As Wisconsinites, we laugh at the attempts of non-locals trying to pronounce many of our unique Native American town and city names. Although we love these places, how well do we know the history of their name origins?
Translating to the “rich and beautiful land” by the Potawatomi, the spelling of the most well-known city on this list has been debated many times. The original Native pronunciation was derived from “Man-a-waukee” according to the Milwaukee Sentinel on August 22, 1881.
Although there is debate over whether its origin is Menominee or Potawatomi, most have agreed that “Kenosha” is the translation of “Ken-new-see”, which roughly means “place of the pike”.
Most Wisconsinites will know that this northeastern town is pronounced “Shaw-no” and not “Shaw-ah-no” or “Shay-wah-no”. Its Ojibwe word was “Zhaawanong”, which loosely means “in the south” or “of the south”. Funny, considering its way up nort der.
Originally known as the town of Leicester in 1870, this Madison suburb later changed its name to Waunakee, which translates to “fair and pleasant valley” -- an appropriate choice given the lovely rolling hills and cozy atmosphere the town evokes.
The city was inspired by Chief Oskosh of the Menominee who ceded the city to the United States government in 1836. The English translation adds the first ‘h’ to the spelling and soon the city founds its name.
Kaukauna Matata? Not quite how you pronounce this Fox Valley city. Pronounced “kaw-kaw-nuh” or “Ogaq-kane” in Menominee tongue, which roughly translates to “place of the pike”. Notice the similarities between Kenosha and its translation?
Contrary to popular belief, Waukesha does not translate to “fox” but instead was the name of a local Potawatomi leader of the area. The English written translation came from Potawatomi words of “Waagoshag or Wau-tsha”.
The town every Wisconsinite uses to tease their non-local friends, “Coo-no-mo-wauk” was the Ho-Chunk word that inspired Oconomowoc’s name which means “waterfall” or “river of lakes” -- an accurate name if you’ve ever visited the beautiful region.
“Oussuamigong” is the original Menominee word for “place of yellow beaver” or “the beavers tail” among other similar translations. Regardless, it’s probably good we now have an easier spelling of this Green Bay suburb.
Originally “Ninoqua”, meaning “noon-day rest” by the Ojibwe, Minocqua is probably the most suitable name choice for this northern summer retreat town. I’m sure most of us wouldn’t mind spending our own noon-day rest by one of the town’s many beautiful lakes.
Ojibwe used the word “miquan” as a meaning for “ladle”. This peculiar name was decided upon due to the way each river in the area bended into a ladle shape. Other speculation of the words meaning have also been “feather” or “pigeon” but have been disputed by historians.
Muskellunge? Almost there. The Potawatomi word “Mus-kee-Guaac” means “sunfish”, which inspired the town name.
It is not a shortened version of Tomahawk. It’s instead a Native translation of “Thomas”. Thomas Carron was a prominent individual in the area who decided to integrate himself into the local tribe and had his title changed to Chief Tomah.
This Ojibwe word means “the early light of the day” and is translated from the word “Waubun”. The city was first settled by Seymour Wilcox in 1838 and has since become known as a unique town and an important beacon of Dodge County.
Meaning “the passage” or “waterway between the lakes” as translated by the Ojibwe, the name was decided when French explorers Jean Nicolet and Joliet & Marquette first experienced the shores of Sheboygan during the late 1600s. Michigan also has their own Sheboygan, but theirs is spelled “Cheboygan”.
Ho-chunk used this word for “water” or “running water”. This name was decided upon when then-Governor Doty meet with a band of the tribe. He pointed to the river and the Ho-Chunk responded with “Neenah”.
This translation has long been debated and likely lost to history. Historians say that it is the Potawatomi word for “firefly” or even the Menominee word for “the lost brave”. Do you know what this translation might be?
“Kewanee” translates over to “greater prairie chicken” in the Ho-Chunk language. As you might imagine, the area was used to raise poultry and the name just stuck. Illinois also shares their own community of Kewaunee just east of Davenport, IA.
This is another town based on a native chief - Chief Wapuka. “Chief Waupaca” also is the name of a sternwheeler that travels on the local river for sightseeing visits.
Menasha was translated from settlers to roughly mean “thorn” or ‘island” by the Ho-Chunk. This is likely due to the proximity of Lake Winnebago and the shrubbery in the area when it was first inhabited.
Remember Tomah’s history from earlier? Wautoma is inspired by the same Chief Tomah by taking the name and combining it with “wau” to create “Wautoma” or “the land of Tomah”.
“Munedowk” was the original Ojibwe word for this now-famous Wisconsin city. Ojibwe used this word to mean “spirit woods” or “river of bad spirits” and even “Devil’s den”. This was probably used to describe the local woods around the area combined with folklore.
Chief Ashwaubemie was a Menominee Chief that inspired the origin of this Green Bay suburb.
The Menominee word “okato” has a few possible translations such as “pike place” “boat paddle” or “red ground”. All these described the environment of the towns and how the Menominee traversed by boat.
Our last town on this list is the city that many considered to connect the central portion of the state to the wooded north woods. “Waasaa” is the Ojibwe word for “far away” or “noise like thunder”.
BONUS: A History Lesson of “Wau”
“Wau” doesn’t have a single meaning, but instead has different meanings based off different context and syllables used with it. The result of so many Wisconsin towns having “wau” in their names is a result of earlier European settlers who did not know how to translate the subtleties of Algonquin oral languages. “Wau” was simply the most accessible way to write down these vocal only Native words.
Do you know the name origins of other Wisconsin Native American named locations that did not make this list? Let us know in the comments below!
Ken Virden is a member of the Discover Wisconsin crew. He spends his recreational time with family and friends going camping, attending rock festivals, and running his own podcast ‘Virden Interviews’. Watch Discover Wisconsin TV Saturday mornings at 10 on Fox Sports Wisconsin. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)