Source: NMHS Newsletter, May 2001

How the Wabash River Got Its Name

Written by Michael McCafferty, Indiana University, Bloomington and used by permission of the author. This article first appeared in the Newsletter of the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission - L'Esprit de Ouabache.

"Wabash." the name of Indiana's important and legendary river comes from the Miami-Illinois language. This is an Algonquian tongue spoken in late prehistory and early history in Indiana and Illinois and later in Indiana and Oklahoma. This river's name dates to around 950 AD, the likely arrival date of Algonquian-speaking peoples in the Ohio River and lower Lake Michigan watersheds. The first historical appearance of this place-name is in the writings of the French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de La Salle, who first penned the term in 1681 in the form Ouabanchi. His is a relatively good

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  recording if one ignores the -n- that did not exist in the native term. La Salle never visited the Wabash; he learned of its existence from local Indians. But, after having spent three additional years among Miami-Illinois-speaking Indians along the Kankakee and Illinois rivers, he revised his early spelling to Ouabaché, the form that appeared in 1684 on a map he helped design in Paris with the assistance of the royal mapmaker Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin. Later French writers, who like most Frenchmen in the 18th century, were lackadaisical about using accent marks, simply wrote the hydronym Ouabache, even though they always pronounced the name with a final vowel. Even so, it is precisely because they often failed to write accent marks that we today pronounce the river's name "Wabash" rather than "Wabashee", a spelling and pronunciation that was still common in English in the 1700's. After La Salle's time in the Illinois Country, the Miami-Illinois name that is the origin of "Wabash" showed up in the writings of late 17th and early 18th century Jesuit missionaries to the Illinois Indians. Later, it appeared in the recordings done by late 19th century linguists of Miami-Illinois language. 

In Miami-Illinois, the form of this place-name is waapaahshiiki siipiiwi. Siipiiwi is the word for 'river'. Waapaahshiiki is a verb meaning 'it shines white'. The components of this term are waap-'white, -aahshii- 'shine' and -ki, the third-person inanimate intransitive conjunct verbal suffix whose closest equivalent in English is "it". Verb-based place-names are very common in the Algonquian languages. This hydronym, which best translates to English "White Shining River", refers to the originally bright white limestone bed of the upper river between Huntington and Carroll counties. What is particularly curious about this river's Miami-Illinois name is that it referred to a water course much greater in length than today's Wabash River. In the minds of the Miami-Illinois-speaking people and from the French point of view right up to the time that the French lost control of North America to the Britons in the 1760s, waapaahshiiki siipiiwi, Ouabaché, bracketed a waterway that combined our modern Wabash River and the lower Ohio River right on down to the Mississippi. From their point of view, the Ohio River ended at the confluence of today's Wabash and Ohio rivers. 

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