It is interesting to note the origins of various PLACE NAMES so familiar to Michigan residents.  Here are but a few. 

The names of Michigan's 83 counties reflect the state's Native American, French, British and early American heritage. Thirty-two counties have names drawn from Native American languages; 29 are named for people; 16 are named for natural features such as rivers that already had been given names; and 6 have names meant to describe the county's geography (e.g., Hillsdale).

Themes exist for the names of some counties.
    --In 1829 the legislature set off 12 new counties, naming 8 of them for President Andrew Jackson and members of his cabinet.  Today we refer to these 7 counties as the "cabinet counties" (we don't count Jackson County as a cabinet county because President Jackson was not, theoretically, a member of his own cabinet!). 
    --Eventually, 10 counties would be named for members of the Jackson administration: Barry, Berrien, Branch, Cass, Calhoun, Eaton, Ingham, Jackson, Livingston, Van Buren.
    --In 1840 the legislature changed the names of 16 counties and gave four counties names from Ireland: Antrim, Clare, Roscommon and Wexford.
    --Henry Schoolcraft, author and Indian agent, mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words for some of the 28 counties set off in 1840. They include, among others, Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda and Tuscola.

Prior to the time Americans imposed their geographic nomenclature on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the place names in use were a mixture of Indian and French terms. Before the arrival of the French, the local Chippewa bands used the coastal waters of Lake Superior as fishing grounds. The various islands, bays, points, river mouths, and hills along the coast were also important camping sites, harbors of refuge, and landmarks in the Indians� employment of the near shore water as a canoe highway. Because of their intense use of the shoreline zone, we can be certain that the Chippewa had bestowed on it a dense network of place names.
    Because the economic activity of both groups was waterway-oriented, the named places were mainly along the shoreline of the Great Lakes and the streams flowing into the lakes. Some geographic features had more than one name; several had the same name; and there were many variations in the spelling and pronunciation of the names. To the Americans entering the area in the early 1800s it was all very confusing. The confusion was reduced only after the Americans covered the land with their names. Illustrative of the difficulty in discovering the "correct" names of the places, before the Americans had imposed their names on the land, is the following comment made by geologists working in the western Upper Peninsula during the 1840s:
"Hardly anything has more perplexed us than the difficulty of ascertaining the correct names of prominent natural features of our district, and of writing them as they are pronounced, so as, at the same time, to preserve the original meaning. While very few of the small lakes, rivers, or hills in the interior, have as yet received any names; almost all the streams, points, and bays, along the coast of the great lakes, are known by some name, generally either of Indian or French derivation. Many of these are now so corrupted from their original designation, that it is impossible ever to restore the correct spelling, or to bring again into use the original name...How many of the great topographic features of this country retain their aboriginal names, while the meaning of these names has been irrevocably lost!"


