Happy birthday to Madison's lakes! This year not only marks the City of Madison's sesquicentennial, our lakes are 150 years old, too.

Well, not the lakes themselves, of course. But in 1856 the names for Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa appeared on maps for the first time.

Not a big deal? Perhaps you'd prefer their previous names. "The old settlers, when talking among themselves, refer to them only as Fourth, Third, Second and First, respectively," noted The Wisconsin State Journal in 1895.

Ah, to enjoy a late-summer sunset on the Memorial Union terrace, overlooking beautiful . . . Fourth Lake. Doesn't quite do it.

Earlier, in 1851, pioneer Augustus Bird tried to apply names by state statute. If he'd had his way, today we would celebrate his friends and fellow pioneers: Lake Doty for Mendota, Lake Catlin for Monona and Lake O'Neal for Waubesa. For Lake Kegonsa, Mr. Bird humbly suggested . . . Lake Bird. The resolution died in the senate.

The story of how a few years later we got our final lake names is confused and confusing. At best, they're sound-alike versions of Native American words that our first residents, the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), probably never used. At worst, they're made-up names invented by whites to sound colorful.

Let's get Lake Wingra out of the way first. It was never officially counted as one of the Madison area's four lakes. For most of its long life it has been what we call wetlands; settlers called it a swamp, and named it Dead Lake. But a trader named Joe Pelkie reported in 1837 that the Ho-Chunk called it "Wingra," which supposedly meant "duck." That definition was doubtful even at the time, but since it was the only name even remotely authentic, map-makers allowed it to stand.

Here we run into the problem of language. The Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe (Chippewa) contacted today excuse themselves from solutions. "Dialect differences can affect pronunciation and spelling," says Nora Livesay, of the Minneapolis-based Ojibwe Language Society. Times change, tribes change, and flexible, phonetic regional languages cannot address puzzles a century and a half old. We have to depend on archives.

Dr. Louise Phelps Kellogg, a research assistant at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, in 1936 stated that phonetic approximations for the true Ho-Chunk names for Mendota and Monona were "Wonk-sheck-ho-mila" and "Tchee-ho-bo-kee-xa-kay-te-la."

"The Indian names for the lakes are long and involved," wrote Charles Brown, museum director of the Historical Society, in 1927. He said that Native American term for the lake we call Monona meant "tepee lake," Waubesa meant "rushes lake" and Kegonsa meant "hard-maple grove lake." Mendota meant "the lake where the Indian lies," after a legend about a man who was transformed into a gigantic catfish.

Or not. The very first settlers, who arrived in Madison in 1837, learned that Native Americans called the lakes by number. But while whites counted them from south to north, in the order they were first surveyed, their Ho-Chunk neighbors allegedly numbered them from top to bottom.

That was perhaps cultural contamination. Pioneer Simeon Mills recalled hearing the Native American number-names when he arrived in 1837. They were "harsh guttural sounds, that I cannot now repeat." But, he said, "it seems to me probable that the Indians learned these numbers or names for the lakes from the surveyors . . . and that this numbering was not, as to be supposed, of Indian origin." The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 1895, when there were still plenty of Ho-Chunk in the area, that "the Indians do not appear to have had separate names for these bodies of water." The Ho-Chunk supposedly had only a collective name for all four lakes: "tay-cho-pe-rah."

"There seems to be a slight difference of opinion on the subject," dryly noted the 1877 "History of Madison and Dane County." The only sure thing is that after settlement, Ho-Chunk and whites called the lakes by number. That continued until the 1880s, when newspapers began the practice of referring to them only by the names we know today.

That process began in 1849, when west-central Madison was surveyed, at Mills' direction, by Frank Hudson. Hudson was a Philadelphia native, and was struck by exotic, frontier Madison. He also apparently was a fan of the book, "Schoolcraft's Indian Tribes." Mills recalled that Hudson "found in some Indian legends the names of Monona and Mendota." For the first time, these non-local names were suggested.

In 1854 it was popular for fledgling communities here in "the west" to promote themselves to eastern developers and settlers with lithographed maps, showing the new settlements in all their supposed splendor. Gov. Leonard Farwell was preparing such a map, and he wanted something better than First through Fourth Lakes. He wanted romantic Native American words, and to find them he tapped Dr. Lyman Draper, secretary of the Historical Society.

Draper believed there were no individual Ho-Chunk names, and so he "examined such Indian vocabularies as he had in his library," according to a note he probably wrote himself for the 1877 "History of Madison."

Draper decided to let Mendota stand. He believed it meant "large" or "great" in Ojibwe. A similar Ho-Chunk word meant "outlet of a lake."

Farwell thought that Monona meant either "fairy" or "beautiful water," though the State Journal in 1895 observed that "the word itself could not be found in any of the Indian dictionaries consulted." No matter. "It was thought to have a pretty sound, and was allowed to remain."

The southernmost lake was known for good fishing, and for that reason Draper opted for "ke-go-e," which he believed was Ojibwe for "fish." "Kengonsa" is a made-up word Draper coined himself.

Waubesa's naming was no less haphazard. Farwell recalled that an early settler killed a large swan there. That act of violence was reason enough for a name. From a book about Native Americans on Mackinac Island, "DePeyster's Miscellanies," Draper found a word for swan: "wau-be-sa." It came from the Ojibwe. Or the Ottawa Tribe. No one knew.

The names were made law by the State of Wisconsin.

"Thus were placed upon this map of the Four Lakes country in 1856, of which not less than 10,000 copies were circulated by the liberal-hearted projector, the names of Ke-gon-sa, or Fish Lake; Wau-be-sa, or Swan Lake; Mo-no-na, or Fairy Lake; and Men-do-ta, or Great Lake," reads the 1877 "History of Madison."

"Let these euphonious and appropriate Indian names be perpetuated forever!"

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