Monday, May 05, 2003

Chicago, Assenisipia, blog.

A pretty big storm blew across DuPage County last night, but nothing like the winds that hit Missouri and Tennessee. It’s spring all right, tornado season, that is.

A few more words on “Sinnissippi.” Yesterday I wrote about that intriguing place-name, which sticks like doughnut glaze to the Rock River as an alternate name, and has some currency in parts of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin along that river, including as the name of a 2,855-acre lake in Dodge County, Wis., a county better known as the home of the Horicon Marsh. Being an Indian name, Sinnissippi is of course older than the Anglo culture that supplanted the Natives, and so has a number of written variations, depending on which Voyageur or missionary or unusually literate backwoodsman wrote it down.

Some years ago, I read a curious little document by Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a report to Congress — the Congress under the Articles of Confederation — about how to create states from the Northwest Territory and what to call them.

Jefferson suggested 10 states for the area that now contains six (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin). It was an exercise in hyper-rationality and hyperliteracy, though if his suggestions had been used, they would be normal and even venerated names — such is the power of custom.

Hyper-rational because, instead of paying attention to natural features, Jefferson cut the district into rectangles measuring two degrees of latitude north-to-south and roughly four degrees of longitude east-to-west (“roughly” because the irregular Mississippi River forms the western boundary of the territory). Besides the Mississippi, geographic form did intrude in what we call lower Michigan — even Jefferson wasn’t going to ignore lakes Michigan and Huron in drawing lines — as well as a few other places on his map, but he was doing his best to apply Longitude and Latitude to the new states’ boundaries. It was as if Colorado- and Wyoming-shaped states were to be created in the Midwest.

To be fair, the fact that people could measure the Earth in this way was rightly considered a triumph of empirical observation during the 18th century. The problem of measuring longitude accurately, after all, had only been solved by John Harrison within living memory of when Jefferson was writing.

Hyperliterate because of his proposed names, a mix representing Greek and Latin roots, Indian names, and names to honor George Washington and the Revolution. It’s a great what-if, geographically speaking.

The names are (north to south, east to west): Washington, Cherronesus, Metropotamia, Saratoga, Pelisipia, Sylvania, Michigania, Assenisipia, Illinoia, and Polypotamia. My own favorite is Cherronesus, mythical capital of the Amazons, which Jefferson called what we call lower Michigan (mostly). Of course, he did propose a form of Michigan, but stuck it on Wisconsin — and since it was already the name of the lake, I suppose there was no logical reason not to name lands to the west of it ‘Michigania,’ as opposed to those east of it.

Illinoia is the middle section of modern Illinois. Where I live would have been in Assenisipia, that variant of Sinnissippi. So it might have been Chicago, Assenisipia.


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