“Sangamon”: Origin of the name

Sangamon County was named after the Sangamon River, which winds through the county from the east to northwest. For its part, the river apparently got its name from an early French explorer, the Jesuit priest Father Pierre Charlevoix, who traveled down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers in 1720-22.

But what did “Sangamon” (or “Sanguimont,” as Charlevoix spelled it, or even “St. Gamo,” “St. Gamee” or “St. Gamoin,” as variously interpreted by others) mean to Charlevoix?

The  Illinois Secretary of State’s Office endorses a popular, albeit boosterish explanation: “Named after the Sangamon River … which derived its name from the Pottawatomie … word Sain-guee-mon or Sangamon (pronounced sang gä mun) meaning literally ‘where there is plenty to eat’ or what we would call the ‘land of milk and honey.'”

Edgar Lee Masters suggested several alternatives: Charlevoix, Masters wrote,

called the Sangamon the Sa-qui-mont.  The … word was probably ‘Sau-kie-min,’ from “auki,’”earth, and “min,” good. Another derivation is said to be from “Saukie,” the name of  (a Native American) tribe, and “ong” meaning a place; in other words, a river of the Sauks.  Another derivation is “sa-gie,” meaning a lake, and “mong,” meaning a loon. (From sangamonriver.org)

But the meaning that gets the most respect from scholars was researched by Virgil Vogel for his work, “Indian Place Names in Illinois,” published in 1963 by the Illinois State Historical Society. His definition of “Sangamo/Sanguimont” is lamentably prosaic: “River mouth.” Which, of course, makes the name in translation the “River-mouth River” and Sangamon County “Rivermouth County.”

Pronunciation note: Strangers to the area often pronounce the word “San-ga-MON.” Locals prefer a slurred “SANG-uh-min.”

More information

Chris Patton wrote an excellent summary for the May 1982 edition of Historico, the newsletter of the Sangamon County Historical Society; a reprint and further discussion was published in 2003. And historian John Mack Faragher — who likes the derivation “San-gam-ma” — endorses Vogel’s research in “Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie” (pp. 74-5).

Hat tip: For an even deeper dive into the complexities of the origin of “Sangamon,” see the discussion below from commenter “Sam.”

Note: This entry has been edited (2021) to reduce usage of the term “Indian.” See discussion in comments.

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8 Responses to “Sangamon”: Origin of the name

  1. Sam says:

    On the theory that Charlevoix’s informants might plausibly have been speakers of Miami-Illinois, it could be worth looking into the resources that have become available on that language since Vogel’s day. In the prodigious 18th-century Kaskaskia-French dictionary that Carl Masthay edited, the seemingly corresponding term saki8a8iki (roughly sakiwawiki) is defined as “la fourche ou l’embouchure de la riviere”. In David Costa’s The Miami-Illinois Language (2003:223), the corresponding term in modern Miami-Illinois appears as saakiiweeyonki, defined as “confluence; Logansport, Indiana.” It is the locative of the verb “saakiiweeki”, which means “it is a confluence”. Notably, there seems to have been at least one other case (Ouiatanon, from waayaahtanonki) where the French seemingly analyzed away the “-ki” part of the “-onki” locative suffix and took “-on” to be part of the underlying place name. But while that brings “Sanguimont” within the range of plausible European name-mangling, it’s still a long way from that to Sanguimont to Saakiiweeyon[ki]. And it seems odd that an “m” would spring out of nowhere and be consistently attested across multiple sources, while the presumptively original “w” is nowhere in the record.

    On that note … the same page of Masthay has a couple nouns that might make for equally plausible roots here: sakima (“serpent”) and sakime8a (“mosquito”, given by Costas as sakimeewa or sakimia). While I’m a very poor student of the language, something like “sakimonki” as “place of serpents” or “sakimionki” as “place of mosquitoes” would seem plausible and much closer to Charlevoix’s Sanguimont. (And either one would be consistent with the famed abundance of snakes and flying insects in the Sangamon country a century later.) OTOH I’m not sure if that particular “[animal name] + [locative]” structure was a very common way of forming place names; most seem instead to be “[ethnonym] + [locative]” or “[verb] + [locative].”

