What are the Origins of Leelanau’s Name?

“What are the origins of Leelanau’s Name?” A question we are commonly asked at the Leelanau Historical Society, along with “How do you pronounce it?”

Here is what we can tell you: The name Leelanau, (pronounced “LEE-lah-naw.”) was submitted to the state legislator in 1840 by Henry R. Schoolcraft. It was not until 1863, that Leelanau County and its islands were divided from the “super county” that was comprised of Charlevoix, Grand Traverse, and Benzie counties, to the present day Leelanau County boundaries.

As to the origins of the name itself, that answer is not as straight forward. Over the years there have been many theories, and legends surrounding Leelanau’s name. Some have speculated that it was of French or Ojibwe origins, or even a combination of them both. Some say it translates to English as “Land of Delight”. That phrase, the Leelanau Historical Society has come to understand was coined for marketing purposes to attract summer visitors in the early 1900’s. To learn more about the origins of Leelanau’s name we reached out to historian and folklorist, Eliot Singer who’s research paper “Musings on Leelanau County’s Name” provides a thorough answer.

One explanation for the name, “delight of life,” is purely fanciful. Moreover, there is no “L” sound in Ojibwa. The closest approach to the name Leelanau in any Algonquian language appears to be the Montagnais word “laleu, “Seashore.” – Eliot Singer, Musings on Leelanau County’s Name

This fascinating fact is only a small part of the full explanation of “Leelanau’s” origins. Eliot’s paper is a scholarly work and at eight pages long is not a quick read. The Leelanau Historical Society asked if he might summarize his findings for our newsletter. Eliot’s summary first appeared in the 2021 LeeMuse publication, the annual magazine produced by the Leelanau Historical Society for its membership. Before we dive into Eliot’s research, let us introduce the main characters…

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Courtesy of U-M Library Digital Collection. Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Bamewawqgezhikaquay
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (her English name) or Bamewawqgezhikaquay (her Ojibwe name), Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the sky, was born in 1800 in Sault Ste. Marie in what is now the state of Michigan. By the time she died in 1842, she had produced a large body of literary and other writings. Jane Johnson Schoolcraft was the first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known Indian poet, and the first known poet to write pomes in a Native American language, and the first known American Indian to write out traditional Indian stories (as opposed to transcribing and translating from someone else’s oral delivery, which she did also.)
-Sourced from thesoundthestarsmake.com (Learn more about her here.)

Henry R. Schoolcraft – Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) was an American geographer, geologist and ethnologist notes for his early studies of native American cultures, as well as for his 1832 expedition to the source of the Mississippi River. As the U.S. Indian agent for a period beginning in 1822, he negotiated a treaty with northern Michigan tribes, who gave up millions of acres of land in the deal. He published a number of volumes of Native American legends and history, including Algic Researches, Chippewa legends from the south shore of Lake Superior. Much of which his wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft told him or translated for him from her culture. In 1846 he was commissioned by Congress for a major study, known as Indian Tribes of the United States, which was published in six volumes from 1851 to 1857. Schoolcraft’s legacy lives on in many ways, notably in the ten Michigan counties for which he is credited with naming.

Was Leelanau County Named for Jane (“Leelinau”) Schoolcraft?
Researched and written by Eliot A. Singer

Leelinau appeared first as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s pen-name for retelling traditional stories in the 1826-27 Literary Voyager, a self-published magazine, edited by her husband, at Sault Ste. Marie.

Leelinau is not a Native American word. Its basis is guesswork. Possibly the L-sounds represented her father’s Scots-Irish heritage and favorite books, such as Lady of the Lake and Bride of Lammermoor, or were appropriated from Heine’s 1824 romantic poem, Lorelei. The common Ojibwe-Language “-naw” ending might have been intended as a link to her mother’s (Ozhaawashkodewekwe, Green-Meadow-Woman) heritage.

In 1829, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft proposed to the Michigan territorial legislature that place names be taken “from aboriginal names, so far as they are suitable, or can be anglicized.” Leelinau was not on that long list. However, under a new spelling, Leelanau was among the Schoolcraft-suggested county names adopted by the state legislature in 1840, about the same time a romantic lovers-leap “legend,” Leelinau, or the Lost Daughter, was published in his Algic Researches, considered the least authentic story in that collection.

Jane Schoolcraft continued to identify with Leelinau. “Late in life [Jane] used the name to sign letters and notes to Henry.” By this time, she had been removed to Mackinac (in 1833) and is believed to have been lonely, depressed, often ill or in seclusion, and dependent on laudanum.

Henry’s treatment of his wife is generally depicted as unsympathetic, but if the Leelinau “legend” is an allegory about her as a “lost daughter,” separated from her beloved natal family, seeking solace in a sylvan (laudanum) dreamscape, it is surprisingly empathetic and insightful.

Interpreting Leelanau as a tribute to Jane, would make it the only county named for a Michigan woman: a tragic, poetic, bilingual woman, of Anishinaabe and British-loyalist fur-trader ancestry, representative of the diverse complexity of the state’s history.

[Read the full version of Eliot’s research: Musings on Leelanau County’s Name, with references, on the Tracking the Sleeping Bear page on his Picaresque Scholar website.]

Eliot Singer is a folklorist now living in Traverse City/Leelanau. For many years he taught in the MSU College of Education where, among other things, he pioneered new approaches to multicultural curriculum, focused on inquiry and authentic materials. He has written extensively on the problem of fakelore in books for children. His recent and ongoing research includes: The Copper Rock of Lake Superior, a piecing together of primary sources related to Lake Superior history up to c. 1850, and translations and studies of traditional narratives from William Jones’ Ojibwa Texts. These and much more (including old course handouts) are available on his (pandemic inspired, non-commercial) website. https://picaresquescholar.wordpress.com/

1884 Map of Leelanau County & Traverse Region, MI. Published by H.R. Page & Co.