Origins of the French and English Names for the Bay of Green Bay

Clifford E. Kraft



(Reprinted by Permission of Voyageur, Historical Review of Brown County and Northeast Wisconsin, Spring, 1984)

The early history of Northeast Wisconsin was dominated by its major geographical feature: the bay of Green Bay. Yet despite the bay's importance, one of its mysteries is how it was named. This included both Green Bay's current English name and its early French name, "Baye des Puans,1 often translated as "Bay of Bad Odors" or "Bay of Stinkards."

Some popular histories of Northeast Wisconsin assume that southern Green Bay has always been notorious for its summer green algae bloom and bad smell, and conclude that these conditions must have been the inspiration for its names.2 But such interpretations are not supported by historical accounts, many of which referred to the bay as a clear and fresh body of water.3

The French originally derived the name "Puans" from conversations with Indians who spoke the Algonkian language.4 However, it is likely that their translation from the Indian language was mistaken, as is described in this passage from a 1907 article on the Winnebago Indians:

Dr. J.O. Dorsey, the distinguished authority on the Siouan tribes, gives what is undoubtedly the best explanation of the native name. He says that the Siouan root, 'change' or 'hanga,' signifies first, foremost, original or ancestral. Thus the Winnebago call themselves Ho-tcan-ga-ra, 'the people speaking the original language.'

The student can easily trace in the various spellings the attempts of various writers to reduce the gutteral sounds of the Winnebago name to a written language, though their explanation and definitions have often gone far astray.

If the name Ovenibigoutz (Winnebago), by which they were known to their Algonquian neighbors, had been translated at Quebec, when learned by Champlain, as meaning mean, base or vile in place of Puans, it would have more correctly expressed, as intended, the extreme disfavor of these tribes. This, the author believes, is the rational explanation of the name which has come down to us as Winnebago.5

Unfortunately, few available records relate what the native inhabitants of the region called Green Bay.6 Nevertheless, the name "Baye des Puans"was associated with Green Bay throughout the French Regime.

The earliest written reference to the body of water that was to be eventually called Green Bay was written by Father Barthélemy Vimont in Jesuit Relation of 1640, one of a series of annual reports from Jesuit missionaries in the Great Lakes region. In this narrative he described the geography and in habitants of the Great Lakes, and referred to the bay of Green Bay as follows:

Passing this smaller lake, we enter the second fresh-water sea, upon the shores of which are the Maroumine; and still farther, upon the same banks, dwell the Ouinipigou, a sedentary people, who are very numerous; some of the French call them the 'Nation of Stinkards,'(Nation des Puans) because the Algonquin word 'ouinipeg' signifies 'bad-smelling water,' and they apply this name to the water of the salt sea, -- so that these people are called Ouinipigou because they come from the shores of a sea about which we have no knowledge; and hence they ought not to be called the nation of Stinkards, but the nation of the sea.7

A similar description, associating the bay's name with saltwater, was made by Father Vimont in the Jesuit Relation of 1642. In this volume he described Jean Nicolet's 1634 journey to a location that has since been interpreted as a site near the present day city of Green Bay. Vimont simply stated that Nicolet made "a journey to the nation called People of the Sea."8

This created great interest among French explorers who were seeking a western route to Asia, and hoped that any mention of saltwater might lead to the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps such interest in a route to the sea explains the great number of references attempting to clarify the origin of the name "Baye des Puans" by Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuit Relations contained many explanations by different authors, including both interest and confusion regarding this appellation.

An account by Father Paul Ragueneau in 1648 reported that the Indians who lived near Green Bay formerly lived near the sea, hence its name:

A Peninsula, or a rather narrow strip of land, separated that superior Lake from a third Lake, which we call the Lake of the Puants, which also flows into our fresh-water sea by a mouth on the other side of the Peninsula, about ten leagues farther West than the Sault. This third Lake extends between the West and Southwest,--that is to say between the South and the West, but more toward the West,--and is almost equal in size to our fresh-water sea. On its shores dwell other nations whose language is unknown,--that is, it is neither Algonquin nor Huron. These people are called Puants, not because of any bad odor that is peculiar to them, but, because they say that they come from the shores of a far distant sea toward the North, the water of which is salt, they are called 'the people of the stinking water'.9

Another such reference was by Father François le Mercier in Jesuit Relation of 1653-54, who in two separate passages restated the idea that Green Bay received its name because of its location near the sea.