    With the great work being done on Myaamia language revival these days, there may be more resources that could be brought to bear. Myaamiadictionary dot org seems to have gone offline but might provide further insight if it comes back. (Of course Miami-Illinois is far from the only language that might be relevant here, but it seems like perhaps as good a starting point as any.)

  2. Elexis Bandixen says:

    Please don’t call Native people Indians. It’s offensive and hurtful. I really would like you to change the phrase “Pottawatomie Indian” to “Pottawatomie”. There is no need to put Indian after the name of the people.

    • editor says:

      I agree with you, Mr. Bandixen, and I’ve tried to avoid “Indian” where I can on SangamonLink. This entry, as you can see, is eight years old, before I started paying attention to that particular piece of insulting language (there probably are other older entries where the word still crops up too). But please note that all four uses of “Indian” originally in this entry were in quotations from other sources. I can fudge three of those uses, but I don’t see any way around the title of Virgil Vogel’s study. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the reminder.

    • Michael Bednarek says:

      How does Indian hurt you? I see that it could be useful to denote that the name refers to an indigenous people of the Americas. Often times I read something where the meaning or name of something is used with an expectation of some prior knowledge. Do you think an initial reference to indigenous peoples is best? Do you prefer natives?

  3. Aydin says:

    Charlevoix’s 1721 name for the river is actually Saguimont, without the first -n-. I haven’t been able to find any names for this river attested earlier. Other names for the river [2] include Sangamo, Sagamond, and Sanquemin. The lack of initial -n- gives credence to Sam’s hypothesis that the word comes from either sakima “serpent” or sakime8a “mosquito”. I am not a very knowledgeable student of the Myaamia language, but I have yet to encounter a river name that features a noun in the locative before the word for river. The river names I’ve seen that have animals in the name just have them in the proximate, e.g. kiteepihkwana siipiiwi ‘buffalo-fish river (Tippecanoe River)’, apeehsia siipiiwi ‘fawn river (Little Deer Creek), eehsipana siipiiwi ‘raccoon river (Big Raccoon Creek)’, etc. So if the place-name does indeed refer to the river (abundant in snakes and flyinag insects), I would expect a name like sa(a)ki(i)ma siipiiwi ‘serpent river’ or sakimeewa siipiiwi ‘mosquito river’, both of which leave the final nasal -nt/-nd/-n unexplained. Alternatively, sa(a)ki(i)monki ‘where there are serpents’ or sakimionki / sakimeewonki ‘where there are mosquitoes’ could refer to some point along the river (and sa(a)ki(i)monki is closest to Saguimont), but Charlevoix’s application of the name to the river suggests to me it is more likely that the name was sakimeewa siipiiwi or sa(a)ki(i)ma siipiwi, and referred to the river.

    Any input from a specialist of the Myaamia language on this matter would be very helpful.


    [1] “Big Rivers Area Assessment Vol. 5: Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Big Rivers Area” by John White for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, accessible https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/4822894.pdf

    [2] Geographic Names Information System: https://edits.nationalmap.gov/apps/gaz-domestic/public/search/names/980bde36-ab0c-5640-93cc-cf088704c5df/summary

    • editor says:

      I continue to be impressed by the quality of comments (and underlying knowledge) about the name “Sangamon,” even though each one seems to expand on the possible range of original meaning. Thanks, Aydin.

  4. Sangamon remains unanalyzable. We really need other recordings besides Charlevoix’s (which is found in other primary source documents). Other early (alternative) French spellings or even early English-speaking American spellings of the river’s name might help. Sam’s initial comment is curious as I have only discussed the “snake” analysis with one or two other people, so how did he come up with that? Aydin’s comment is correct about Miami-Illlinois locative nouns. Final question. Who is Sam?

    I lived among the Navajo and “Indian” was perfectly fine. I think the shying away from that admittedly mistaken name is more a dominant culture thing than an Indian thing. At least, that’s been my experience.

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