How Did Michigan Cities Get Their Names? Part 1

Photo by Chris Arace

Each city in Michigan has a unique history and tradition. This includes everything from when the city was created to how it was named. With that in mind, we’re creating a new feature on the Pure Michigan Connect blog where we will tell the story of how five Michigan cities earned their names. Check out the first five below and look for more in the coming weeks.


Let’s start with Detroit, the city with the most Michiganders and one of the oldest cities in the Midwest. The city is named after the Detroit River, which links Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The word “detroit” is French for “strait,” and the French called the river “le détroit du Lac Érié,” meaning “the strait of Lake Erie.” On July 24, 1701, a French explorer and nobleman by the name of Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac founded Detroit. Check out the Detroit Fall Beer Festival on October 22 at Eastern Market, which will feature more than 40 Michigan craft breweries offering more than 200 different beers for sampling throughout the day.

Mackinac Island:
Like many historic places in the Great Lakes region, Mackinac Island’s name derives from a Native American language. It’s been said that Native Americans thought the shape of the island resembled a turtle, so they named it “Mitchimakinak” meaning “big turtle.” Then, the French used their own version of the original pronunciation and named it Michilimackinac. However, the English shortened it to the present name: “Mackinac.” You can check out live streaming video of Main Street on Mackinac Island here.

Traverse City:
Traverse City’s name is almost self-explanatory – it is named after the Grand Traverse Bay. Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to spend time here, and it was they who gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse, because of the “long crossing” they had to make by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But even the native Ottawa and Chippewa people didn’t settle here permanently until the early 18th century. Check out the Traverse City page on for a listing of more than 150 boutiques and restaurants.

Ludington wasn’t always knows as Ludington, but was originally named Pere Marquette Village, which was named after French missionary and explorer Father Jacques Marquette. After it was settled in 1847, a number of lumbering camps sprung up in the area, and a lumber baron named James Ludington built and settled into what are now impressive historic homes. Residents later renamed the city after him. It’s a place where simple, timeless joys are Pure Michigan.

Grand Rapids:
Before it was named Grand Rapids, the area was settled by Ottawa Indians near the Grand River Valley. One French trader named Louis Campau established a trading post in the area in 1826 and in 1831, he bought 72 acres of land from the federal government for $90 and named his land “Grand Rapids.” This land is now the entire downtown business district of the city. It’s a place created by and for artists of all types, and you can learn more on the Grand Rapids page on


  • Kay Black

    I’ve always wanted to know how Bad Ax got its name.

  • Erin Hanlon

    Can’t wait to see part 2 of the city names! I gave the quiz to my mother, and she knew them all! She remembered it all from her MI History days in school, and now I too, love learning about and teaching MI History to the kids. Hope this is an ongoing feature. :)

  • Mike

    Bad Axe? My mother showed me a long ago newpaper article which stated that when they were building the hotel, I think, they found an old Indian hatchet with a broken handle, thus the name Bad Axe and the school’s nickname, ‘Hatchets’! To verify, you can check with the Bad Axe paper I believe.

  • Chad Busha

    Great read, looking forward to part 2 :) Would be interest to hear how Grand Blanc was named.

  • Debra

    I would love to know how Ypsilanti got it’s name. I was born there.

  • Amberley

    I have heard many stories of Marine City and how it used to be a huge shipping town, I live there and would love to know the history of how it was named!!

  • Tom Adams

    Names of cities, Part Deaux……

    Cheboygan – Ojibwa for “Chaz Bono finally got her wish”

  • Norman Hayward

    those are all excellent suggestions, but how did climax get its name??? :)

  • Laurie Gibson

    I heard a story about Tekhonsha and how it came to be named after a great Indian Cheif named Tek Hon She. Just wondering about the validity of the story, it came from an old timer in the area. Not to say i doubt it but just wanted some verification.

  • Jim

    Kay, Mike had it partly right. Rather than a hotel, it was a surveyors camp. When setting up the camp, one of thm found an axe, “but it was a bad axe” as the story goes. the camp site was named Bad Axe on the map.

  • LeeAnn

    Cover Alpena has facinating history. My home town

  • Bob

    Debra: Ypsilanti was named after Demetrios Ypsilantis, hero of the Greek War of Independence. You can read about him here:

  • Rachel

    Love seeing my hometown of Ludington on here! A statue in the marina gives great tribute to our lumber history as do historical markers at our great State Park!

  • michael

    Ypsilanti got it name from a Greek war hero. It was changed around the 1880′s Originally it was named Woodruffs Grove, which is a much nicer name and easier to pronounce. The head bust statue in front of water tower is of him and explains more.

  • Angie

    would love to have you cover Petoskey!

  • Mark

    Can’t wait to hear the story behind Climax, MI!

  • Joan Nicholson

    Our town is: Town of two Lakes, Onekama.
    1, as the people call it. One kama
    It is lumber country, our house is where the original channel was broken through by the lumberman from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan. A wall of water 15 ft high, came rushing through from Portage Lake to Lake Michigan

  • Lisa

    I like the story about how Novi got its name.
    It was stop number 6 on the railway (No. VI).

