Chicago’s Surprising Namesake

This week, we celebrate the 180th anniversary of a “small settlement” called Chicago. On August 12, 1833, the city was founded with the expectation that it would become a transportation hub, thanks to its location along both Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. Though we now associate the city with incredible jazz and astounding cuisine, the origins of Chicago itself are slightly less glamorous.

The word “Chicago” is a French adaptation of the Native American term “shikaakwa,” meaning “stinky onion”—a reference to the wild onions (what we now call ramps) that grew in abundance along the banks of the river. But from Chicago’s humble beginnings as an odorous spring veggie, the city grew to become not only a transportation center, but also the primary cosmopolitan destination of the Midwest.

This 1858 shot shows the Illinois Central Railroad Depot on the banks of the Chicago River, which is now the location of Millennium Park.

River Train Station

Photo: Chicago Historical Society via

For history buffs looking to dive further into city’s backstory, check out these SideTour experiences: Explore Chicago history on a river walk and brunch excursion and find the hidden stories of a famous Chicago neighborhood.


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