Lake County, IL
Originally Published in the Lake County Museum Association Newsletter, Winter 1987
by Rebecca Kornbluh
Transcribed here by K.T.
Interesting facts about the history of an area can be traced through the names of its towns and streets. In the place names of Lake County there is a record of the Indian peoples who were the first inhabitants, and of the pioneers who began to settle here in 1834. Place names reveal not only who lived here but a little bit about what they thought of this landscape so different from what they had known in Europe or in the Eastern states.
The Pottawatomie Indians, who were the largest tribe in the area, gave us many local names. The town originally called Little Fort was renamed Waukegan, an exact translation into the language of the Indians. Mettawa and Aptakisic were Indian settlements. Mettawa was the home of the Indian chief Hafda. The first historian of Lake County, Elijah Haines (whose own name is recalled in Hainesville, now part of Grayslake), writes that settlers near Mettawa wished to name their town after Hafda, but a misunderstanding caused the name to be recorded as Halfday. (A local resident once told me that the town was so named because it was half a day's ride from Chicago -- interesting even if historically doubtful!)
Settlers of wealth or influence had places named after them. Some of these were George Ela, first postmaster of Ela township; Winthrop S. Gurnee; and William Gray, the Gage brothers Leonard and George, and Justice Bangs, all of whom gave their names to lakes. Lake County itself was named both for Lake Michigan and for the many lakes within its boundaries.
The flat grassy plains country of Lake County was very different from what early arrivals had known before. A large stand of trees was a noteworthy feature, both a landmark and a good place to build. Names like Long Grove make the locations of these wooded areas. The settlers were also impressed by the great number of animals they found, and named their settlements Buffalo Grove and Deerfield. A hill was valuable both as a vantage point for surveying the surrounding countryside and as an easily defensible site. Fort Hill, founded in 1838, was one of the earliest settlements in the area. Its name is kept alive in the title of the Fort Hill Historical Society.
Of all towns in Lake County, perhaps none has changed its name so often as Mundelein. The first village, Mechanics Grove (in what is now the grounds of St. Mary's), reflected both the terrain and the occupation of the settlers. In 1885 the name was changed to Holcomb to honor John Holcomb, who owned most of what is now downtown. When the railroad came through in the same year it was thought politic to recognize a member of the railroad board of directors, and the name was changed to Rockefeller.
In 1910 a business school founded by Arthur T. Sheldon brought new wealth and commerce to the town. The motto of the Sheldon School was "AREA" (Ability, Reliability, Energy, Action") and Sheldon's proposal that the town adopt the name Area was accepted in 1911. In 1922 Archbishop (later Cardinal) Mundelein began to build the seminary that is now St. Mary's of the Lake, and two years later the town made its last name change to honor him.