How Kalamazoo Got Its Name

You Called It WHAT?

Kalamazoo. The word is smooth, rhythmic, almost musical. So what exactly does it mean? What is the story behind the name? Welcome to one of the most popular yet least understood subjects in this southwest Michigan city. Even with its obvious Indian roots, the exact origins of the word “Kalamazoo” remain shrouded in mystery. The truth will probably never be found. The pioneers bent the syllables of the Indian word to fit the more familiar English sounds, in the process muddling them so much that today's experts can't determine what the word means. Many different translations and interpretations have emerged because of this ambiguity.

Native American Origin

French and English maps in the first decades of the nineteenth century use variations of the name “Marame” to identify the river that flows through the eastern edge of the city. An atlas published in 1823, five years before any white settlement in this area, changes the name to “Kikalemazo,” the first appearance of a word similar to the one that we use today.

The most popular and widely accepted Native American legend that explains the word's origins involves a Potawatomi named Fleet Foot.  To win his bride, he successfully ran from the settlement to a point on the river and back before the water then heating in a pot boiled away. The translations “boiling pot,” “where the water boils in the pot,” “boiling water,” or “place where the water boils” all originate from this legend. Other translations include “mirage” or “reflecting river” and “stones seen in the water from which reflection looks like otters.” One legend, which  tells the story of an Indian who was almost consumed by a forest fire, explains the translation “smothered.” 

Founding Name

When it was first established, the city wasn't called Kalamazoo at all. First arriving here in June 1829, Titus Bronson recorded the original plat for the Village of Bronson at the county Register of Deeds office in March 1831. Bronson's eccentricity and his open denunciation against alcohol, tobacco, dancing, and card playing soon displeased and irritated the other settlers in the community. Despite his status as the founder of the village, his enemies successfully changed the name of the village from Bronson to Kalamazoo in March 1836. Disillusioned, Bronson moved on further west.

The name “Kalamazoo” has a long and conflicting history. Whether it means “boiling pot,” “mirage,” “reflecting river,” or something entirely different, the fact remains that the true meaning may never be found. Perhaps it is better that way, for each individual can decide for himself how Kalamazoo's heritage is best represented.

Sources

Books

Kalamazoo and How It Grew...and Grew....   

  • Dunbar, Willis F.
  • Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 1969.
  • H 977.418 D89.2

History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan  

  • Durant, Samuel W.
  • Philadelphia: Everts and Abbott, 1880.
  • H 977.417 H67u Oversize

Articles

“The meaning of the name Kalamazoo” 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 July 1978, p.6

“This city Kalamazoo because ‘Fleet Foot’ won race back in 1810”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 August 1922, p.10

“Origin of the name Kalamazoo”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 March 1901, p.8

Local History Room Files

Subject File: Kalamazoo (name)