Agate Harbor The designation "Agate Harbor" originated with the 1840 Houghton expedition. It commemorates a morning of agate hunting on July 24. Of this occasion Penny wrote: "The entire forenoon was spent in gathering agates, and with such good success that we have concluded to give this bay the name of Agate Harbor." Hubbard noted that they collected agates until 2:00 P.M., filling two casks.
Alcona Believed to have been made up by Henry R. Schoolcraft with "al" from the Arabic for "the," "co" the root of a word for "plain" or "prairie," and "na" for excellent; thus the word is interpreted as "excellent plain."
Alger Named for Russell A. Alger, governor of Michigan at the time (1885-1886) and later U.S. senator (1902-1907).
Allegan Its derivation is obscure. Most sources say it was a Henry Schoolcraft creation with "al" for "the" and "egan" from "sa-gi-e-gan" (Chippewa for "lake"). Other meanings often given are "fine river" or "fair river."
Alpena Indian word for "a good partridge country", according to some.  According to others, it is not a Native American name, but rather, believed to have been created by Henry Schoolcraft with "al" for "the" and "pinai" for partridge or "penaissee" for bird. The best interpretation is "the bird."
Antrim Irish county name.
Arenac A name made up by Henry Schoolcraft, it is a combination of the Latin "arena" (sandy) and the Native American "ac" (earth). The combined words mean "sandy place."
Baraga Named for missionary Bishop Frederick Baraga (1797-1868), a French Jesuit missionary who worked among the Native Americans in the area and wrote a Chippewa grammar and dictionary.
Barry Named for William T. Barry (1785-1835) of Kentucky, postmaster general in the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson 1829-1835.
Benzie The French named the river here "Riviere Aux-Bec-Scies." It was changed to "Betsey" because of the way Americans pronounced the French "Bec-Scies." Later it was changed to Benzie.
Berrien Named for John M. Berrien of Georgia, attorney general under President Jackson (1829-1831).
Bete Grise Bay The present name, "B�te Grise Bay," has evolved over the years and is a good example of the alterations which can occur in a foreign language place name as it is Americanized. Not recognizing that the French pronunciation of "Baie de" (which sounded like "B�te") meant "Bay of," the Americans added "Bay" to the end of the name. Thus, we have the present redundant name, which means, literally, "Bay of Sandstone Bay."
Black River An early traveler on Lake Superior remarked that "there seems to be no end to Black Rivers" along its shore. At that time (and still today where the land remains undisturbed) many of the streams tributary to the Great lakes flowed with dark water. The reason for the discoloration of the water was, and is, the tannic acid from the decaying vegetation in the marshes and swamps along their courses. Streams named for their dark water are numerous in Michigan. In the lower peninsula there are "Black Rivers" in Van Buren, St. Clair, and Cheboygan counties. In the Upper Peninsula, in addition to the one under consideration here, "Chocolay River" (Marquette County) and "Tobacco River" (Keweenaw County) were named for their dark water.
Branch Named for John Branch of North Carolina, secretary of the Navy under President Jackson (1829-1831).
Cadillac Named for the French pioneer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit.
Calhoun Named for John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), vice president of the United States (1824-1832).
Carp River Many "Carp Rivers" exist in Michigan.  They are named for the Carp or Sucker, a fish found in abundance in these rivers, and which was a mainstay of the diet of the Indians and early settlers, for it runs upstream in spring and at that time of year, when food supplies are getting very low, it was a welcome source of nutrition!
Cass Named for Lewis Cass (1782-1866), second governor of the Michigan Territory, secretary of war under President Jackson (1831-1836).
Charlevoix Named for Pierre Fran�ois Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761), a French Jesuit missionary, explorer and historian who traveled through the Great Lakes region in 1721.
Cheboygan This Native American word was first applied to the river. The word may have originally been "Chabwegan," meaning "a place of ore."
Chesaning Named for the Chippewa village of Che-as-sin-ning or "Big Rock".
Chippewa Name for the Chippewa or Ojibwa, the largest of the Algonquin tribes. The word referred to the puckered seams on their moccasins: "he who wears puckered shoes."
Clare Irish county name.
Clinton Named for DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), the New York governor under whose administration the Erie Canal was built.
Copper Harbor As a result of Houghton�s 1840 expedition the name of this Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula was changed from "Big Marais" (literally: Great Bay) to "Copper Harbor." The reason for the name change is revealed in the July 3 entry of Houghton�s 1840 field notes: "examined the vein of copper which gives the harbour its name."
Delta From the Greek "delta," it refers to the triangular shape of the original county which included segments of Menominee, Dickinson, Iron and Marquette counties.
Eaton Named for John H. Eaton (1790-1856) of Tennessee, secretary of war under President Jackson (1829-1831).
Emmet Named for the Irish patriot Robert Emmet (1778-1803), who was hanged as a traitor to the British government at the age of 23.
