, as would examples of corresponding sentences in each. Despite the glossary, the non-specialist will find the details of phonology difficult to follow.

While there is one map of the Indiana counties and a second of the major watercourses, many of the rivers and creeks discussed in the text do not appear on them. A detailed map specific to each chapter would be useful. The 1688 Franquelin map on the cover is fascinating, but references to it in the text don't direct the reader to the image, and other historic maps would be helpful. One hopes that it will be followed by an equally detailed and more reader-friendly volume on place-names of Illinois!

Click here for the author's response to this review.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.