Origin of name 'Macoupin' is highly debated
May 25, 2022
By Tom Emery
There is only one Macoupin County in the world, and it is generally agreed that the county takes its name from the creek that bisects it. Where the name “Macoupin” itself came from, though, is highly debated.
Most believe that “Macoupin” originates from some type of plant, though exactly what type of plant is the question. In his 1911 county history, former state senator C.A. Walker reports that “Macoupin is of (American) Indian origin and is abbreviated from ‘Macoupina,” which signifies in their tongue ‘white potato’ for that is the name they gave to the wild artichoke which grew abundantly along the water courses.”
In 1905, historian Henry Gannet, who compiled various reference works on place names in the United States, wrote that Macoupin was “so named by Indians because of the white potato…that was found abundantly along the banks of the creek.”
A century before, an explorer along the Illinois River country wrote in 1796 that Macoupin came from “the Indian language ‘white yam,’” which Dr. William Werner, a professor of biology at Blackburn College from 1954-89, theorized “might still refer to the Jerusalem Artichoke since it is often known as the Canadian Sweet Potato.”
Flash forward to today, and you’ll find the following definition on the website of Secretary of State Jesse White, whose many duties include publications on the origin and naming of Illinois counties.
The Secretary’s website states that Macoupin is “derived from the Indian word for the water lilies that grew along the creek. The tubers of the water lilies were a food source for the Indians.” Similarly, a site for the Illinois State Museum says the name refers to a “yellow pond lily.”
At least a water lily sounds more exotic than a white potato, though farmers in Idaho and Maine, where potatoes are a cash crop, would certainly disagree. A thorough analysis by the late Dr. Werner offers additional credence that potatoes, while versatile and tasty, did not give rise to the name.
In a submission to the 1979 sesquicentennial history of Macoupin County, Werner painstakingly presented accounts that lean away from the belief that Macoupin comes from a potato or artichoke.
Werner cites information from early French explorers, who originally named the Illinois River after Macoupin, spelled either as “Macopins” or “Macoupines.” He bolsters his argument with a 1913 source, claiming that the river had been named the Macoupin “after our beautiful pond lilies that adorn its nooks.”
Moreover, Werner offered an account from a 17th-century Jesuit missionary who wrote the Illiniwek peoples “gathered ‘macopin,’ a long tuberous swamp root which must be leached before eating,” as well as a 1721 source on the “macopine…a big root which (Indians) get in the marshes. They are poisonous when raw (and) the women have peculiar difficulty cooking them.”
Werner then considers various aquatic plants used by Indians in the region, and concludes the actual source of the name Macoupin may be the “arrow arum.” That plant, writes Werner, has “a large root, sometimes six inches in diameter, and weighing five or six pounds” with “a poisonous substance which can be removed by preparation.”
Indeed, a 1624 account from an Englishman noted that the arrow arum “raw is no better than poison.” Among other health risks, eating the plant raw can cause severe breathing problems, unless cooked in a certain manner.
The plant seems likely to be named for its arrow-shaped leaves, which measure 14 inches long by seven inches wide. The arrow arum is found in 23 Illinois counties, including Macoupin, as well as from Maine to Texas.
Upon recommendation of Dr. Werner, the Sesquicentennial Committee of 1979 selected the arrow arum as its logo, another unique footnote in county history. But as Werner freely states, the arrow arum “comes the closest” based on available accounts and “was probably the real Macoupin” – but not definitely.
So, 191 years after the county was founded, we still don’t know for sure where “Macoupin” comes from, other than it was some type of plant. One thing, however, is for certain – don’t eat it raw.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected]