by John

What’s in a name, or more specifically, a place name? Local historians and genealogists are often challenged by the earlier names given to a specific place, especially if that name is rooted in a Native American language and has been endowed over time with romantic or exotic connotations. What is the real meaning of the word, and how has it changed? Getting to the truth may involve much more than opening up a local history book.

A case in point involves the word <Kekionga>. The area at the headwaters of the Maumee River in northeastern Indiana that comprises what is now the city of Fort Wayne, just blocks from where the library stands, was known by a variety of names in its long past. Before the establishment of the first American fort in 1794, the land had both strategic and mercantile significance to Native Americans and French voyageurs that explored and occupied the region in the early eighteenth century. When General Anthony Wayne built Fort Wayne, his officers and soldiers referred to the collection of Miami and other Indian villages located nearby variously as Miamitown and Kekionga – the latter term being an approximation, at best, for the Miami parlance as interpreted by an American ear. French explorers of an earlier time had referred to this place by many other names, including “Kiskakon.” The villages stood on the opposite side of the Maumee River near its confluence with the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s rivers in what is now the Lakeside neighborhood. It was an area of strategic importance to the United States in the 1790s, since controlling the rivers meant domination of the Old Northwest Territory.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, local historians have attempted to find the meaning of these terms even though their research has not been fully grounded in linguistics. In the first published History of Fort Wayne in 1868, Wallace Brice, an amateur historian, contended that <Kekionga> was the Miami term for “blackberry bush” or “blackberry patch” (see Wallace Brice, History of Fort Wayne from the Earliest Known Accounts [Fort Wayne: D. W. Jones, 1868], p. 23n). Even though it had no historical basis, Brice’s claim was repeated by generations of historians that followed him. Indeed, <Kekionga> had an exotic sound that made it a favorite of early nineteenth century settlers in Fort Wayne. Over time it developed a deep resonance. Businesses and clubs adopted the name, especially after it was incorporated into Fort Wayne’s official city seal in 1858. A few years later the city’s first professional baseball team became known as the Kekiongas as a nod to this heritage.

The term <Kiskakon>, on the other hand, was probably unknown to the early settlers. This name was seldom used after the mid-eighteenth century, though it remained popular among early French traders and military officers as noted by Charles Poinsatte in his Outpost in the Wilderness: Fort Wayne 1706-1828. But the French were known to use a myriad of other terms for their outpost and their trading partners, often recycling the names that they heard in conversations and writing them down phonetically.

Kekionga, more than Kiskakon, captured the public imagination. By the 1850s, blackberry bushes had a pleasing connotation for explaining the area’s origins. The respected Indiana historian Jacob P. Dunn wrote in 1888 that the blackberry bush was an emblem of antiquity, since the bushes sprang up on the sites of many older settlements in Indiana. He claimed that the story of Kekionga’s blackberry definition had originated with one Barron, an old French trader on the Wabash River, who may have repeated the claim to Brice. Dunn qualified the tradition, however, by asserting that “Kekionga” was more likely a corruption or dialectical form of <Kiskakon> or <Kikakon>, a variant name for the place, but he failed to offer evidence for how such a change was made (see Jacob P. Dunn, Indiana: A Redemption from Slavery [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1888], p. 48).

Dunn identifies <Kiskakon> as the name of a band or subgroup within the Ottawa tribe, defined as “clipped scalp locks.” Since the Maumee River which flows past the village was sometimes known on early maps as the Ottawa River, Dunn suggests without authority that the Ottawa tribe must have occupied the location of the Miami village. Following his lead, other scholars have suggested that the term <Kekionga> may itself be derived from “hair clipping place,” perhaps to designate a spot where Native American warriors shaved and prepared their hair for battle and ceremony (see Michael Hawfield, Here’s Fort Wayne Past and Present [Fort Wayne: Bicentennial Fort Wayne, 1994], p. 6).

(More tomorrow about Kekionga!)