Genesse From a Seneca (Iroquoian) word, "je-nis-hi-yeh," meaning "beautiful valley": the county was named after the valley in western New York State from which many area settlers came.
Gladwin Named for Major Henry Gladwin, British commander of the fort at Detroit during the siege by Pontiac in 1763-64.
Gogebic This name probably comes from the Chippewa "bic" which most references interpret as "rock."
Grand Traverse The French phrase "grande travers" means "long crossing." It was given first to the bay by early French voyageurs.
Gratiot Named for Captain Charles Gratiot (1788-1855), who supervised the building of Fort Gratiot at the present site of Port Huron.
Graveraet River The name originated from the fact that a trader by that name was killed there in 1791. According to the testimony, the bloodshed resulted from a feud between the trader Albert Graveratte and one of his voyageurs, Louis Drouin. An underlying cause of the animosity between the two was apparently jealousy over an Indian woman with whom Drouin was living. Drouin was an engagee on a trading expedition under the command of Graveratte which set out from Mackinac Island in the autumn of 1791 to winter on the headwaters of the Ontonagon River. While traversing the Keweenaw Portage Graveratte became ill and had to be carried. They stopped to rest at the mouth of an unnamed stream just beyond the Salmon Trout River. By this time it was November and an early snow had fallen. After eight days� delay Drouin was anxious to be off because he knew the trip up the Ontonagon would be very difficult and he did not want to do it under icing conditions. Drouin told his boss that they had better be off; Graveratte said they would wait a while longer. Drouin told the men to go ahead and load the canoe. Graveratte could not tolerate this insubordination, got his gun and, confronting Drouin, declared that one of them must "mark the encampment" by his death. He got his wish. Graveratte fired and missed, but Drouin did not, and the trader Graveratte�s name continues to mark the encampment to this day. Other spellings recorded in the early literature, however, were "Graverods," "Grandrods," and "Graveyard".
Hillsdale The rolling surface of the area (hills and dales) served as the basis for this name.
Houghton Named for Dr. Douglass Houghton (1809-1845), first state geologist of Michigan, physician and surgeon, Detroit mayor 1842-43.  He studied and helped open up the mineral wealth of the UP.
Huron Named for the lake (Lac des Hurons) the French named for the Native American tribe they called "hure" (Hurons)--meaning "head"--when they saw the fantastic way they dressed their hair. The tribe referred to itself as "Wendat" (Wyandotte), meaning "dwellers on a peninsula."
Ingham Named for Samuel D. Ingham of Pennsylvania, secretary of the treasury under President Jackson (1829-1831).
Ionia Named for a province in ancient Greece noted for its flourishing cities, commerce and culture.
Iosco This was a favorite name used by Henry Schoolcraft for Native American boys and men in his writings. He interpreted the word to mean "water of light."
Iron Named for the iron deposits and mines in the county.
Iron River Henry Schoolcraft named the "Iron River" because "Iron ore and [iron] pyrites are said to abound upon its banks."
Ironwood Named after James "Iron" Wood, a man prominent in early mining deals on the Gogebic Iron Range.
Isabella Schoolcraft proposed naming this county for Queen Isabella (1451-1504) of Spain, under whose patronage Columbus undertook his voyages in 1492.
Jackson Named for Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 7th president (1829-1837) of the United States.
Kalamazoo Named for the river that runs through it, the Native American form of which was probably "Ke-Ken-a-ma-zoo." A widely accepted translation is "boiling water." Other versions are "otter tail" or "reflected river."
Kalkaska This word was a Henry Schoolcraft creation, originally spelled Calcasca. One suggestion is that this is a play on words. Schoolcraft's family name formerly was Calcraft. The Ks may have been added to make the name appear more like a Native American word.
Kent Named for Chancellor James Kent (1763-1817), New York jurist. Michigan employed him to defend its rights during the "Toledo War," 1836-37.
Keweenaw A Native American word, "Kee-wi-wai-non-ing" meaning "portage" or "place where portage is made" is the source of this name.
   The meaning of the name Keweenaw was commented on by some early visitors to the area who had the opportunity to ask the Indians themselves. One of the earliest to offer an explanation of the name�s meaning was John Johnston, a fur trader on Lake Superior in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He wrote that the peninsula was called by the Chippewa Keewaynan, "the way made straight by means of a portage." The Indians replied that it signified "a portage, or a place where a portage is made." The theory that the name Keweena comes from the river-portage route across the peninsula is given additional support by the fact that Indian traders called the stream "Keweena River" as late as 1820.
Lake Lake County has several small lakes and is only one county away (Mason) from the shore of Lake Michigan.
L'Anse One of the most common term found on the old French maps of the Great Lakes is "Anse" (often spelled "Ance"), the meaning of which is "cove", or "inlet." As is indicated by Hubbard�s rendition, Americans� recording of what they heard the voyageurs say often varied from the correct French spelling.
