11 Native American Names for Modern U.S. Cities

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“Even old New York was once New Amsterdam!” goes one of the more famous verses of the popular song “Istanbul, Not Constantinople.” But the Big Apple is hardly America's only urban area to have undergone a major name change, especially when one considers the people who discovered the country in the first place. Here are the original Native American names given to the regions that would become 11 major U.S. cities.

1. Philadelphia, Pa.

A large portion of the city of brotherly love (including Laurel Hill Cemetery) rests in a region dubbed “Coaquannock” by the Lenni-Lenape tribe. The name means “grove of tall pines.”

2. Santa Fe, N.M.

A village dubbed “Ogapogee”—or “the white shell-water place”—by the Tesuque people sat in the center of New Mexico's modern-day capital somewhere around the year 900 C.E. A brief history of the area can be found here.

3. Providence, R.I.

Rhode Island's largest city, along with much of its surrounding territory was called “Pancanaset” (“little cleared place”). For those interested, an excellent database of Rhode Island's historical Native American place names has been compiled by the Aquidneck Indian Council.

4. Chicago

Chicago's present-day name derives from the Potawami tribe's word for “wild onions”—“checaugou.”

5. New York City

Similarly, many believe the island of Manhattan's name is descended from “Manna-hata," an Algonquin term meaning "island of the hills." Another possible source is “Mennahatenk,” a term used to designate “where one gathers bows” in the Munsee Delaware tongue. Contrary to popular belief, however, the island was not in fact purchased for $24 worth of beads.

6. Seattle

Unlike the other entries on this list, Seattle is actually named after a Native American leader: Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe. Long before the area acquired its current name, however, it was home to an extensive series of villages, such as Stook (“logjam”) and Choo-tuhb-ahlt'w (“flea's house”).

7. Boston

Meaning “living waters," “Shawmut” was a name given to the peninsula housing present-day Boston by local Algonquins. For a very detailed description of the Boston area's early nomenclature, head here.

8. Malibu, Calif.

Originally, this city was dubbed “Maliwu," meaning “it makes a loud noise all the time over there” (a reference to the nearby ocean).

9. Ann Arbor, Mich.

Famed for housing the University of Michigan, the settlement called “Kaw-goosh-kaw-nick” was rechristened as Ann Arbor in the 1820s, though theories about the latter name's origin vary significantly.

10. Tucson, Ariz.

The growing Arizona city's moniker was initially “Cuk Son," meaning “black base” in the O'odham language.

11. New Orleans

After the arrival of white settlers, natives took to calling the Crescent City (along with several other towns bordering the Mississippi river) “Malbanchia,” which, according to historian William A. Read, means “a place for foreign languages.”

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June 11, 2013 - 1:11pm
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