How Did Michigan Cities Get Their Names?
Each city in Michigan has a unique history and tradition. This includes everything from when the city was created to how it was named. See how a number of Michigan cities earned their names below.
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."
2. Saint IgnaceSt. Ignace’s name is derived from the Roman Catholic missionaries who settled the area during the time of the French and British explorers and fur traders. The Jesuit missionaries christened the community in honor of the founder of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius Loyola, and named the city in his honor. Among these Jesuits priests were Fathers Marquette, Charlevoix, and Allouez, whose names may sound of other familiar Michigan cities.
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Munising is a Native American name meaning "Place of the Great Island." In 1820 the Chippewa village was located at the mouth of the Anna River, but they later moved camp to Sand Point. Munising was actually officially founded in 1850, but the first civilization was built in Au Train. The town consisted of thirty homes, one blacksmith shop, the bay furnace, a sawmill and a government lighthouse.
5. ChristmasThe story of Christmas, Michigan’s name is a bit more merry. A Munising man began a roadside factory in 1938 so that he could create holiday gift items. Unfortunately, the factory burned down shortly thereafter, but the name and the factory’s roadside Santa Claus stuck around to this day.
6. MarquetteThe city of Marquette was founded with a different name. It was first called Worcester by a group of miners from a city by that name in Massachusetts. In 1850, the city was renamed to honor French Jesuit missionary Jaques Marquette, who famously explored the region.
7. EscanabaAs is the case with several cities in Michigan, Escanaba’s name comes from Native American language. Escanaba is actually an Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian word meaning “flat rock.” The name stuck when European settlers arrived and began lumber operations there in the 1830s. The community was officially incorporated in 1863, when the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company built the first iron-ore dock on Lake Michigan.
8. MenomineeMenominee gets its name from a regional Native American tribe known as the Menominee, which roughly translates into "Wild Rice." The area was originally the home of the Menominee Indian Tribe. They now have a reservation along the Wolf River in North Central Wisconsin. Menominee gained prominence as a lumber town. In its heyday Menominee produced more lumber than any other city in America.
Surrounded in mystery and legend, Petoskey is said to be named after the son of a French fur trader and Ottawa princess. He was named Petosegay. The translation of the name is "rising sun," "rays of dawn," or "sunbeams of promise" due to the bright light that shone on his face near the Kalamazoo river when he was born. He was a successful merchant and trader, who also married an Ottawa princess. It’s said a small settlement was started on his land just a north of Bear Creek and was named Petoskey (an English translation) after him. Petoskey is known for its bike trails, including Little Traverse Wheelway, a 26-mile stretch that follows the shoreline from Charlevoix north to Harbor Springs.
10. Harbor SpringsIn 1847, L'Arbre Croche had the largest concentration of Native Americans in the states. At that time, Harbor Springs was called L'Arbre Croche, which means Crooked Tree. Later, French traders renamed the area Petit Traverse, or Little Traverse, when they arrived in the area. The village was eventually incorporated as Harbor Springs in 1880.
11. Traverse CityTraverse 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.
12. LudingtonLudington 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.
13. CadillacThe name Cadillac comes from Native American language as “Kautawabet” meaning “Broken Tooth,” after a Potawatamie chief who signed the Great Peace Treaty of 1825. The city was first organized in 1872 and called Clam Lake Village, but a dispute with the village of Sherman ensued over which city would hold the county seat. A group of politicians thought to change the name to Cadillac, after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, an early Michigan explorer and founder of Detroit. Changing the name tricked the legislators, and Cadillac became the “new” county seat.
14. FrankfortIn 1855 a fellow by the name of Frank Martin built a home on the northern shores of the swamp delta of the Betsie River. But then big snowdrifts surrounded the house; so Frank built a wooden stockade around it to keep the snowdrifts away. His neighbors thought it looked like a fort, so when the neighbors referred to Martin’s home they called it “Franks Fort”. As time went on, you guessed it, it was shortened to Frankfort and the town had a name.
15. Reed CityBefore its establishment, Reed City was first known as Tunshla and then Todd’s Slashing. It was plotted in 1870 by Charles Higbe, Ozias Slosson, and Fredrick Todd who re-named the village Reed City, after J.M. Reed. While the land was named after Reed, the streets and avenues were named after the village’s other incorporators.
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16. 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.
17. MuskegonLike many other cities in Michigan, Native American tribes inhabited what's known as Muskegon during historic times. The word "Muskegon" is derived the Ottawa Native American term "Masquigon," meaning "marshy river or swamp." The "Masquigon" river was identifed on French maps dating back to the late 17th century, suggesting that French explorers had reached Michigan's western coast by that time. Today, people enjoy the water and sand dunes in Muskegon every summer.
