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A Historical Romance - The Derivation of the Word Milwaukee

From: Milwaukee Sentinel - August 22, 1881
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

Mahn-ah-wauk, a Pottowattomie Term meaning 'Council Ground'
At Last Accepted as the Origin of the City's Name
Interesting Traditions and Anecdotes of the Primitive Pioneers

It has remained for the historians of this late day to furnish the key in a long locked matter, namely, the derivation of the name of this city. The pioneer writers, many of whom had the advantage of consulting interpreters of the Indians languages, were unable to determine the point, owing to a singular contrariety of information. Augustin Grignon had been told by an old Indian that the name was derived from a valuable aromatic root used by the natives for medicinal purposes. The name of this root was 'man wau', and hence, man-a-waukee, or place of the 'man wau.' The Indians represented that it grew no where else, to their knowledge, that it was considered very valuable among them, and that the Chippewas on Lake Superior would give a beaver skin for a piece as large as a man's finger. It was not used as a medicine, but was, for its aroma, put into almost all their medicines taken internally. Mr. Grignon also understood though without place much confidence in it as in the other definitions, that Milwaukee means simply 'good land.'

Louis M. Moran, an interpreter for the Chippewas, who would certainly have known of a valuable aromatic root in connection with the place, stated that the name signified a 'rich and beautiful land," and that it was pronounced 'Me-ne-aw-kee' by the Indians. As Milwaukee was really a delightful place while in a state of nature, the definition had been until now been very generally accepted, the story of the aromatic root gaining little credence, and rightly too, since the late Dr. Lapham and other botanists and herbalists found no indigenous plant so singular and of such wonderful properties. According to Indians tradition Milwaukee was a good as well as a beautiful land. The site of the city was the hallowed ground of the aborigines. It was a realm of peace, forgiveness and atonement. An umbrageous knoll on the site of the present Market Square was dedicated to their gracious deities. Annually this was the scene of a great religious festival, which, at times continued for months.

Approaching the sacred elevation the Indians would disarm themselves as preliminary to the holy council, burying their tomahawks, and joining the powwow, or dance of peace. At the close of the ceremonies, each of the participants would gather some token of his presence on the hallowed eminence, a pebble, sprig, or plant, which would be revered as a talisman of rare potency. The proceedings in council were never divulged To be buried near this hollowed spot was the dying wish of many an Indian during the past century, whispered to relatives, traders, or voyageurs, who chanced to be near. It was the wish of the Menomonee as well as the Winnebago, and of the Pottowattomie as well as the more distant Sac & Fox, and even of the savage Sioux. That these wishes were faithfully observed, the many graves in Man-wau and its delightful vicinity prove to the hardy, courageous pioneers.

Such is the legend on which the romancing Wheeler founded his 'Story of Nis-o-was-sa', who in council assassinated her father that the Menomonee and the Winnebago might be reconciled. As-kee-no, a Winnebago, had opposed all plans for reconciliation of the tribes, while his daughter Nis-o-was-sa, a belle, graceful and handsome, having been thrown among the missionaries of the north and imbibed some national ideas of Christianity, sympathized with the wise and able warriors who were opposed to the measure of peace by her father alone. As-kee-no had strenuously opposed reconciliation in council, when Nis-o-was-sa, notwithstanding that it was a great breach of Indian propriety, the intrusion of a woman in council, appeared and spoke as follows:

"Our chiefs all know Nis-o-was-sa whom you have called 'Day Sleep' - she is a woman, and her tongue know not the wisdom of this brave council; but she has talked with the medicine man of the pale faces, and he has sent her to whisper listen to the words of wisdom that have been spoken. They are good. They please the Good Spirit. Is there a Menomonee who dare say Nis-o-was-sa does not love her father! Has she not followed him on every trail and watched him when the warriors slept?" Here the girl inclined her head against her father's shoulder, and the chief, surprised and curious to know what she meant to do, remained in statue-like position evincing no disposition to interfere with her. "I there a chief who will say that Nis-o-was-sa does not look upon her father as a flower looks to the sun?" A grave chief, whose white locks contrasted finely with his red cheeks replied: "There are none to answer Day Sleep: but her words are for the lodge and not for the council. Let her father take her away!"

"He will not!" said the girl. "You want peace and the Great Spirit grants it, see?" Quicker than a flash of electric light, she grasped the knife from her father's belt, and before he had time to avoid the blow she plunged it into his heart; and while the round arm was bathed in paternal blood, she straightened it out with the majesty of one defied by a high enthusiasm, saying: "Now let the Menomonees and Winnebagos be friends," and walked proudly and slowly out of the assemblage.

"There you have the story," wrote Wheeler adding: "It is to be regretted that nothing more is known of the woman, who, if she had been born in Greece, would have monuments erected to her memory at this day."

