A check of my phone book reveals four listings under the heading “Wild Onion.” They include a restaurant and a yoga center. And though it’s not in the phone book, there is also a group called the Wild Onion Alliance, whose goal is to promote bioregionalism.
All of these are named in honor of Chicago, which, according to a variety of sources, is named after a wild onion plant that was called chicagoua by the Miami and Illinois Indians, and the Indian town that was named after the plant. For some time there has been general agreement that the specific wild onion involved is Allium cernuum, nodding wild onion, a plant of the prairies with lovely pink flowers. Nodding wild onion does indeed grow in abundance on the few remaining prairies in the Chicago area.
But according to an article in a recent issue of the Illinois Historical Journal, the identification of Chicago with the wild onion is false. Not only that, but the city is not even located in the place the Indians called Chicagoua. In fact, the correct plant is Allium tricoccum, which is usually called wild leek in these parts, but is also called wild garlic or, in the southern Appalachians, ramp. And the place called Chicagoua was not on the lake plain but along the Des Plaines River, probably somewhere around present-day Palos Hills.
The discoverer of the true chicagoua is John F. Swenson. He describes himself as a “lawyer by profession and a historian by choice,” and he has unmasked two completely separate cover-ups of the truth about the name of our fair city.
Chicagoua first entered history in the late 17th century, when French missionaries and explorers entered this region. Maps dating from the 1680s show a place at the southwestern tip of Lac des Illinois (Lake Michigan) that is designated by such a name. Swenson’s major source is a manuscript written by a man called Henri Joutel, a retired French soldier who accompanied La Salle on his final expedition to the North American interior. After La Salle was murdered by one of his own men in Texas, Joutel– along with La Salle’s brother and nephew and three other men–fled north, hoping to reach Quebec. They arrived at Chicago in September 1687, but decided to return to Fort Saint Louis–at present-day Starved Rock on the Illinois River–to spend the winter.
In late March or early April 1688 they returned to Chicago, and while waiting for favorable canoeing weather on Lake Michigan they explored the region. Joutel wrote of “Chicagou” that it “has taken this name because of the quantity of garlic which grows in the forests in this region.” That spring they gathered the edible bulbs of this wild garlic in a maple forest and tapped the trees for sap to make syrup.
The habitat points plainly to tricoccum as the plant. Nodding wild onion is a prairie species, but tricoccum grows only in woods. There is also the question of taste. Tricoccum, according to everyone who has ever eaten its bulb or its leaves, tastes like garlic and not like onion. Frenchmen traveling in Illinois had sometimes survived on the bulbs of this wild garlic (ail sauvage), and if you can’t trust a Frenchman to be able to tell onion from garlic, who can you trust?
As additional evidence, the nodding wild onion has a small, tough bulb that is not very good eating. The wild leek–or wild garlic or ramp–is an excellent food plant. Its leaves and bulb are edible, and they are both good sources of vitamin C. When techniques of food preservation were poorly developed an early-spring shot of vitamin C was very important. In the Appalachians people still gather ramps in March and April. Several towns now have ramp festivals to attract tourists. According to John Swenson, these festivals are so popular that ramps are being driven to extinction in many areas. Some towns now have to send ramp hunters out as far as 100 miles to gather all the bulbs they need to feed the tourists.
Joutel and several other sources also record Illinois and Miami names for both cernuum and tricoccum, as well as for Allium canadense, the only other wild onion native to this region. Tricoccum is called chicagoua, while the other two have names that are quite different: ouabipena or ouiscapesioua and assorted variants.
The Miami also used the word chicagoua to describe skunks, though the etymological connection here is not the bad smell of skunk but the spray. The word is associated with meanings like weep, rain, spill, splash, and pour rather than with bad smells, but there is no doubt that if you step on a wild leek and crush a leaf, a rather skunklike odor results.
Joutel also wrote a careful account of his wild garlic, describing its leaves as wider and shorter than the leaves of the domestic garlic of Europe. This description fits tricoccum, but it does not fit the slender, grasslike leaves of cernuum.
From Joutel’s description of the area where the chicagoua plants grew, it is obvious that he was in the woods along the Des Plaines River looking across the plain toward the lake. Which means that the Miami village called Chicagoua was not on the lakeshore, but somewhere near the western end of one of the portages that connected Lake Michigan with the Des Plaines River. One of those portages was through the South Branch of the Chicago River and Mud Lake; the other was through the Calumet River and the Sag.
The evidence from the time makes it fairly obvious that Indians did not live on the Chicago lake plain. Marquette spent a winter in a cabin in what is now Bridgeport and reported no Indians there. Of course there probably aren’t any Indians in Bridgeport now, but for somewhat different reasons.
The lake plain would have been a very inhospitable place. It was mostly prairie, and midwestern Indians did not live on prairies. There was no firewood on prairies, the sod was so tough they couldn’t plant their crops, and when the winter wind blew there was nothing to break its force. Add to that the strong tendency for the whole Chicago plain to be underwater every time it rained, and it is easy to see why the Miami stayed inland.
They may have visited the lakefront at certain times of year, but both archaeological evidence and early accounts suggest they spent more time along the Des Plaines and in the marshes around Lake Calumet than they did on the Lake Michigan beaches.
So with all this evidence pointing toward tricoccum as the true chicagoua, how is it that we have all sorts of historical authorities claiming that cernuum is the true plant? The historical problems begin with La Salle. The chevalier was a real promoter. He got financial backing for his expeditions by promising to produce fabulous profits for his investors. In fact, he claimed that they would double their money if they sank cash into his enterprises. The man was a true Chicagoan.
Joutel had put his life savings into La Salle’s projects, and when the chevalier was killed Joutel was left without a sou. He went back to France and managed to find a job with the city of Rouen. His manuscript was “edited” by two men–Pontchartrain and Iberville –who were involved with French colonization of the gulf coast. They cut large sections out of the manuscript–mostly, Swenson thinks, because these sections might have revealed French plans to set themselves up near the lightly defended Spanish silver mines in Mexico. At the time Louis XIV was attempting to place his grandson on the throne of Spain, so it was important to the French that nothing be published that might offend the Spanish. Joutel needed his city job, so he wouldn’t be likely to do anything to upset the authorities; his manuscript was published in a truncated version that left out much of importance. For his research Swenson went back to surviving manuscripts rather than relying on published versions.
The second historical cover-up dates from the last century, when historians such as John F. Steward and J. Seymour Currey decided, against the clear evidence in their source material, to anoint the nodding wild onion as the true Chicago eponym. Their decision was apparently based on their desire to claim that the present location of Chicago was also the original location of Chicagoua. Since nodding wild onion grew in the prairies on the lake plain, it had to be the plant. If it wasn’t, then Palos Hills was really Chicago, and Chicago would become a city with no name. Personally, I’m thinking of opening a restaurant called the Wild Leek.