Lansing Ultimately, named for John Lansing, New York Revolutionary War hero. Initially, New York state named a city after him.  Joseph North, who settled in the Lansing (MI) area, named it after the town he was from: Lansing, NY.
Lapeer This is said to be a derivation of the French "la pierre," meaning flint or flint stone.
Leelanau Created by Henry Schoolcraft (Ottawas and Ojibwas did not use the letter L), who gave the name "Leelinau" to some Native American women in his stories.
Lenawee From a Native American word meaning "man," either from the Delaware "leno or lenno" or the Shawnee "lenawai."
Livingston Named for Edward Livingston (1764-1836) of Louisiana, secretary of state under President Jackson from 1831 to 1833.
Luce Named for Cyrus G. Luce, then governor of Michigan (1887-1890).
Mackinac The county was originally laid out under the name of Michilimackinac in 1818. Some references claim the word was the French interpretion of a Native American word that meant "great turtle," the shape of the island from a distance. Others claim it came from "place of the Mishinimaki," an ancient tribe that inhabited the island and whose spirits still dwell there.
Macomb Named for General Alexander Macomb (1782-1841), an officer in the War of 1812.  Later he was a trader/merchant in the Detroit area, circa 1800.
Manistee This Native American name was first applied to the county's principal river. It means "river at whose mouth there are islands."
Marquette Named for the French Jesuit missionary and explorer, Pere Jacques Marquette (1637-1675).
Mason Named for Stevens T. Mason (1811-1843), first governor of the State of Michigan (1835-1840).
Mecosta Named for the Indian chief, Mecosta.
Menominee This is the name of the Menominee tribe who lived in the vicinity. The word means "rice men" or "rice gatherers."
Midland Midland County is located near the geographical center of the Lower Peninsula.
Mio Oscoda County seat, originally named Mioe. In November 1883 the "e" was dropped from the name. There are several explanations for the origin of Mioe. The name was supposedly derived from Maria Deyarmond, an Oscoda pioneer. Because her young nieces and nephews found it difficult to pronounce Maria, they called her "Aunt Mioe." The settlement of "Mio" apparently was named in her honor.
Misery River The first explanation of the origin of the stream�s present name is found in the journals of two members of the 1832 Henry Schoolcraft expedition. A member of that expedition claimed that the river got its name "from the circumstance of traders having greatly suffered here, in former times, from starvation."
Missaukee Named for a Ottawa chief who signed the treaties of 1831 and 1833.
Monroe Named for James Monroe (1758-1831), 5th president of the United States (1817-1825). He visited Detroit on August 13, 1817, and stayed five days. The county was named in anticipation of his visit.
Montcalm French General Marquis de Montcalm is this county's namesake. His defeat and death in 1759 marked the end of the French and Indian War in North America.
Montmorency It is not clear for which of the historical persons named Montmorency (or Morenci) the county was named. None had direct connections with Michigan.
Muskegon The county took its name from the river running through it that empties into Lake Michigan. The word comes from the Ojibwa/Chippewa word "mashkig" meaning "swamp" or "marsh."
Nadoway Point Ojibwe name for a 1662 battle ground where many Ojibwe and Iroquios Indians lost their lives.  Translated from the Ojibwe  Nau-do-we-e-gun-ing it means "Grave of the Iroquois" or "Place of the Iroquois bones".
Newaygo This was derived from then name of a Chippewa chief who signed the Saginaw Treaty of 1819 or from a Native American word meaning "much water."
Novi Named for Stage Coach stop NO. VI (No. = number and VI is the Roman numeral 6).  Novi used to be stop number 6 along one of the travel routes between Detroit and Lansing.
Oakland Named for the numerous oak openings in the county. Bela Hubbard described an oak opening as "a majestic orchard of oaks and hickories varied by small prairies,
grassy lawns and clear lakes."
Oceana Oceana County borders Lake Michigan, the fresh water "ocean."
Ogemaw Named after Ogemaw-ki-keto, a prominent Saginaw Valley Indian chief who signed the Treaty of 1819. "Ogima" in Ottawa or Ojibwa is "chief" or "boss."
Okemos Indian Chief who often camped and lived in the area near Lansing
Ontonagon This river was important enough to receive notice in the earliest French accounts, and was the only one in the western UP to retain an approximation of its Indian name. On the 1672 map of Lake Superior made by the Jesuit missionaries is found the name "R. Nantounagan." In the Jesuit Relations for 1669-1670, written by Father Dablon, occurs the statement: "In the River named Nantounagan, which is toward the South [shore of Lake Superior]....." From that time until the modern spelling was finalized (mid-1800s), the name appeared on maps in a variety of ways. These include: "Nontounagon," "Nantoungan," "Tonnagane," "Antonnagan," "Donagan." Maps of the 1670s reveal that there was an attempt to rename the river for the Intendant of New France, Jean Talon, but the Indian name prevailed.  In attempting to translate the river�s Indian name one is tempted to rely on the generally accepted legend, a typical version of which was recorded by John St. John in 1845.