All these people have forsaken their former country and withdrawn to the more distant Nations, the great lake which we call 'the lake of the Stinkards' (Puants), because they dwell near the Sea,--which is salt, and which our Savages call 'stinking water' (l'eau puante).10

Another says that on certain Islands in the Lake of the people of the sea,--who are inappropriately called by some 'the Stinkards'--there are many people whose language strongly resembles the Algonquin.11

Then Father Francesco Giuseppi Bressani, in reports to his superiors in Paris, reiterated Ragueneau's explanation in 1653:

A Peninsula, or Strip of land, divides this lake from the one which is called 'lake of the Stinkards',--people so named by reason of having formerly inhabited the shores of the sea, which they call Stinking water.12

Father Claude D'Ablon added another twist in Jesuit Relation of 1670-71 by relating the name to the smell of the extensive marshes near Green Bay:

The first to receive our attention, and the best instructed in the faith, are the people living at the head of the Bay commonly called des Puans. This name, which is the same as that given by the Savages to those who live near the sea, it bears perhaps because the odor of the marshes surrounding this Bay somewhat resembles that of the sea; and, besides, there can hardly be more violent blasts of wind on the Ocean than are experienced in this region, accompanied by very heavy and almost continual thunder.13

Father Marquette wrote in 1673 that Green Bay received its name from the Indians because of the bay's mud:

This bay bears a Name which has a meaning not so offensive in the language of the savages; For they call it "la baye sallée" ("salt bay") rather than Bay des Puans,--although with Them this is almost the same and this is also The name which they give to the Sea. This led us to make very careful researches to ascertain whether there were not some salt-Water springs in This quarter, As there are among the hiroquois, but we found none. We conclude, therefore, that This name has been given to it on account of the quantity of mire and Mud which is seen there.14

It is not clear to what Marquette was referring when he mentioned "mire and Mud", especially since the following sentence ("whence noisome vapors Constantly arise, Causing the loudest and most Continual Thunder that I have ever heard") makes no sense in terms of modern experience and observation on the bay. He could have been referring to mud flats among the marshes, which appear intermittently according to long-term variations in the lake water level. Since Marquette and Joliet passed through the bay area in May, it is also possible that they might have observed mud being washed downstream in spring runoff from the bay's tributaries.

In 1683 Father Thiery Beschefer restated the origin of "Baye des Puans" as coming from the extensive marshes:

Eighty Leagues from Missilimakinak is St. François Xavier, at The extremity of the Bay that We call des puans, because we did not correctly understand The savage name, which means 'waters smelling of Rushes.'15

Perhaps by this time the explorers knew that "La Baye," the abbreviated name for "Baye des Puans" that remained in use well into British and American settlement of the area, did not lie near the ocean, so they began to search for alternative explanations for its unusual name.

  It is important to note that not a single explanation suggested that the waters of the bay actually smelled bad or resembled its modern algae filled-summer conditions. The only early Jesuit that did make such a reference to the bay's waters was Father Claude Allouez in a report on his activities during the winter of 1669-70 at an Indian village near what is believed to be Oconto, Wisconsin. Allouez wrote: "The few fish that are seen here, and that but seldom, are very poor; and the water of this bay and of the rivers is like stagnant ditch-water."16

This contradicts numerous other accounts relating that the early fish resources of the bay and its tributaries were abundant. In addition, the winter conditions of the bay and its tributaries are, even today, unlikely to be described as "stagnant ditch-water" despite summer conditions that approach this description at times. Allouez's following paragraph provides some insight into his disposition towards this area and its inhabitants. He wrote:

The savages of this region are more than usually barbarous; they are without ingenuity, and do not know how to make even a bark dish or a ladle; they commonly use shells. They are grasping and avaricious to an extraordinary degree, and sell their little commodities at a high price, because they have only what is barely necessary. The season in which we arrived among them was not favorable for us: they were all in a needy condition, and very little able to give us any assistance, so that we suffered hunger.17

This account contradicts other accounts of this area's native inhabitants (see below). Perhaps Allouez was unusually harsh in his description of the bay and its inhabitants because of the severe winter he experienced while in the region.

  Throughout the period of French domination the name "Baye des Puans" remained with the bay, but continued to confuse French explorers. Captain Antoine de la Mothe Sieur de Cadillac offered the following explanation in the 1690s, describing a fish die-off:

  The Puans derive their name from the river which is very muddy. It is so full of fish of all kinds that it is difficult to understand how it can hold so many. Consequently, during the heat of the summer, on account of the water or the too great quantity of fish, the water is entirely covered with them; and, as it immediately becomes foul and putrid, it is hardly possible to approach the bank on account of the stench, and the water is consequently very disgusting. It is for this reason that the nation is called that of the Puans, for both in their person and habits they are the cleanest among the savages; and their women the least dirty, and keep their cabins very clean and tidy--not a very common quality among other Savage women.18

  Father Charlevoix came up with another fish-related interpretation in an account of his explorations in 1721:

