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Wanatah, Indiana: Knee Deep in Mud?

© Matthew A. Werner 2020

Wanatah, Indiana, LaPorte County. 

For generations, locals have told the story how the town of Wanatah got its unique name. As it goes, wha-taw-taw was Native American for “knee deep in mud.” Everybody has heard it and it made sense—Wanatah was built on a marsh.

That story has been repeated for decades. You’d be hard-pressed to find a local who hasn’t heard the story and repeated it. One day, the county historian shrugged and told me, “Nobody has ever verified that Wanatah means knee deep in mud, you know.” That was a good hint to do some digging.

The last prominent Native Americans in the area were the Miami and Potawatomi. It made sense that Wanatah would have come from one of their languages. I started by asking Julie Olds, cultural resources officer with the Miami Tribe.

Aya Mr. Werner,

Neewe for your inquiry and sharing that interesting story. I did check with our linguists and the town name Wanatah is not Myaamia nor is it found to be a place name created nor used by Native Americans historically. Certainly, place names emerge in many ways over time. I wish you luck as you continue to search for the meaning.

Nipwaahkaalo – wishing you well.

Next, I reached out to Justin Neely with the Potawatomi of Oklahoma.

Wanette is a name of a town down here in Oklahoma. It comes from the [Potawatomi] word wenet – it is good/ beautiful. I believe your town may be from this same word.

How funny it would be if town founders wanted Wanatah to reflect beauty, but present-day locals equated it to mud. 

Last, I contact the Pokagon Potawatomi. The Pokagon have always been here. They refused to leave when the U.S. government forced Native Americans to move west. 

I talked to Kyle Malott, Pokagon language specialist. Like Neely, he too thought, wenet, but he asked tribal elders. Their answer—Nah, they didn’t think so. Kyle dug deeper and he called me with a name: Wanata, a Lakota chief. Wanata was chief of the Yanktonia, who resided along the Minnesota River – 500 miles away from Wanatah, Indiana. 

Illustration drawn by Charles Bird King. It appeared in the book, “History of the Indian Tribes of North America.”

Born about 1795, Wanata fought in the War of 1812 alongside his father, Chief Red Thunder, and the British Army at Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson (1813) near Sandusky, Ohio. As the story goes, his warrior style led others to refer to him as waánataŋ, meaning one who attacks, or charges. Later, Wanata returned to his homeland, became a chief after his father’s death, and changed allegiance from the British to the United States government.

Wanata was only twenty-eight years old when visited by the party under Colonel Long, whose description of him we have copied. Our portrait was taken some years later. He is a tall and finely formed man, more than six feet in height. His manners are dignified and reserved, and his attitudes, though studied, are graceful. He is now about forty-five years of age, and commands more influence than any other Indian chief on the continent. His rule over his own tribe is absolute. He has no rival or compeer. He resorts neither to presents nor to persuasion to secure obedience, but issues his peremptory mandates, which are never disputed. 

The traders speak of him as one who may be trusted, because it is policy to be at peace with the whites; but they place no confidence in his friendship, and have little faith in his integrity. Brave, skilful, and sagacious, he is grasping, artful, and overbearing; it is safer to secure his interest than to trust to his generosity or mercy. 

En route to Sandusky, it is possible that Wanata traveled near present-day Wanatah along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, or on the Great Sauk Trail that passed near present-day Westville. Or, perhaps he took another route and never set foot on land that became Indiana. Regardless, white settlers didn’t inhabit the area for 20 more years, so those Wanatah townspeople never encountered him, his father, or their party.

So, how did the town founders of Wanatah hear about Chief Wanata, the deceased leader of a tribe 500 miles away? And why did they choose to name their town after him?

Malott pointed to Topenebee, Michigan, for a clue. That town is named after Pokagon Chief Topenebee, despite being 300 miles away from Potawatomi country. “A history nut knew about Chief Topenebee and named the town after him because he thought it’d be cool to do.” Malott said. “Town names usually derive from a local word, but this one [Wanatah] is odd. It could’ve come from stories from people who might’ve been out west. It’s hard to say.”

Maybe an early white resident had traveled to the Minnesota River Valley, or heard about Wanata’s exploits in Sandusky. Perhaps somebody saw Wanata’s biography and splendid portrait in the book, “History of the Indian Tribes of North America.” Early Wanatah town meeting minutes and incorporation documents haven’t materialized to offer an explanation thus far.

But I keep thinking of the story that stuck —knee deep in mud. I imagine a farmer, experienced in pulling livestock from sloppy pastures, traversing mud-rutted roads, and wallowing through wet fields. One day at a tavern, someone said, Say, where did this town get its name anyway? To which the farmer replied, “It’s an old Indian word, means knee deep in mud. Look it up.” Then smiled as he tipped his mug. 

1Pronunciation [wa- anátaŋ].

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