"Why's That" Asks the Eternal Question: What Does "Kalamazoo" Mean?

Feb 8, 2018

The Kalamazoo River in 1894. The river bore the name "Kalamazoo" before the city - or county.
Credit Kalamazoo Public Library

We have talked about all kinds of names on “Why’s That?” - from the Gearhart rail yard to the Teapot Dome crossing to Westnedge Avenue. And one name in Southwest Michigan begs for exploration.


“In third grade I had a teacher who said that the word Kalamazoo meant ‘Valley of Boiling Pots’ or something along those lines,” says Bart Seelye of Otsego.

“So I’ve always had this wonderful visual image of coming up over the hill and the steam kind of rising in a number of places along the river.”

Bart says he’s heard other explanations for Kalamazoo and the suggestion that it came from a word in the Potawatomi language.

“Then I got curious. What’s the origin of the name, is it really Potawatomi?” he asks.

We’ll get to Bart’s question about the meaning of Kalamazoo. First, historian Larry Massie explains the name’s pre-history.

“Before the city, there was the river,” he says.

“And the early French didn’t call it Kalamazoo, the river. They called it Meramec, or Merame, there’s all kinds of names they used. When the British came in they called it ‘Ke-Kalamazoo’ or ‘Re-Kalamazoo’ - all different versions of what became known by the time the Americans gain control of Michigan as Kalamazoo.”

What in southwest Michigan makes YOU curious?

The county has borne the name Kalamazoo since its founding in 1830. But the City of Kalamazoo - which began as a village - is a different story. When founder Titus Bronson platted the village, Massie says, he named it Bronson.

“And it remained Bronson until 1836 when they - the town founders were a little ashamed of Titus Bronson. He was an eccentric character,” Massie says.

The other founders renamed the village Kalamazoo, which upset Bronson, who left. Massie says two other Southwest Michigan communities once called themselves Kalamazoo. One was in Sheridan Township, near Albion and the other is the City of Saugatuck.

But Bart Seelye is curious about what the name means. On a recent afternoon I visited the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, asking patrons and staff what they knew about the name.

I don’t know, I guess it’s an Indian name, is that right? - Jeff Grupp

The fog or the steam would rise up and so it looked like a smoke bowl, and so they called it - bowl of smoke, smoke bowl, something of the sort. - Angela Garrison

There’s a couple of theories. One is that the boiling water is the appearance of the river and the other is that it was a race that was run by the time that a pot of water was boiled, probably to make a cup of tea in which case I thoroughly approve of this race. - Douglas Smith

Let’s consider the word’s supposedly Native American and specifically Potawatomi origins. Kyle Malott is a language specialist with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in Dowagiac.

“What we call Kalamazoo is Gzigmezé. Gzigmezé, and that’s talking about, it’s describing a boiling,” he says.

Malott says he’s not sure about the origins of the name Gzigmezé.

He says it’s possible that Kalamazoo is some kind of derivation from a Potawatomi word, but if so it’s not a close one. Malott says for one thing, the Potawatomi language doesn’t have the L sound. As for the supposed meaning of Kalamazoo, Malott says you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

“There was one on like Wikipedia or something like that that said that Kalamazoo meant a place where wounded animals go to die.” Malott says that doesn’t make “any sense.”

Historian Larry Massie says a supposedly reliable source once told him that Kalamazoo meant “otters in the water that look like stones.” He used that explanation in a project, then found out that his source made it up.

But Massie says the popular theories all come back to water. Supposedly it relates to the appearance of the river, or that tale about a footrace. Massie says in that version, a local group of Potawatomi held a gathering every year.

“Their village was over by Galesburg and they would have an athletic event of see who could run to the river and back before a pot of water boiled over,” he says.

But it’s easier to enjoy these stories than to authenticate one. Massie says he suspects the name has something to do with the appearance of the river. But beyond that its origins are anyone’s guess.

Bart Seelye, who wondered what Kalamazoo means, says this rather indefinite answer is more complex than he expected.

“Who would think such a simple question would have so many different caveats going every direction it could possibly go?” he asks.

When something in Southwest Michigan makes you ask “Why’s That?”, let us know about it!

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