I was traveling to Appleton, Wisconsin, I recently and had to hit the road early as it is a 4 ½ hour drive each way. The weather was good and I saw some country I hadn’t seen in a long time. As in most parts of the country, there are signs up when you cross over into a new county, and Wisconsin isn’t any different. Because of the ground I covered that day, I saw a lot of county signs and it made me wonder where the names came from.
Some are easy to figure out, but others are pure head-scratchers. My own county name has quite a background. I live in Gogebic County and it is pronounced Go-gib-ick by the locals and Go-gee-bick if you are a tourist. It is from a Native American term “A-gogebic” which means “Where rising trout makes rings on water.” Somewhere along the way the “A” dropped off and we became Gogebic.
Our neighbors to the east in Ontonagon also got their name from the Native Americans. Bishop Baraga is said to have written that the area was known as Nintonaganing, which is said to have meant the “place of a dish.” He went on to write that a native was washing her dish or bowl and either dropped it into the river or the current carried it away, and she exclaimed, “Nia! Nind Onagan! Nind Onagan! — “Oh! My dish! My dish!” Ontonagon would mean “her dish.” Not sure if the ole Bishop has this quite right, but I do know that the county next to Ontonagon was named after him and is Baraga County.
Let’s head downstate and see about our oldest county, Wayne. The county is named after Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. He was a United States Army officer, statesman, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Wayne adopted a military career at the outset of the American Revolutionary War, where his military exploits and fiery personality quickly earned him promotion to brigadier general and the nickname Mad Anthony. He later served as General in Chief of the Army and commanded the Legion of the United States. Sounds as though he was quite a character.
I lived in Genesee County for 35 years and it has an interesting origin. The names of various local landmarks were brought over as a result of settlers from New York and other parts of New England, where so many early pioneers migrated. In 1823, settlers came from western New York. “Genesee County” was named in honor of Genesee County, New York. The Seneca Native American language had the origin of the word jenisheyuh, meaning “the beautiful valley.”
It appears there is a ton of history in how things around us found their name. As someone who has always enjoyed history, the origin of county names is simply another great lesson to be learned.
And that’s the situation as I survey it …
After a 35-year career downstate amongst da trolls, during which he built a successful engineering and surveying business, John Matonich is back home in da U.P. His column will appear here occasionally, don’tcha know. His book “Surveyin’ Da Situation” is available on Amazon.com.