Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Place Names of Illinois


Selected abbreviated entries
from ‘Place Names of Illinois’

January 21, 2009


At least 13 meanings have been proposed for the word Chicago, from “something great” to “cracked corn makers.” It was recorded by LaSalle in 1680 as Checagou, and he later applied the name to the Des Plaines River, which was called the Chicago River into the 1790s. The name for our nation’s third largest city actually derives from “sikaakwa,” a Miami-Illinois word for striped skunk. The word was also homophonous with the word for the ramp or wild leek, thus the meaning “onion field.” Carl Sandburg wove both meanings into his poem, “The Windy City”: “Early the red men gave a name to the river / the place of the skunk / the river of the wild onion smell / Shee-caw-go.”


Named by one of its first settlers, James T. Gifford, for the Scots hymn, “Elgin.” Gifford had been a great admirer of the tune.


When the post office was established in 1837, there was a good deal of sentiment for naming the town Waubonsee after the Potawatomi leader whose main village was nearby. But Elias Terry, a cousin of settlers Samuel and Joseph McCarty, proposed Aurora for his former home in Cayuga County, N.Y., itself named from Latin for “morning” or “dawn.” That is coincidentally similar in meaning to Waubonsee, reported to mean daybreak or morning light.

Blue Island

The “island” was actually a swampy ridge of higher ground at the foot of Lake Michigan. The name reportedly was chosen for the blue wildflowers that grew along the ridge and from the purple haze that hung over the area in the early mornings and late evenings.


Several sources of the name have been proposed, including that it was taken from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to complement the nearby community of Romeo (now Romeoville). But the name is indirectly linked to Louis Jolliet, who reportedly camped nearby in 1673. A map attributed to Jolliet identified a ridge along the Des Plaines River as “Mont Joliet.” (The ridge was leveled by quarrying in the 1800s.) Through popular etymology, the spelling became Juliet. By the early 19th century, both spellings “Juliet” and “Joliet” are found, often with the former referring to the general area and the latter to the ridge. The discrepancy was apparently pointed out in 1842 by President Martin Van Buren, prompting a petition to change the name to Joliet.


The Naper brothers, John and Joseph, left Ohio in the summer of 1831 and established a trading post and sawmill at what became known as the Naper Settlement. Joseph Naper formally laid out the community of Naperville in 1842.


The name is most likely an adaptation of Algonquian “makina” for turtle. It is the only town named Mokena in the United States.

Cherry Valley

The Winnebago County village was named for Cherry Valley, N.Y. For unknown reasons, the community in its early years had been known as Grabtown or Graball.


Founded on Bangs Lake in the 1840s by Justus Bangs. Wauconda was the name of an Indian character in a popular novel of the day.


Named for Mount Zion, a hill in the eastern part of Jerusalem, by John Alexander Dowie in 1901. Dowie was a Scottish fundamentalist preacher and faith healer, and Zion was founded as a community where church law prevailed. There were to be “no breweries or saloons, gambling halls, houses of ill fame, hog raising, tobacco shops, hospitals (or) theaters.” Original street names maintained the biblical theme and included Lebanon Avenue, Shiloh Boulevard and Horeb Avenue.

Vinegar Hill Township

Created as Mann Township in 1852. The name was changed five years later for Vinegar Hill, County Wexford, in southeast Ireland. Local stories claim that a group of miners “while in a state of spiritual hallucination” christened an Indian mound by pouring whiskey over it and declaring, “Henceforth and forever, this place shall be called Vinegar Hill.”


Established as the temporary seat of Sangamon County in 1821 on land along Spring Creek, hence the name. The community was formally laid out as Calhoun two years later, but the name reverted to Springfield in 1825 when it became the permanent county seat. Because there were many U.S. towns that already went by Springfield, there was a good deal of sentiment to change the name – proposals included Sangamo, Illini and Illinopolis. Indeed, Springfield is a popular place name in the United States; 32 states have at least one Springfield, and many have several. Virginia alone has 11.