  The name Puans was given to them; for along the entire length of the Shore, where their Cabins were built, one saw only rotten Fish, with which the air was tainted. At least, it seems probable that such was the origin of that name, which the other Savages had given them before we did, and which has been transferred to the Bay, from which they have never strayed far.19

It is worth noting that the name "Puans" was used to describe at least two other bodies of water in North America, neither of which is similar to Green Bay in water quality or biological productivity. Cattaraugus Creek near Chatauqua, New York, was named "R(ivière) a la terre puante" on a map by the French cartographer Sanson.20 Lake Nipissing, still today a clear body of water, was called "lac des puans" in Jesuit Relation of 1659-60 as follows:

  It is called by others, 'the lake of the stinkards,' not because it is salt like the water of the Sea,-which the Savages call Ouinipeg, or 'stinking water,' - but because it is surrounded by sulphurous soil.21 

Since the reference "des Puans" was applied in other locations, this further suggests that Green Bay's waters were not unusual in their smell.

  The earliest account explaining why the name of the bay was changed to Green Bay was published in 1778 as Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768 under the authorship of Jonathan Carver. This account reads:

We accordingly set out together, and on the 18th arrived at fort La Bay. This fort is situated on the southern extremity of a bay in the lake Michigan, termed by the French, the bay of Puants; but which since the English have gained possession of all the settlements on this part of the continent, is called by them, the Green Bay. The reason of its being thus denominated, is from its appearance; for on leaving Michillimackinac in the spring season, though the trees there have not even put forth their buds, yet you find the country around La bay, notwithstanding the passage has not exceeded fourteen days, covered with the finest verdure, and vegetation as forward as it could be were it summer. 22

Carver's explanation corresponds with modern observations that show an earlier appearance of spring plant growth and leaf development along the southern part of the bay than on islands completely surrounded by the cold waters of Lake Michigan, such as Mackinac Island. One of the most striking views along the bay in late spring is presented by the brilliant green color of the emergent marsh plants along the bay's west shore, which contrasts with the preceding drab winter colors. This occurs about a month after the ice leaves the bay, which is also the time when early traders from Mackinac would have reached the Green Bay area.

  In the two centuries following publication of Travels, the authorship and originality of its accounts have been questioned. According to John Parker, editor of the journals written by Carver during his travels through the Great Lakes, Alexander Bicknell, who claimed to be the editor of Travels, probably was the true author. Parker concluded that Bicknell used Carver's original journals, in addition to conversations with Carver, as source material for the book. Four versions of Carver's original journals exist. In the first version Carver makes no mention of why Green Bay was given that name by the British. He wrote:

They rowed until they came some where about the Green Bay which was the reason for its being called at first by the French the Bay of Puans, afterwards La Bay and now by the English the Green Bay.23

The second version, according to Parker, improved the readability and organization of the manuscript.24 This version stated, regarding the denomination of Green Bay:

From them (the Winnebagos) the Green Bay was called by the French Bay de Puans, but why the Winnebaygoes should be thus nicknamed perhaps no better reason can be given than one I have heard assign'd on like occasions, viz., that the traders might mention the several nations at pleasure before them and they not know what or which they meant.25

Only the published book, Travels, goes into detail regarding the naming of Green Bay. Parker believes that most of Carver's observations as related in Travels were accurate, and that Travels served as an elaboration of his original journals in order to make them of greater interest to its 18th century audience, which had been inundated by travel narratives.26 The following passage from Travels is a further expansion of the above accounts from Carver's journals:

The green bay or bay of Puants is one of those places to which the French, as I have mentioned in the introduction, have given nicknames. It is termed by the inhabitants of its coast, the Menomonie Bay; but why the French have denominated it the Puant or Stinking bay, I know not. The reason they themselves give for it is, that it was not with a view to mislead strangers, but that by adopting this method, they could converse with each other concerning the Indians, in their presence without being understood by them. For it was remarked by the persons who first traded among them, that when they were speaking to each other about them, and mentioned their proper names they instantly grew suspicious, and concluded that their visitors were either speaking ill of them, or plotting their destruction. To remedy this they gave them some other name. The only bad consequences arising from the practice then introduced is, that English and French geographers, in their plans of the interior parts of America, give different names to the same people, and thereby perplex those who have occasion to refer to them.27

This passage shows how Travels expanded upon and clarified Carver's journal observations. It also contributes an additional explanation of why the bay was called "Baye des Puans."

  Two paragraphs later Travels provides evidence that Carver, who traveled the length of the bay in September 1766 did not observe any green color in the bay's waters.

On the north west parts of this lake the waters branch out into two bays. That which lies towards the north is the Bay of Noquets, and the other the Green Bay just described.

