When you hear of Kalamazoo for the first time, often the first thing you wonder after hearing it’s a real place, is “what does it mean?” Most locals would be hard-pressed to answer this question, so we’re here to tell you the meaning of Kalamazoo!
When the plat of the future city was first recorded in 1831, it wasn’t actually known as Kalamazoo. It was originally called Bronson, after Titus Bronson, the first white settler within the present city limits. However, his eccentric nature and loud condemnation of alcohol, tobacco, dancing, and card playing earned him few friends. In fact, once he was convicted of stealing a cherry tree from a fellow citizen, his enemies successfully changed the name of the growing town to Kalamazoo in 1836 and then ran him out of town.
So, how did the opposition come up with “Kalamazoo”? Although it’s most likely a mangled version of a Native American word, no one knows the real etymology or where it came from. It’s up to you to decide which of the following theories you think is true.
Possibilities & Legends
- This word first appears on an atlas from 1823 naming the river that flows through the city (identified as “Marame” on maps before this).
- It could mean “boiling water” or “place where water boils” in Potawatomi. This interpretation comes from the legend of a Potawatomi named Fleet Foot. To win his bride, he successfully ran from his village to a spot on the Kalamazoo river and back before a pot of water boiled away.
- However, it may mean “reflecting water” in Potawatomi, and instead allude to the river’s clear waters.
- Meaning “smoked” in Ojibwa and Odawa. For this possibility, the explanation given is that the dark waters of the river have a smoky appearance.
- Meaning “otter tail” or “stones like otters” in Potawatomi.
- Meaning “it goes fast” in Ojibwe, apparently referring to the speed of the river.
- Meaning “it smokes, or he is troubled with smoke” in Ojibwe. This might come from the legend of Native American who was almost consumed from a forest first.
- Meaning “he is inconvenienced by smoke in his lodge” in an older form of Ojibwe. If you say this word five times fast, you might end up with Kalamazoo.
- Distortions of nearby names
- Kalimink, the name of a small creek near Lansing.
- Killomick, an early variation of the Calumet River, meaning “deep, still water”.
What It Means Today
Regardless of its first meaning, what Kalamazoo means today is a family-friendly city with a vibrant downtown, full of culture like the Air Zoo, Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and Kalamazoo Nature Center. Plus, with over 450 restaurants and 12 breweries, the foodie scene is certainly thriving.
The Kalamazoo river also provides plenty of chances to challenge its legends, with outdoor recreation such as trails along the river, kayaking, and fishing. And, if you come visit us, be sure to check out the Top 10 Things to Discover in Kalamazoo and pick up a “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo” t-shirt!
While we may never know the original meaning of Kalamazoo, the city has now come to mean the perfect place to plan a getaway!
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Health notes: The safety and health of visitors and residents of Kalamazoo County is a top priority of Discover Kalamazoo and our partners. For the Kalamazoo River, we recommend “catch and release” for visiting anglers. By using the Eat Safe Fish Guide, Michigan fish consumers can be confident they are making informed health choices about eating the fish they catch from a local lake or river. For more information on where to find, prepare, eat or buy safe fish, visit Michigan.gov/EatSafeFish or call MDHHS Division of Environmental Health Hotline at 800-648-6942. More references can be found here. Paddlers and others accessing the Kalamazoo River may reference health information here. Swimming in the Kalamazoo River is at your own risk. Find a list of the best lakes in Kalamazoo County here.
Sources: Rzepczynski, Kris, and Kalamazoo Public Library Staff. “How Kalamazoo Got Its Name.” How Kalamazoo Got Its Name - Kalamazoo Public Library, 1998, www.kpl.gov/local-history/general/kalamazoo-name.aspx. “The History of Kalamazoo MI.” The History of Kalamazoo MI, www.kalamazoomi.com/hisf.htm. Rzepczynski, Kris, and Kalamazoo Public Library Staff. “Titus Bronson: Founder of Kalamazoo.” Titus Bronson: Founder of Kalamazoo - Kalamazoo Public Library, 1998, http://www.kpl.gov/local-history/biographies/titus-bronson.aspx. Romig, Walter (1986). Michigan Place Names. Vogel, Virgel (1986). Indian Names in Michigan.