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Lakes Menona and Mendota

"Madison, the Capital of Wisconsin" Map (1856)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-37373

Original Names of the Four Lake Country

Next February will mark the sesquicentennial of the naming of Madison’s lakes.

This area was first referred to as the Four Lakes in a manuscript in 1817 and in print in 1829. In 1833 a team of surveyors led by Orson Lyon moved through what is now Dane County, from south to north, naming the lakes First through Fourth as they encountered them. Their map showed what is now Lake Wingra as a mere pond, and left it unnamed. Because settlers believed it had no outlet, it was commonly called Dead Lake as early as 1840.

In 1849 Simeon Mills, one of Madison’s first settlers, employed Frank Hudson of Philadelphia to plat the University Addition. Hudson, familiar with Indian legends, suggested the names Monona and Mendota be applied to Third and Fourth lakes respectively. Mendota, a Dakota name, means “confluence of rivers.” Monona, a Sauk-Fox name, was translated as “fairy.” A few years later, in 1854, Governor Leonard Farwell, a relentless promoter of Madison, decided all of the lakes should have Indian names. Lyman Draper, the first secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, found two Ojibwa names for First and Second lakes – Kegonsa (“little fish”) and Waubesa (“swan”). The legislature made these names, as well as Wingra, a Ho Chunk name meaning “duck,” official on February 14, 1855.

A year earlier Horace Greeley had created a map of the Four Lakes for Farwell to use in his promotions, showing these names in print for the first time (although Greeley spelled Monona “Menona”). Other features familiar today were also named, including Picnic Point, which to that time had been called Gooseberry Point, and the Yahara River, an Ojibwa word for “catfish,” also chosen by Farwell. Other place names included Peena “good water” Creek, today Pheasant Branch; Tarporah “breast bone” Creek, today Nine Springs Creek; Neosho “containing water” Creek, today Six Mile Creek; and Wyseorah Creek, today Starkweather Creek.

But what were the original Ho Chunk names when settlers arrived in this area?

The Ho Chunk name for the Four Lakes was Taychoperah, a name first recorded in print by George Featherstonhaugh after his visit to the site of Madison in 1837. Lake Mendota was originally Wonkshekhomikla, “Where the Man Lies.” Lake Monona was Tcheehobekeelakaytela, or “Teepee Lake.” Lake Waubesa was Sahoochatela, or “Rushes Lake,” and Lake Kegonsa was Nasakoochatela, or “Hard Maple Grove Lake.” Lake Wingra was known as Kichunkochheperrah, “Where the Turtle Comes Up.”

Maple Bluff received its name in 1880. Prior to that, beginning in 1842, it was McBride’s Point, for James McBride who bought it that year. The original Ho Chunk name was Neosho, “Containing Water.”

Eagle Heights, first named on a map in 1890, was Shohetaka, “Place of the Spirit Horse.” The isthmus was De Jope, the Tenney Park area was Cheenunk, and Wingra (or Murphy’s) Creek was Penora, “The Good Body.”

The Yahara River, also known as the Catfish or River of the Four Lakes, originally had two names. The upper river was the Gooskawean, and the lower was the Gooskahawean.

Mark Gajewski