Names of things have always fascinated me, and I guess they sometimes interest other people as well. I know that when I speak to various groups about local history, one of the most-asked questions is, “How did Oswego get its name?” Although Oswego, Illinois was named after a long-settled city in New York state, its name of Mohawk Tribe origins, many of the names of local geographical features originated right here.
For instance, a good example of a major local feature of interest is the Fox River. The Fox had been tagged with its present name several decades before the ﬁrst American pioneer settlers arrived along its banks. The Fox River, as a matter of fact, was well known to explorers and map makers for well over a century before the first American settlers arrived in the area in the late 1820s.
The very ﬁrst explorers who traveled through Illinois noticed the Fox River. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., led an expedition to discover where the Mississippi River’s mouth was located. The French hoped the Mississippi bore to the southwest and that its mouth was on the Pacific Ocean. By the time Jolliet and Marquette reached the mouth of the Arkansas River they were certain the Mississippi headed due south and that its mouth was probably somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico and definitely not anywhere near the Pacific.
Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, drew a map of the expedition’s journey after he arrived back in Canada following the trip. Although the most familiar edition of this map was probably not drawn by Jolliet, but rather used his information (his name is misspelled on the map), it does show the course the expedition took. It also shows the Fox River, although the stream is unnamed.
Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was an intrepid French explorer and unsuccessful businessman who, using Jolliet and Marquette’s information, attempted to colonize Illinois beginning in 1679. LaSalle made several trips to the area before getting his trading empire started at the fort he built atop Starved Rock. Starved Rock, just as imposing three centuries ago as it is today, was called le Rocher by the French.
Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin, LaSalle’s cartographer, drew a fairly accurate map of the area comprising LaSalle’s proposed colony in 1684. On this map, the Fox River appears, but is referred to as the Riviere Pestekouy. Pestekouy was the French spelling of an Algonquian Indian word for the American bison.
Clearly, the residents of the several Indian villages located on the map along the Pestekouy River must have hunted the herds of the Eastern Bison that roamed the Illinois tallgrass prairies during those years, thus giving the river its name.
Franquelin drew another map of the area in 1688, which while more accurate than his 1684 map, still called the river Pestekouy.
In addition, Marco Coronelli, a Venetian Conventual friar, produced a map in 1688 based on gores he made for a globe in 1687, on which the Fox River is labeled Pesteconti R. It seems pretty clear that Pesteconti is an Italianization of the French Pestekouy, which is not surprising since Coronelli got most of the information for his map and globe from French sources, including Franquelin.
After Franquelin and Coronelli’s maps, cartographers stopped putting a name on the Fox River for several years.
In fact, as early as 1684, Minet, an engineer and cartographer who accompanied LaSalle, published a map with the Fox River drawn in but not named. After Coronelli’s map was published, the name Pestekouy seems to have vanished from maps.
For instance, Louis de La Porte de Louvigny in 1697 and Guillaume Delisle in 1718 both produced fairly accurate maps of the interior of North America, including the Fox River Valley, but did not label the Fox River with any name at all. The reason for this is unknown, but was probably due to the fact that the area had lost whatever economic signiﬁcance it had gained during the LaSalle period due to a combination of factors, including the hostility of the Fox Indian Tribe.
By 1700, the French trading center at le Rocher had been moved south to Fort Pimiteoui on Lake Peoria, and along with it had gone French military power in the upper Illinois and Fox River valleys. The Fox Tribe had prohibited the French from the area south and west of Green Bay, and that included use of the portage from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Lake Michigan at Green Bay and the Wisconsin River that offers a good route to the Mississippi. For more than 30 years, the French and their Indian allies battled the Fox to secure access to the area northwest of Chicago. In 1730, the French and their Native American allies vanquished the Fox for the final time, opening the area to French trade and missionaries.
In 1754, after the French had in essence exterminated the Fox, an interesting map was published in both French and Dutch titled Map of the English and French possessions in the vast land of North America. The map was published in Amsterdam by Cartographer Josua Ottens. Interestingly enough, the Fox River is named R. du Rocher on Ottens’ map, which was quite a change from Riviere Pestekouy. It seems likely the name was derived from the Fox River’s mouth’s proximity to the old French post at le Rocher. It may well be that the French traders in the area had renamed the river after the old fort at le Rocher after the trouble with the Fox Tribe was settled.
It was a few years after Ottens’ map was published that our river officially received its present name. By 1764, the French had been defeated in the final French and Indian War—called the Seven Years War in Europe. British troops slowly moved into the vast area north and west of the Ohio River that had been controlled for so long by the French.
Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled throughout the area between 1764 and 1775 with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.
On this map, published the same year that George Rogers Clark conquered Illinois for the state of Virginia during the Revolution, the Fox River was given its modern name. It is not known why Hutchins recorded the river’s name as the Fox River, but the Fox Tribe’s occupation of the area in the northern reaches of the Fox River Valley probably had a lot to do with the renaming of the stream.
Whatever the reason, the name stuck and was included on the ﬁrst official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish and published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.