This legend and the tale of Nis-o-was-sa have been rehearsed by all the historians of the city, with the exception of Mr. Buck. Dr. Koss translated it into the German from "Wheeler's Chronicles," and Miss Olin and Bernhard Gross, thinking it new in Dr. Koss's work, retranslated it from Germ into the English language. Besides these translations there are evidences that Milwaukee was in more than one sense a good and beautiful land. It was the land of 'Peace and Reconciliation.'

There are no remains showing that any great battles were fought in this vicinity. It was neutral ground. That it was a council place the wily Pontiac knew, while he was furthering his conspiracy to surprise all the British forts in the West. Possibly it was owing to the sacred nature of the place that his address to the tribes on the occasion of one of their annual assemblies here was of no avail, and that his plan of confiding to the mixed band at this place of the capture of Green Bay, that it failed.

The writers of the Western Historical Publishing Company have unwittingly added two very important confirmations of all here advance proof of the fact that Milwaukee means a council place. These confirmations follow Dr. Morse's statement that Mil-wah-kie, means 'good land," and Louis M. Moran's, to the same effect. The historians of the Western Company also publish the legend and the story of Nis-o-was-sa without observing that they fully substantiated what Mr. Porthier told them, which was that Mahn-a-wauk is of Pottowattomie origin and means - a great camp place to talk as friends; where everybody comes but in which nobody fights." She told them that all the warriors and surrounding tribes met on the Mahn-ah-wauk-seepe and talked over their troubles, wars and tribal affairs of peace. Mrs. Porthier's father, Mirandeau, told her there assembled here many strange tribes from the far West, North and South, which were never seen or heard of here at any other time. They always remained several days, and occasionally many weeks, spending their time feasting, talking and smoking. From these statements the historians have rightly concluded, and without reference to tradition, that Mahn-ah-wauk is a Pottowattomie term - that its proper pronunciation was mahn-ah-wauk - and that it's meaning was 'universal or common council grounds.' Thus, after many years of research and speculation, the derivation of the name has been definitely determined.

From: Milwaukee Sentinel - August 24, 1881
The Derivation of the Word Milwaukee - Increasing Interest
Considerable of the Latent Manifest in the Derivation of the Name Milwaukee

The article in the Sentinel on Monday on the derivation of the name of Milwaukee has awakened considerable latent interest in the subject, judging by the numerous communications in reference to the matter that have been received. Among these letters is one from Mr. Packard, of Racine, which is worthy of publication. Mr. Packard writes as follows: "I am inclined to believe that Dr. Moran's interpretation is partly correct. Having in my possession a 'Chippewa Indian Grammar,' published somewhere between the years 1848-50 - the fly leaf being torn out - I find it contains the word 'mino' and 'aki' the former signifying 'good' and the latter 'land.' According to the orthography of this grammar, the vowel 'i' has the sound as in pin, the later o as in note, and the letter a as in ah; therefore combining or compounding the two words 'Minoaki,' we get the pronunciation 'Min-oh-ah-ki,' which could be very easily corrupted into the word Milwaukee through repetition by the whites. The word 'Mino' does not seem to imply that the object spoken of is beautiful, but denotes its real r substantial worth. The language has another word, which supplies the place of the word beautiful in English, the name being 'Gwanatch,' and used in this manner 'Gwanatch-ikwe,' would indicate beautiful woman, but 'Mino-ikwe' would merely allude to her goodness or moral qualities.

The Chippewa and Pottowattomie languages are quite similar, and anyone thoroughly acquainted with the language of one of these tribes could easily converse in the other; and the 'Mahn-ah-wauk' sounded as though it might possibly be a mispronunciation of the Chippewa term 'Manitowag' meaning 'spirits,' or place of spirits, if applied to a locality.

The Indians were proverbially superstitious and always had great reverence for any place or locality where they supposed the power of the 'Kitchi-Manito,' or Great Spirit was manifest, and it is not unlikely they had some such ideas regarding the locality of Milwaukee; and yet, while literally speaking, the word may have originally meant simply 'good land,' as Mr. Grignon understood. It is also probable that the intention was to carry the idea that it was a good place to congregate, the surrounding influence being all that could be desired to procure harmony at the council."

The article in The Sentinel was based on the statement of Mrs. Porthier, daughter of Jean Jacques Mirandeau, who settled here in 1795, and died here in 1920.. His intercourse with the Pottowattomie was such that he became intimately acquainted with their language. His daughter, Mrs. Porthier, the only living child of the pioneer, interprets the name as 'great camp in which to talk as friends; where everybody comes and where nobody fights.' Her father had told her the word 'Mahn-ah-wauk' meant a council place, and that he had seen assembled here many strange tribes which he hand never seen before seen or heard of here at any other time. Mr. Packard's surmise that the intention in terming this a 'good place' was to convey the idea that it was a good place to congregate is therefore fully substantiated by the statement of Mirandeau and his daughter, Mrs. Porthier.

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