The Origins of Genesee CountyPart 1: What’s in a Name?


When what is now Genesee County began to take shape (back in the ol’ days!) there was much experimentation with what to call all the different places that now, just roll off the tongue without a thought. To introduce My City Magazine’s four-part series on the many origins of Genesee County, let us start with its name.

The Chippewa Native Americans had named the Genesee Country area, muscatawingh, which can translate to, “an open and burned-over plain.” The river was called pewonigowink, which can translate to “the river of the flint.” Although the river had a rocky riverbed, it wasn’t necessarily “flint” rock. Nevertheless, the misnomer happens to work in favor of Flint residents now – as a city, Flint is described as hardworking in its comeback and unyielding to nay-sayers.

In some Michigan Historical Collections, the settlement of Flint was referenced as pewonagoseeba and scotawaing, or “burnt opening,” and the river was referred to as pewonagowingseeba, or “flint stones in the river.” Despite all these variations, “flint” tended to be the common denominator (most likely because of easy pronunciation), but also seems apt when thinking of its long history as a hardworking town on the frontier that became a city dedicated to industrialization. That is what has stuck around since 1855, when it officially became incorporated as the City of Flint.

From 1830, the French fur traders’ influence is noticeable with the notion to name the area Grand Traverse (translation: “great crossing”). This trail led from Detroit to Saginaw, crossing the Flint River just above the bridge on Saginaw Street. Grand Blanc settlers called the French Settlement of Flint Grand Traverse; but due to unpopularity at the time, that did not catch on. The Anglicized pronunciation, however, is still used today as a major street in the county. For a time, Grand Traverse was also called “Todd’s Crossing” or “Todd’s Ferry” after John Todd from Pontiac, Oakland County, who kept a six-foot-long canoe at the crossing to help travelers get across the water.

The names of various other local landmarks were brought over as a result of settlers from New York and other parts of New England, where so many early pioneers migrated. In 1823, settlers came from western New York; “Genesee County” was named in honor of Genesee County, New York. The Seneca Native American language had the origin of the word jenisheyuh, meaning “the beautiful valley.” Another tribe from western New York was the Chennussie, a name which is most likely another root of “Genesee.”

Along with names, New Englanders and New Yorkers seemed to have also brought certain values to the area: tolerance, a strong work ethic, and an emphasis on education. In May of 1833, a group of people came from western New York and formed a settlement between present-day Mount Morris and Genesee Townships. These people were particularly against the consumption of alcohol, and as a result, mockingly named the area “the Cold Water Settlement,” because of their temperance values, according to many sources.

Many different names, values and people who settled in this area in the early 1800s came from New York and New England; but, where did they come from before that?

Next month: Part 2: Where did early settlers come from?


Research help provided by the Flint Genealogical Society, Flint Public Library, and Sloan Museum’s Perry Archives


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