The word Ontonagon is said by an intelligent gentleman, Mr. Groveret of Mackinaw, to mean �my bowl.� That an Indian girl went to the lake with a wooden bowl for some purpose, and placing it upon the water, while her attention was drawn off, the bowl had floated beyond her reach, and to attract attention screamed Onto-na-gon, Onto-no-gon, -my bowl, my bowl, and hence the name.

The legend is based on the fact that the Chippewa word for "bowl," onagan, combined with the pronoun for "my," nin or neen, results in a word similar to the Jesuit "Nantounagan."

Osceola Named for the Seminole Indian chief, Osceola (1800?-1838), of national prominence.
Oscoda This Henry Schoolcraft creation is believed to be a combination of two Ojibwa words, "ossin" (stone) and "muskoda" (prairie).
Otsego A county and a lake in New York bear the name derived from the Mohawk Iroquoian word that meant either "clear water" or "meeting place."
Ottawa Named for the Ottawa tribe called "Ondatahouats," or "people of the forest," by the Hurons.
Porcupine Mountains The Indian name for these highlands, like those of other prominent Great Lakes� landform features, such as Mackinaw Island ("Turtle Island"), the Beaver Islands, and the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, originates from their imagined resemblance, when seen across the water, to the animal named. Evidence supporting this theory was recorded by Henry Schoolcraft during his 1831 trip along the Lake Superior shoreline. He asked the a Chippewa chief of the origin of their name for the Porcupine Mountains: "I asked Konteka their Indian name. He replied Kaug Wudju. I asked him why they were so called. He said from their resemblance to a couching porcupine."
Presque Isle French for "almost an island".  This name is often given to "almost islands" such as peninsulas
Presque Isle River The name of this river is the French translation of the original Indian term. The first description of Presque Isle River which gives a hint of the origin of the name was by James Duane Doty, a member of the 1820 Cass expedition:

Six miles from [Carp River is] Presque Isle river. This stream appears to have formerly emptied by 2 mouths with a small Island in the middle, one of which appears to have been obstructed and almost joined the island to the main land. On the left side [of the island] the water still makes up a considerable distance.

The next mention of the "almost an island" at the river�s mouth was by Lt. Allen, a member of the 1832 Schoolcraft tour.

Between the two falls the river has another channel, to the east, now dry, but which discharges a portion of its waters, in time of floods, by another mouth; and hence the name �Presque Isle river.�

River Raisin From the French "Riviere aux Raisins".  So named by the French because they saw "immense quantities" of wild grapes along the banks of the river.
Roscommon Roscommon County is in the central part of Ireland.
Saginaw There are two possible derivations: from "Sace-nong" or "Sak-e-nong" (Sauk Town) because the Sauk (Sac) once lived there, or from Chippewa words meaning "place of the outlet" from "sag" (an opening) and "ong" (place of).
Lake St. Clair Named by La Salle, a French explorer, who first entered the lake on the feast day of St. Clare (Aug. 12).
St. Clair (County) Named for General Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory.
St. Joseph The river for which the county is named got its name from a mission established along it by the French. They named the mission for St. Joseph, the patron saint of New France. New France included the lands they claimed in what are now Canada and the United States.
St. Mary's River Named by the French for the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus
Sanilac Named for Sanilac, a chief, according to Wyandotte (Huron) traditions.
Sault Ste. Marie French for "the Rapids of Saint Mary"
Schoolcraft Named for Henry R. Schoolcraft who lived in Michigan from 1820 to 1842. Author and Indian agent, he developed and suggested (in 1838) the names of many
of Michigan's counties.
Shiawassee Named for the river, its derivation is difficult. Suggestions have included: "now it is light," "straight running river," "twisting river," "sparkling waters," green river" and "it runs backward and forward."
Tahquamenon From the Ojibwe for "this is a short route" (Ou=this + takou=it is short + minan=trail or path).  This name refers originally to Tahquamenon Bay, which the Indians used as a shortcut while traveling.   The bay has a small island in it that facilitated the "shortcut" from Whitefish Point across the open and at times dangerous bay.  The name was later given to the River that enters into the bay.
Tuscola Created by Henry Schoolcraft, it is believed to be a combination of "dusinagon" (level) and "cola" (lands).
Van Buren Named for Martin Van Buren of New York, secretary of state under President Jackson (1829-1831) and later 8th President of the United States (1837-1841).
Washtenaw Native Americans called the area west of Detroit, "Wash-ten-ong," meaning "further district" or "land beyond." Another explanation is that it was a name for the Grand River and referred to the areas along and near the river.
Wayne Named for "Mad Anthony" Wayne (1745-1796), a famous US general (late 1700's) who won several important battles against the Indians. 
Wexford Irish county name.
Whitefish Point Names for the many Whitefish taken there, both by Ojibwe Indians and by settlers.

Additions are welcome; email me!  Want to see me add a name to the list?  Email me and ask.  I'll do what I can!

Some of the text above, and place name "interpretations", are from various articles published by B.C. Peters in the Michigan Academician.

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl ( for more information or permissions.