18. HollandAs you might have guessed, Holland was settled by Dutch immigrants. They were looking to escape social, cultural and economic troubles in Europe in the 1840’s. The settlement established by them was known as the “Holland Kolonie.” It was formally founded in 1847.
19. AlbionThe city of Albion was almost named “Peabodyville,” after Tenney Peabody, the first European-American settler to arrive in the area in 1833. The area remained nameless until 1835, when a man named Jesse Crowell formed a residence and land development company called the Albion Company. Peabody’s wife was then asked to name the settlement and while she considered using her husband’s name, she ultimately selected “Albion.” The name was appropriate, since “Albion” is an old and poetic name for England, and many of the early settlers were of English decent.
20. RockfordThe first important settler of what would become the city of Rockford was Smith Lapham. Lapham built his own sawmill on his side of the river, which was completed by 1844. Other settlers soon followed. By the fall of 1845, the settlement had about 5 houses. Since the settlement existed largely on land owned or sold by Smith Lapham, it became known as Laphamville. By 1865 the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Company had begun a railroad extending northward through the village. The railroad had been advising the residents to adopt a shorter name, and when a newly arrived resident from Rockford, Illinois proposed the name of his former town, the new name was narrowly approved. It was replatted under the name Rockford in 1865 and incorporated as the Village of Rockford in June 1866 with 315 inhabitants.
21. SpartaThe Sparta area was first settled in 1844, with the township formally organized in 1846. The first settler in what is now the village was Jonathan Nash in 1846. Calling the place Nashville, he built a sawmill on Lick Creek. Subsequently, he changed the name of the creek to Nash Creek. Seeing as there was already a Nashville in Michigan, the state legislature suggested Sparta. The village was platted in 1867 and incorporated in 1883.
22. Lake OdessaLake Odessa was developed by Humphrey R. Wager in 1887. Before it came to be “Lake Odessa”, the biggest settlement in the area was Bonanza. When the railway system was established farther south, the established Bonanza community moved to be closer to the railroad tracks. Abandoned Bonanza became cornfields and the new settlement near the railroad became Lake Odessa. Lake Odessa’s name was derived from two lakes, Tupper Lake and Jordan Lake, which are located in Odessa Township. In 1846, the Township was named by a committee in honor of one of Russia's cities.
23. Grand Haven
Grand Haven was first named Gabagouache by the Pottawattamie Indians. Once French settlers inhabited the area and made it a fur-outpost, they continued to call the location Gabagouache. In 1835, Gabagouache was renamed Grand Haven due to its close proximity to the mouth of the Grand River and to honor the beautiful setting the river provided. In 1837, the Grand Haven community grew to become a city.
24. CharlotteThe area that would become Charlotte was owned by the U.S. Government until 1832, when George Barnes purchased the land. Barnes in turn sold the land to Edmond B. Bostwick, a land speculator from New York City three years later in 1835. Bostwick then sold a portion of the land to H.I. Lawrence, Townsend Harris and Francis Cochran. These four men can be credited for developing the village which they named after Bostwick's wife, Charlotte. Charlotte was incorporated as a village on October 10, 1863 and as a city on March 29, 1871. It was designated as the county seat when Eaton County was organized in 1837; however, due to a lack of population and buildings, county functions were conducted at Bellevue until 1840.
25. KalamazooKalamazoo, the largest city in Southwest Michigan, was originally known as “Bronson,” after founder Titus Bronson. In the 1830s, the name was changed to the Native American word “Kalamazoo,” but there are several theories to its exact origin. Some say it means “the mirage of reflecting river,” while others say it means bubbling or boiling water. Another legend is that the image of “boiling water” referred to fog on the river as seen from the hills above the current downtown.
26. Battle CreekYou might already be thinking, “Battle Creek must have been the site of some epic battle!” The reality of it though is a bit less epic. In 1825 a group of government surveyors were working near a stream near the present day site of the city when two Pottawatomi Native Americans appeared at their camp asking for food. A discussion turned angry and, during a brief skirmish, one of the surveyors took the Native Americans captive when he produced a rifle. The surveyors reported the skirmish to the Governor and later surveyors at the site recalled it as “Battle Creek.”
27. Benton HarborBenton Harbor was founded on a swampy area bordered by the Paw Paw River, through which a canal was built, creating a harbor. It was originally called Brunson Harbor after Sterne Brunson, one of the city’s founders. However, in 1865 the name was changed to Benton Harbor to honor Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri Senator who helped Michigan achieve statehood. In 1869, Benton Harbor was organized as a village and in 1891 was incorporated as a city.
