How did Chicago get its name?

By Product Expert | Posted in Community, FAQs on Saturday, August 29th, 2020 at 12:29 am
Explorers discover some very stinky onions by a river, the smell symbolized by a large floating nose

Nowadays, the name Chicago is so engrained in our brains that it’s hard to imagine the city being called anything else. But that name did not simply befall this region with the creation of the world. Where did the name “Chicago” come from?

Chicago Name Origins and History

Though there is some dispute on the origin of the name, the most common theory is that it comes from a French translation of the Miami-Illinois word “shikaakwa,” which means “stinky onion.” The region was called this because of the proliferation of wild leeks that grew on the banks of what is now the Chicago river. To botanists, the plant is known as allium tricoccum.


Need to navigate the modern-day stinky onion? We recommend using a car.


A magnifying glass focuses on an old journal, excerpting the cursive words, "The onions... have a peculiar smell."

One source for this etymology is the journal entry of a man named Henri Joutel dated to 1688. Joutel referred to the plant as wild garlic called “chicagoua,” and attributed the region’s name to the fact that it grew abundantly in the area.

Another theory is that the region was named after a Native American chieftain called Chicagou. Chicagou was chief of the Michigamea tribe and may have lived in the region. It’s also been noted that, in the 1680s, the Illinois River was called the Chicago River.

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When was Chicago named?

Though Miami, Sauk, Fox and Potawatomi tribes all lived in the area that is now Chicago over the years, recorded history begins with the arrival of French explorers, missionaries and fur traders in the late 17th century. The first known reference to the site was by Robert de LaSalle, who called it “Chicagou” in a 1679 memoir.

Since that time, Chicago has changed quite a bit.

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