The Great Lakes Originally Had Some Weird Names

Cartography Series: Because who doesn’t love looking at old maps? This blog series looks at the cartographic development of Canada.

Nicolas Sanson’s Le Canada ou Nouvelle France (1656).
Click here for an easier to view, redrawn map.

Before Nicolas Sanson became the “Father of French Geography,” he was a history student who grew up in Abbeville, France. Despite his fascination with ancient history, it is said that Sanson turned to cartography “only as a means of illustrating his historical work.” Regardless, Sanson was skilled as a cartographer and his 1627 map of Gaul caught the attention of Cardinal Richelieu. He began to tutor Louis XIII in geography and was later appointed Geographe Ordinaire du Roi by the French King. (Sanson would later tutor Louis XIV as well).

During his life, Sanson founded the French School of Cartography and produced about 300 maps. Interestingly, his two most influential were of North America. The first, Amerique Septentrionale (1650), gave viewers the most extensive map of the continent to date. You will notice though that California is depicted as an island. The second, Le Canada ou Nouvelle France (1656), was the first map to show all the Great Lakes. Moreover, the portions and positions of the Great Lakes are more or less accurate. Sanson improved upon Champlain’s map (and dismantled the “Grand Lac” belief—aka the idea that Lake Michagan and Superior were cojoined and formed a massive lake) by using Jesuit accounts of the area, in addition to observations made by Aboriginals, Étienne Brûlé, and Jean Nicollet. What I found interesting though are the names attributed to the lakes:

Ontario ou Lac du St. Louis
Erie ou Du Chat
Lac du Puans
Lac Superieur

Karegnondi was a Huron word for “big lake.” When translated from french, Puans means bad odor or stink. I saw a website refer to it as the Lake of Stinking Water. What a name! However, others argue the name Puans came from a mistranslation during a conversation between the French and the Algonquins who lived in the area. Lake Michigan went through a number of name changes before it got its final one. My favorite though is Lac Du Chat. Lake Cat? What?! Apparently the “Erielhonan” or “Long-Tails” Nation used to reside by the lake. They themselves were named after the mountain lions who used to live in the region.


“Sanson, Nicolas,” MapHist: An Open Project for Map History, (Mar 2011) Accessed from:

“Sanson map, 1656,” Historical Atlas of Canada: Online Learning Project. Accessed from:


3 thoughts on “The Great Lakes Originally Had Some Weird Names

  1. franbrz says:

    This reminds me of the French names for some of the islands around Kingston. I can never remember which name refers to which island, but they were fun, like Isle Tanti, Isle des Cochons, and Isle Chevreux I think. I guess they spelled île differently back then. This c. 1673 map I’m looking at also says “Lac Ontario ou de Frontenac” and Lake Erie has a different name but it’s cut off. I guess they just swapped in whatever they felt like!


    • cadeauca says:

      I love learning about old Ontario names because half the time they’re much more fun than they are today. My favorite will always be Sandwich, Ontario…better known as Windsor, Ontario today hahahahaha.

      Liked by 1 person

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