28. St. JosephIn 1669, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was the first European to settle in what is present day St. Joseph. La Salle and his crew named the river that was located in the area "River Miami" and built a fort, Fort Miami, on its shores. In 1679 the fort was destroyed, and it wasn’t until 1780 that the area became established again. In 1829, Calvin Britain created a plat map for the settlement, which was then called Newburyport, and the village thrived. In 1834, the village was renamed St. Joseph after the river, which had been renamed prior.
29. AlpenaAlpena County was first named “An-a-ma-kee,” or “Thunder,” in honor of an old Chippewa chief of the Thunder Bay band who had signed a treaty negotiated with Henry Schoolcraft in 1826. After studying the Indian legends around the word “An-a-ma-kee” (or Animikee), Henry Schoolcraft concluded that the name was not completely appropriate. Then he manufactured the name Alpena from “Al,” an Indian syllable meaning the, and either “pinai,” an Arabic word meaning “partridge,” or “peanaisse,” an old French word meaning “bird.”
30. GaylordGaylord’s namesake comes from Augustine Smith Gaylord. It was established in 1872 and named Barnes, but it was changed a year later to honor Gaylord, who was an attorney for the Jackson, Lansing, Saginaw railroad. Still, if you were to ask someone why the name was changed just a year later to Gaylord, no one could tell you as the reason for doing so has been lost!
31. OmerThe city was originally called “Homer” by its founders by George Gorie and George Carscallen, who set up a sawmill along the Rifle River in the mid-1860s. The town was first named Rifle River Mills, but Carscallen wanted to rename the town as Homer. However, he found a post office in another town with that name, so he simply dropped the leading H, producing the final name. Omer was incorporated as a city following the lumber boom of 1903.
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32. Bad AxeWhile surveying Huron County in 1861, Rudolph Papst and George Willis Pack made camp and found a badly damaged axe at the site. The camp became known as Bad Axe Camp after a sign Papst placed at the camp and near a trail. When he returned from the Civil War in 1870, he founded a small city in the place of the camp. It was called Bad Axe.
33. PigeonStarted as a railroad town in 1883, Pigeon was originally called Berne Junction. However, the new community began calling it Pigeon due to the nearby Pigeon River. The river was named for the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that lived near the river. It’s said the flocks were so thick that, when flying, they blacked out the sky. Despite this though, the passenger pigeon was named extinct by 1914.
Frankenmuth, often referred to as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” was settled and named in 1845 by immigrants from Franconia (now part of Bavaria) in Germany. The German word “franken” represents the Province of Franconia in the Kingdom of Bavaria, and the German word “mut” means courage, which makes the city name of Frankenmuth stand for “courage of the Franconians.” Families flock to Frankenmuth to enjoy Christmas celebrations yearlong, at Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, in addition to a number of other activities.
35. FlintFlint’s recorded history also dates back to 1819 when a trading post opened. It was originally called “Grand Traverse,” however over the course of 17 years it had other names as well like “Todd’s Crossing”, “Sidney” and “Flint River” after the local Indian name “Pawanunking,” which referred to the nearby river’s rocky bed. It was later shortened to Flint in 1836 before being incorporated as a city in 1855.
36. FlushingThe original Flushing was located in the borough of Queens, New York, and named after the city of Vlissingen, Holland – also known as Flushing, Netherlands. Flushing sprang up in Michigan as a railroad town long ago and Charles Seymour, formerly of the city in New York, is credited with naming the Michigan community in the 1830s.
37. SaginawThe Sauk Indians originally lived in the Saginaw area before being driven out by the Ojibwe, or Chippewa Indians. The name, however, stuck. Saginaw is believed to mean “where the Sauk were.” The first permanent settlement by those other than the Native Americans began in 1815 on the banks of the Saginaw River.
38. Bay CityBay City was first known as the village of Lower Saginaw in 1838. Its name was changed to Bay City when Bay County was organized in 1857. By 1860, Lower Saginaw was becoming a bustling community of about 2,000 with several mills, and many small businesses in operation. In 1865, the village of Bay City was incorporated as a city. It was a time of rapid growth with lumbering and shipbuilding, creating many jobs.
39. JacksonOn July 3, 1829, Horace Blackman, accompanied by Alexander Laverty, a land surveyor, and an Indian guide passed through what is today known as Jackson. Blackman returned in August with his brother Russell, and claimed 160 acres of land in the area. In 1830, the area settlement agreed on the name of 'Jacksonburgh' in honor or President Andrew Jackson, and in 1838 the name was changed to Jackson.
40. LansingHow the name of Michigan’s capital city came to be is a fun story. In the 1830s, two brothers from New York tried to scam their fellow statesman by going to Lansing, New York, and trying to sell plots of land in an area of Michigan that was underwater most of the year. When men who bought plots of land realized they had been scammed, they settled in the area that is now metropolitan Lansing and renamed the area “Lansing Township” as an homage to their home village in New York. In 1847, the state constitution required that the capital of Michigan be moved out of Detroit. Lansing Township was chosen out of frustration with the process. In 1848, the area was eventually given the name of Lansing. Every November, check out the Lansing Film Festival, which features foreign films, documentaries and student productions from around the world.