The waters of this as well as the other great lakes are clear and wholesome, and of sufficient depth for the navigation of large ships.28

Carver also played an important role as the first person to publish a map with the name "Green Bay" on it rather than "Baye des Puans." Carver's original map, probably drawn at Michilimackinac in the winter of 1767-68, was copied and engraved in 1769 in London and also published as part of his Travels.29 Previous British and French maps (e.g. Mitchell, 1755; Bellin, 1764) referred to the bay as "Baye des Puans." Even a subsequent map by an American cartographer, Joseph Scott (1795), used the denomination "Puans B." It wasn't until Arrowsmith published his Great Lakes map in 1795 that the name Green Bay began to be regularly used on regional maps. Presumably, the great popularity of Travels--it was published in six languages and numerous editions, the first American one in 1784--spread the new denomination Green Bay to other sources.

  The only other early British reference to the name Green Bay was made by the merchant Peter Pond, who traveled through northeastern Wisconsin in 1773. He used the name twice: "On my way to Green Bay at the Mouth of fox river," and "We Descended the fox River to the Botam of Greane Bay so cald and there joined the Hole of ye Canoes Bound to Macena."30

  In the following years some of the French fur traders who still lived in the area continued to refer to the settlement at the foot of Green Bay as "La Bay Verte" in several documents.31 However, this French translation of Green Bay was not used prior to the English use of the name.

  The first written account attributing the name Green Bay to the color of its water was made by Increase A. Lapham in an 1846 review of the geography of Wisconsin. Under a listing for Green Bay he wrote: "GREEN BAY, which derives its names from a fancied deeper green color of its water than usual."32

  Since Lapham used the adjective fancied, it is unlikely that he knew this to be an accurate description of the bay's water condition. Where he obtained this account is not stated. The Wisconsin Gazetteer in 1853 gave Carver's version of the origin of the name Green Bay.33

Although it may seem inconsequential that the origins of the two predominant names for Green Bay have been frequently misinterpreted, it is not a small matter for those working to restore the quality of Green Bay's aquatic resources. If the prevailing public attitude is that Green Bay has always been a green, smelly body of water, then it is easier for the public to accept the modern condition of this resource that does, in fact, approach this description at certain times of the year.

  On the other hand, it is with the hope that people will continue to work towards the improvement of the bay's water resources that the historical record has been re-evaluated in this paper.




Clifford Kraft is an advisory services specialist with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute at the UW-Green Bay.

1. The spelling of the words "Baye" and "Puans" varied from source to source. In this paper I use one common spelling found in early accounts of the area.

2. B. Foley, Green Bay: Gateway to the Great Waterway (Windsor Publications, 1983), p. 10.

3. P.V. Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," Wisconsin Archeologist (July 1907), p. 85.

4. F.G. Cassidy, "The Names of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Names, vol. 21(3), 1973, p. 169.

5. P.V. Lawson, "The Winnebago Tribe," Wisconsin Archeologist (July 1907), p. 86.

6. F.G. Cassidy, op. cit. p. 168.

7. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, ed. by Rueben Gold Thwarts (New York: Pageant Book Company, 1959), XVIII. D. 231.

8. Early Narratives of the Northwest. 1634-1699, L.P. Kellogg, ed., (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1959) p. 16.

9. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, XLI, p. 79.

10. Ibid, XLI, p. 185.

1l. Ibid., XXXIII. p. 151.

12. Ibid., XXXVIII. p. 239.

13. Ibid., LV, p. 183.

14. Ibid., LIX, pp. 97-99.

15. Ibid., LXII, p. 203.

16. Early Narratives of the Northwest: 1634-1699, op. cit., p.146.

17. Ibid., p. 146

18. Wisconsin Historical Collections, ed. by Reuben Gold Thwaites, (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1908). XVI, p. 360.

19. Ibid., p. 412

20. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, X, p. 322.

21. Ibid., XLV, p. 219.

22. J. Carver, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America(Walpole, N.H.: Isaiah Thomas & Co., 1813), p. 27.

23. J. Parker, ed. The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents, 1766 1770 [Minnesota Historical Society Press,1976), p. 79.24. Ibid, p. 27.

24. Ibid. p. 27

25. Ibid., pp. 78-79.

26. Ibid p.26.

27. J. Carver, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, op. cit., p. 30.

28. Ibid., p. 31.

29. J. Parker, ed., The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents, 1766-1770, op. Cit,. Pp. 33-35.

30. Wisconsin Historical Collections, op. cit. XVIII, respectively pp. 329, 324.

31. "Green Bay Historical Bulletin," vol. 4, no. 2, p. 8, and vol. 5, no. 3, p. 9

32. I.A. Lapham, Wisconsin: Its Geography and Topography(1846), p. 97.

33. J.W. Hunt, Wisconsin Gazeteer (Madison, 1853) p. 100.


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