La Crosse: A Cross or a Game?

An excerpt from History of La Crosse County: Containing an Account of its Settlement, Growth, Development and Resources. 1881. Western Historical Society. Page 328-331

The origin of the name is a subject of interest, and there are several theories and statements in that behalf which will be referred to in the order of date as they occurred.

The first is a tradition to the effect that Catholic missionaries at an early day erected a cedar cross near the banks of the Mississippi, on which a crucifix was placed at the intersection of the cross-bar or below it, protected by a pane of glass held in place by wax. The date of locating the cross or its location, of course is mere conjecture. As is known, the Spaniards introduced the custom of setting up a cross upon their first discovery or landing, thus signifying to all comers that the land was claimed by Spain, which derived its title direct from the Holy See. This custom also obtained with the adventurous, self-denying missionaries of the Catholic Church, who by this means indicated that the land was dedicated to the service of Christ.

In a statement submitted by Henry B. Coons, of Potosi, published further along in this book, it would appear that the village whence the county obtained its name derived its nomenclature from French Catholic missionaries, who, en route to Prairie du Chien, which city they also settled and named, halted on their way down the Mississippi, and encamped upon the prairie, where they erected a cross, and called it Prairie la Crossette, by which it was known among the Indians and half-breeds.

Mr. William Staats Tippetts, of Tippetts’ Landing, confirms the statement regarding the cedar cross in a letter under date of May 28, 1881. He says : ” In 1840, I went by steamboat to La Crosse, which I found to be covered with knolls and sand burs. The bank of the river was about 40 feet high, and sloped back about 100 feet from the water. Where Lloyd & Clark’s store stands were five or six Indian graves, made in the usual manner. At the head of one was
a cross made of red cedar, hewn out about six feet high. At the crossing, a small niche had been cut or carved out, and a piece of window glass had been inserted, behind which was a wooden image of our Savior, finely colored, like I have seen in the residences of the Prairie du Chien people. This was a rough-hewn cross, very old to all appearances.

* * * * * * * * * Now, Mr. Henry Coons, of Potosi, is right about the cross, as I have a most vivid recollection of it, and of its exact location.”

If set up as suggested by Mr. Coons, about the time Prairie du Chien was named, that would decide its erection to have been during the year 1728, when one Cardewell settled there. When the name was given, as already hinted, is a matter of conjecture, though it is believed to have been named from a chief, and was known as ” Dog Prairie,” the word chien being the Indian signification for dog. It is incredible a cross would have been left undisturbed so long, in view of the fact that steamers and hands on other craft betrayed no conscientious scruples in helping themselves to fuel of any description that could be found along the banks. The tradition may have originated among the friends, a son of Decora, who died in 1842, having placed a cross over his grave, which remained undisturbed for eight or ten years.

The similarity of the name to the French word for cross, i. e., croix, will not bear investigation, especially in view of the fact that the name was used by ihe French in naming the river St. Croix, the junction of which, with the Mississippi, is said to bear a striking resemblance on a near view to that sacred emblem. Two other theories, one of the supposed but very imaginative likeness of a cross made by the Root River on the south and La Crosse River on the north, and that this spot was the favorite crossing place of the Indians; hence the place of the cross or
crossing seems too puerile to be worthy of more than passing notice.

Before quoting the final and most probable theory, it may not be improper to notice several of the Indian names applied during aboriginal days. None of them, with possibly one or two exceptions, are especially felicitous; but derived from nature or their likeness thereto, are suggestive of the scenery, for the beauty of which the vicinity of La Crosse is not altogether unknown.

The first of these was that of enook-wagera, from enook, woman, and wagera, bosom, from the supposed resemblance of two bluffs near the mouth of the La Crosse River to a woman’s breast. One of the Sioux names was Topaktaype, from Topa, four, and Ktaype, killed. The occasion for this is not known to the gentleman who communicates it, N. Myrick, Esq., but that it refers to the slaughter of four men or animals is evident. Another name given by the Sioux, according to Dr. Bunnel, was Wazuvleca, or strawberry prairie. All the above are expressive, commemorative, and the last musical in its softness, as also most expressive in its meaning.

It is to be deeply regretted that the great wealth and beauty of innumerable Indian names was not more largely drawn upon in the titling of towns, villages and hamlets. It would have been a just and fitting, albeit a small recompense, to have perpetuated the memory of the original inhabitants.

Coming now to the facts in the case, it may be stated that La Crosse was the name by which it was known as early as 1805, during which year Maj. Z. M. P. Pike arrived, at which he calls Prairie de la Crosse. In 1823, Lieut. Martin Scott and command, in a journey to the St. Peter’s River, halted there, and spoke of the prairie as ” being very level, is admirably well calculated for the game of la crosse, which is very much in favor with the Indians.”

Maj. Pike speaks of having witnessed the game at Prairie du Chien nearly twenty years before. It was doubtless played here at as early and, in likelihood, at a much earlier date, as this was a noted and favorite resort for games from time immemorial. This is the uniform testimony of all the earlier settlers, who also bear witness that it was also that of the Indians.

The etymology and signification of the name is of itself quite sufficient to convince any one of the great probability of this derivation of the name. In a note on page 189, Volume 2, ” Historical Collections of Wisconsin,” it is expressly stated that the name originated from the French name of the game of ball played by the Indians at this point, viz., lejeu de crosse. A combination of the first and last syllables gives the modernized name.

N. Myrick, who was made the first Postmaster in 1844, thus speaks of his connection with the name: ” The name of Prairie de la Crosse was of course French, and was changed by myself to La Crosse, and the post office so called at my suggestion.” What is said of the last name should be conclusive; but, as some strenuously contend for the other theories, it is thought best to submit a presentation of the subject in full.



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