Wondering Out Loud: Saint Joseph River

Author: Ed Cohen

What was the Saint Joseph River called before the white man gave it its present name?

The Potawatomi Indians called the river, whose southern bend gives South Bend its name, Sheggwe (“SHAG-wah”), which means “happened spontaneously.” The name comes from the legend of a man who would mysteriously materialize on the banks like a mushroom.

The earliest European explorer to visit the area, La Salle, called it the Miami River for the Miami Indians he met living along its banks in 1679. A second Indian name, possibility used by the Miami, was Sagwasibi, which meant “coming-out river,” a reference to its function as a connector to Lake Michigan from the Kankakee River.

Soon after La Salle’s visit, the Miami fled to Illinois because of the Second Iroquois War. The Potawatomis began migrating here from Green Bay around 1695.

The earliest reference to a “Saint Joseph River” appears in a 1689 land grant signed by the French Canadian governor general. The grant deeded property near the present Niles, Michigan, north of South Bend, to Jesuit missionaries for the establishment of Mission Saint Joseph.

Sources: Gregory Dowd, associate professor of history; John Palmer, assistant librarian, local history and genealogy room, Saint Joseph County Public Library; the Northern Indiana Center for History.


ND Department of History
St. Joseph County Public Library
Northern Indiana Center for History