41. DetroitLet’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 in October at Eastern Market, which will feature more than 40 Michigan craft breweries offering more than 200 different beers for sampling throughout the day.
42. Ann Arbor
There are a couple theories about the origin of Ann Arbor, but the most agreed-upon theory revolves around two men named John Allen and Elisha Ramsey, two pioneers who were part of a group of settlers who set up a community by the Huron River in 1824. Both Rumsey and Allen's wives were named Ann, and the word "arbor" means "a leafy, shady recess formed by tree branches, shrubs, etc.," which perfectly describes the landscape of the area in 1824. Explore this city that does things a little bit differently.
43. Grosse PointeGrosse Pointe, sometimes called “the Pointes,” refers to a comprised area of five individual communities outside of Metro Detroit. The name "Grosse Pointe" derives from the size of the area and its projection into Lake St. Clair.
44. Royal OakThe city of Royal Oak is named after a legendary oak tree. In 1819 Michigan Governor Lewis Cass set out to explore Michigan and prove surveyors’ claims that the area wasn’t completely swampy and uninhabitable. At first, swampy land was all they were finding until the group came across a massive oak tree, much larger than any other in the area. It reminded Gov. Cass about an oak tree King Charles II of England is said to have taken refuge under during an enemy attack in 1660. Recalling that story, Cass and his companions named the tree and the surrounding area “Royal Oak."
45. HellThere are a few theories on the origin of the name for Hell, Michigan. The most popular involves a man in the 1840’s named George Reeves who, when asked by officials what he wanted to name the settlement he helped start, replied, “Call it Hell for I care!” Another story of the town’s name comes from the frontiersmen who traveled the low-lying wetlands at the height of mosquito season. After traveling through such wet and infested terrain they referred to it as “Hell.”
46. LivoniaThe area that is now Livonia was known for its rich soil and abundant harvests, attracting pioneers from New England. It’s believed they named the area after cities of similar names in New York state, Pennsylvania and, possibly, after a region near the Baltic sea comprising present day Estonia and Latvia.
47. TemperanceOriginally named Bedford Center in 1859, “Temperance” was suggested by one of the founding land father’s wives, who was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. A petition was sent around, and the name was changed to Temperance. As you might imagine, the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was prohibited for some time.
48. RochesterThe city of Rochester was settled in 1817 and drew pioneers because of its location between the Clinton River, Paint Creek and Stoney Creek – all of which powered mills to cut timber, grind grain, card wool, and press apples into cider. The city was named for Rochester, New York, as many early settlers to the area were formerly from the state of New York.
49. BirminghamBirmingham was founded in 1818, when four enterprising men purchased land in the area. The founders quickly established a manufacturer based local economy that brought foundries, tanneries, blacksmith shops, broom and brick making factories to the area. The name Birmingham was chosen after Birmingham, England, in hopes that the Michigan city’s manufacturing capabilities would take after England’s biggest industrial center.
50. YpsilantiLike Pigeon, Ypsilanti wasn’t always known by the name is has today. The city was originally a trading post set up in 1809 and called Woodruff’s Grove after Major Thomas Woodruff. The name was later changed to Ypsilanti in 1829 in honor of Demetrius Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti was a hero in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.
51. HamtramckHamtramck’s name has been a subject of confusion for several years, but it was actually named for Colonel John Francis Hamtramck. Col. Hamtramck was a French-Canadian soldier who fought for the Americans during the American War for Independence. He was at the surrender of Detroit from the British in 1796 and shortly afterwards built a home near the present entrance to the Belle Isle Bridge. When Wayne County was organized in the early 1900’s the area was formally named.
52. FentonThere aren’t many cities in Michigan that can claim their names were the result of a night of cards like Fenton can. The city was originally called Dibbleville in honor of Clark Dibble, who first settled the area. However, in 1837 William M. Fenton (a lawyer and land speculator) and Robert LeRoy (a land speculator) played a game of cards in which LeRoy lost, with Fenton getting to change the name. The consolation prize of the game, given to Robert LeRoy, was putting his name to LeRoy Street, the main route through the city. The game didn’t stop at one hand. The men continued on naming other streets, choosing names (like Adelaide and Elizabeth) in turn, according to the fall of the cards.
The first settlers arrived in what is now the City of Pontiac in 1818. Two years later there were enough people there to form a village named after the famous Indian Chief (Chief Pontiac) who had made his headquarters in the area only a few years prior. The village was officially recognized by the state legislature in 1837 and it incorporated as a city in 1861.