How did Alpena get its name? Why do we pronounce Presque Isle like ‘Presk-eel’? What’s up with name Mich-E-Ke-Wis, and how did we come up with Ossineke and Negwegon?
You’ve wondered, and we have your answers!
The 3 most influential inhabitants that left northeast Michigan with the names we use today were the Native Americans (Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi), the lumbermen, and the agricultural pioneers. Hundreds of years of multiple languages, translations, and mispronunciations have brought us the names that we know so well today.
Also spelled throughout history as Anomickee or Animickee, An-a-ma-kee means “Thunder”. Alpena County was originally called An-a-ma-kee, named in honor of the Chippewa Chief Anamakee, of the Thunder Bay band. Chief Anamakee signed a treaty negotiated by Henry Schoolcraft in 1826. Today Alpena High School still honors this part of Alpena’s heritage with their annual yearbook, the “Anamakee”.
The Anamakee village was renamed Alpena by Henry Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft combined syllables from different languages to form the name Alpena. ‘Al’, a Native American syllable meaning “the”, and ‘pena’, believed to have been taken from the Arabic word ‘pinai’ meaning “partridge”, the old French word ‘peanaisse’, which means “bird”, or the Latin word ‘penna’ which translates to “feather”. Other sources state the word ‘aw-pena’ means partridge in the Chippewa language. So basically, Alpena can be translated as ‘The Partridge’, ‘The Bird”, and ‘The Feather’, and we think that is beautiful!
Many visitors to the area are guilty of mispronouncing northeast lower Michigan’s Presque Isle. If you pronounce it Presk-Isle or Presk eel-isle…you are doing it wrong! Presque Isle is derived from the French word ‘presquile’, meaning “almost island”, and we continue to pronounce it as our French ancestors did. If you want to sound like a local, the correct way to say the name of our beautiful community is ‘Presk-eel’.
Locals pronounce this village just south of Alpena 2 different ways, the “correct” way depends on who you are talking to! Whether you say ‘aws-neak’ or ‘aws-in-eek”, we will know what you are referring to. The name is actually derived from the Chippewa name- Shin-ga-ba-wa-sin-eke-go-ba-wat…meaning “Place of the Image Stones”, or more literally, “Divine Chief Puts Down More Than One Image Stone”. It was later shortened to Wasineke, and eventually over time came to be what we now call Ossineke. The Image Stones that the village was named after were reportedly moved in the 1840’s by a fishing party for anchors and have since been lost forever in Lake Huron. (Haltiner, p. 82)
This park located in the heart of Ossineke is named after the Chippewa Chief, Shin-ga-ba, who was the leader of a village located on Devils River in Ossineke. It is said that Chief Shin-ga-ba was one of the most influential Chippewa chiefs of his time. He was a praised war chief who was tall with deep-set eyes, and he was admired by both the Native Americans and the white settlers. In fact, Chief Shin-ga-ba’s granddaughter married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, noted Michigan explorer and the man who gave Alpena its name.
Mich-E-Ke-Wis park is home to summer volleyball tournaments, Pure Michigan sunrises, and shipwreck adventures. Many visitors to the area wonder how this park was so uniquely named. Chief Mich-E-Ke-Wis was the last Native American chief in the Alpena area, living to be nearly 110 years old when he died in 1857! His name means “Spirit of the Western Wind” and we believed it was only appropriate to name our beautiful park after the respected and peaceful Chief Mich-E-Ke-Wis.
Alcona is another area of Northeast Michigan named by Henry Schoolcraft. Just like Alpena, he combined several different language syllables together to form Alcona. By combining Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Native American syllables, Alcona translates to “The Fine/Excellent Plain” or “The Woodland Opening”. However, other sources we’ve found state that ‘Alcona’ is the Chippewa word for “The Favored Land”.
This gorgeous state park that lies on the coast of Lake Huron just south of Ossineke also doubles as a Designated Dark Sky Preserve. A designation only fit to areas that meet the low-level light pollution standards by the state of Michigan. Formerly called Alpena State Park, the name was later changed to Negwegon in 1970 after local author and historian Gerald Haltiner proposed a name change. Haltiner believed the patriotic and brave Chief Neg-wa-gon, who lived on the land and befriended the new white settlers, deserved to be honored by the park. In fact, Chief Neg-wa-gon was so true to his American flag, that twice he stood up to British soldiers when they asked him to take down his flag. He responded, “Negwagon is the friend of the Americans, he has but one heart, and one flag, if you take either, you shall take both.” (Haltiner, p. 86) *side note: spelling of our park is “Negwegon”, and spelling of the Chief is “Negwagon”.
The section of US 23 that lies between Alpena and Ossineke can be either a beautiful or a treacherous stretch of road, depending on the season. It offers scenic views of Lake Huron in the warm months and slippery conditions in the icy winter months. There are 2 different background stories to Squaw Bay’s name- one by the Natives and one by the white settlers in the area. The Native American account of Squaw Bay comes from a lovely Indian Maiden named Birdsong. Unfortunately, Birdsong lost the love of her life in the unforgiving waters of Lake Huron and for a year she wept and mourned for her Standing Bear. A year from Standing Bear’s disappearance, Birdsong went on her usual mournful walk and never returned. However, her wailing was still heard by tribe members long after her disappearance and thus it was named “Mourning Squaw Bay”.
The story told by early settlers goes like this- One winter in the mid-1800s, a fisherman was crossing the bay when he happened across a Native American maiden fishing on the ice. Frightened by the white man, she ran off across the bay back to the camp on Partridge Point, and so he named the bay “Squaw Bay”. The woman was supposedly recognized as the daughter of Chief Mich-E-Ke-Wis. There is also another story about a lumberman who saw a Native American woman gathering wild rice on the bay.
No, this river is not named after the Devil himself, but rather for the conditions it left the mail carriers with. The mail carriers back in the days of the early settlements would go from north to south along the river with dog teams, carrying much-anticipated mail to the settlers in each area. During the spring and fall the shores along the river were difficult to get through due to the swampy conditions, and thus the French mail carriers named this river “Reviere Au Diable”, aka Devils River. The name stuck and we still call it Devils River to this day.
Stay tuned for Pt. 2 of Alpena’s names and history and as always, any contributions are welcome! Please email email@example.com if you have more information and sources on Alpena names and history.
“Stories the Red People Have Told…and…More” by Robert E. Haltiner