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Native American Place Names - February 15, 2019

This lonesome tree is located in the Flint Hills, west of Alma, Kansas. (Photo by J. Schafer)

Q: A number of Kansas counties are named after Native American tribes, including Cherokee, Cheyenne, Comanche and Shawnee. But only one Kansas county is named after an American Indian tribal leader. What's the name of the only Kansas county named after an American Indian leader?

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A: Wabaunsee County (named for the Potawatomi Indian leader Wabansi)

Many Kansas counties, rivers, streams, towns and townships -- and even the state itself -- have been named for American Indian people, their tribes, or words from their languages. But only one Kansas county is named after an American Indian tribal leader. According to the Kansas Historical Society, Wabaunsee County is named for the Potawatomi Indian leader Wabansi, whose name means "Dawn of Day." The Kansas Historical Society writes, "The Potawatomi peoples first started coming to Kansas in the 1830s, settling in present-day Linn and Miami counties. In 1848 they moved to new lands west of present-day Topeka. Part of that land is now known as Wabaunsee County, named for the Potawatomi leader Wabansi, whose name means "Dawn of Day."

Wabansi was a respected leader among the Potawatomi for whom a village in Iowa was named. Wabansi earned his name for exhibiting bravery. As a young man, Wabansi set out to avenge the death of a close friend. He used the cover of a misty morning to sneak into an Osage village where he is said to have single-handedly killed several fierce Osage warriors before they could sound an alarm. Wabansi, "Dawn of Day," is said to have escaped as the morning was dawning. Wabansi never made it to Kansas. He died in a carriage accident in Washington, D.C., while negotiating the treaty that would bring the Potawatomi to Kansas.

Wabansi is the only American Indian tribal leader for whom a county in Kansas is named. Within Wabaunsee County a township, a town, a creek, and a lake are also named for the Potawatomi leader. It should be noted that the tribal leader's name is often spelled a variety of ways, including Wabaunsee, Waubonsie, Wah-bahn-se and Waubonsee. In the the contemporary Ojibwe language, it's spelled Waabaanizii. And in the contemporary Potawatomi language, it's spelled Wabanzi.

Fun Factoid: The name of the Indian tribe is spelled Potawatomi, but the name of the Kansas county (named after this tribe) is spelled Pottawatomie. It's also the Kansas county with the longest name.

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