  • Dave

    Alpena was originally named Fremont in 1856, for General Fremont, but the name was taken by another Michigan town. In 1857 the post office was called Alpena (a take off from a Chippewa chief Anamickee). Then the town was remained Thunder Bay in 1859 for a short time, then back to Alpena. Alpena is an indian word for partridge.

  • Dave

    @Mark: sorry to disappoint , Climax was originally named Climax Prairie. In 1838 settlers finally ended their search for a settlement, thus the use of the name climax. The town was renamed to Climax in 1874.

  • Jimmer

    The U.P. has lots of interesting sounding places: Ahmeek, Allouez, Gay, Vulcan, Felch, Ralph, Negaunee, Ishpeming, Blaney Park, Germfask, Seney, etc, etc.

  • Ken

    Debra, Ypsilanti was originally a trading post established in 1809 by Gabriel Godfroy, a French-Canadian fur trader from Montreal, a permanent settlement was established on the east side of the Huron River in 1823 by Major Thomas Woodruff. It was incorporated into the Territory of Michigan as the village Woodruff’s Grove. A separate community a short distance away on the west side of the river was established in 1825 under the name “Ypsilanti”, after Demetrius Ypsilanti, a hero in the Greek War of Independence. Woodruff’s Grove changed its name to Ypsilanti in 1829, and the two communities eventually merged. This info is from Wikipedia!

  • Troy

    My grandma used to tell me the Muskegon got it’s name from and Indian that dropped his musket in the river and said ” muskee gone”. I always thought that was a great story.

  • Patrick McClellan

    More info on Ludington, old Mr Ludington said he would donate $1000 to the city if they named the town after him, they did, and he never did; the bum.

  • Maggie Micoff

    @ Amberley…Marine City used to be called Yankee Point & Belle River for short periods of time but then later it was called Ward’s Landing then became the Village of Newport but the name was never legally registered so later they changed the name to the Village of Marine until it became a city…you can find out more about MC by visiting It has a wealth of history info & much more there…

  • Allen

    Battle creek got its name from a battle that took place over teh creek down town by indians and settlers. they had a battle for the area and the settleres won and named it battle creek fo rthat battle.

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  • Michael Johnson

    Was wondering how towns and cities got their name in southwest Michigan: Bangor, Bridgman, Mew Buffalo, Berrien Springs, South Haven, Covert, Watervliet, etc. Would love to know. I hope this is an ongoing series!

  • Michael Johnson

    New Buffalo … Not Mew Buffalo

  • Scott Rutherford

    Caro, MI got it’s name as a result of a misspelling. Those founding the town wanted to name it after Cairo, Egypt, but didn’t know how to spell Cairo correctly.

  • Tracy Brooks

    UP names… @ Jimmer
    Germfask – the original settler families (8 of them) took the first initial of each name and then “played Scrabble(tm)” with the letters Germfask was the only name they could come up with. If you go north 7 miles you come to Seney and then go 25 miles through a large dense swamp you come to Grand Marais (french for ‘Large Swamp”)

  • Tracy Brooks

    some of the other UP names are native names carried forward by European settlers: Ontonagon, Negaunee, Ishpeming, Michigamme, Baraga are some I remember from living up there.

    Some from French settlers: L’Anse, Sault Saint Marie, Marquette (for Father Marquette a French priest), Epoufette, Fayette, De Tour Village, Au Train to name a few.

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  • Amy

    “The city is named after the Detroit River, which links Lake Huron and Lake Eric.”

    Who’s Eric?

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  • Gloria Moshier

    I really enjoy the information and history that you are providing with this series. I have long wondered about the sources of the names of many cities and towns here in Michigan. For my part, I hope you continue this series until everyone is happy with what they have learned. Thank you for providing such a great website for all to enjoy. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Manistee. : )))))

  • Gloria Moshier

    Looks like my big smile got split in the middle!
    : ))))))

  • Sharon

    Someone please tell the rest of the world that Kalamazoo exists outside of the big band tune Glenn Miller did. ;)

  • Deborah L Turner

    How did Lansing get its name and when did it become the capital of MI. My family & I are not from MI. We moved here about 23 yrs ago from FL. Both of our children graduated from Holt High school. So they know most of MI history. Lansing is a nice city & we like living here. But it seems to me that Lansing gets forgotten. Detorit is known as the Car Capital, we build cars here in Lansing & we are THE CAPITAL of MI. Movie stars or politicians announce they are coming to MI and they go to Detroit or Grand Rapids. What is the deal? Lansing is a Great City & I think it is time we stand & say Here We Are We are a Great City if you want to know more about MI then come see LANSING.

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  • Linda

    Michael, This site ( is fascinating reading about the history of the name of New Buffalo.

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  • Kelly

     Lake Erie. I’m sure that’s a spell check issue.

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  • J.R.