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How Did Eau Claire Get Its Name? The Water Is Clear, but the Truth Isn't.

Is the much-repeated tale of how Eau Claire got its name a myth?

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

The Eau Claire River near its confluence  with the Chippewa River in downtown Eau Claire
The Eau Claire River near its confluence with the Chippewa River in downtown Eau Claire

If you’ve lived in the Chippewa Valley for any length of time, you most likely know that Eau Claire means “Clear Water” in French – a description of local aquatic quality that was adopted as the name of a river, a city, a county, and a music festival (albeit the latter in plural form). If pressed, you may even recall that the name was first applied centuries ago by French voyageurs who, paddling their way up the unfamiliar (and muddy) Chippewa River, encountered a smaller stream whose water flowed clear, and stopped to drink with shouts of “Voici! L’Eau Claire!” And, if you’re a history buff, you know those voyageurs were traveling with adventurer Jonathan Carver in the summer of 1767 – exactly 250 years ago.

After a cursory bit of research, I realized that a lot of what I had believed about the naming of Eau Claire wasn’t exactly true – in fact, it was almost certainly false.

I made the latter realization one day back in June as I walked down the Old Abe State Trail and passed a little-noticed (at least by me) historical marker on the bank of the Eau Claire River, just a couple of blocks from its confluence with the Chippewa River. The sign, which dates to 1936, proclaims that the Eau Claire River was “named by French voyageurs who accompanied the explorer Jonathan Carver and his Indian guides as they ascended the river in the summer of 1767.” Noticing the date, I realized that we were upon the 250th anniversary of the naming of Eau Claire and that I had a great story idea on my hands, one that allowed me to wax poetic about the history of our beautiful river and our beautiful city.

However – and, with stories like this, there always seems to be a “however” – after a cursory bit of research, I realized that a lot of what I had believed about the naming of Eau Claire wasn’t exactly true – in fact, it was almost certainly false. Even if the water is clear, the facts of the story aren’t.

A TALL TALE?

Here’s what we can prove about the naming of Eau Claire. It’s true that Carver, a colonial American, was employed by the British to explore what we now call the Upper Midwest in an attempt to find the fabled “Northwest Passage” that would provide a shortcut to the Pacific Ocean. What he found instead was a sparsely-populated, tree-covered, and river-linked region that had been inhabited by Native Americans for millennia and crisscrossed by the French for at least a century. However, Carver has the distinction of being the first English speaker to explore the region, and he published a book recounting his journey a decade later in London. Over the subsequent two centuries, this book was republished literally dozens of times in various editions, some of which likely included embellishments or outright fabrications.

Yet Carver’s writings are most frequently cited as the source of the “Voici! L’Eau Claire!” tale. Consider, for example, An Illustrated Description of Eau Claire, published in 1892 by the Eau Claire Leader. In what is purportedly an account drawn from Carver, the anonymous author describes how a voyageur “stood in the bow of the boat, waved his capeau and exclaimed” the following:

“Voici! mes camarades, voici!  l’eau claire! Allons voir cet eau! Bivons de cet eau! L’eau est si purer. L’eau claire! L’eau claire! Bivons! Bivons!”

According to Bonni Knight, a retired North High School French teacher who has written an unpublished book about the French fur trade in the region, this phonetically rendered declaration translates as, “Here it is, my friends, here it is! Clear water. Let’s go see the clear water. Let’s drink from this water! The water is so pure.  Clear water! Clear water! Let’s drink! Let’s drink!” It’s hard to imagine a parched paddler being so enthusiastically wordy at the sight of clear water – let alone his English-speaking companion jotting down the words for posterity at that moment – but this is how the story has been handed down for generations in books, articles, and even historical markers.

OJIBWE ORIGINS

The trouble is, there’s no evidence from Carver’s own writings that this event ever happened. The definitive modern edition of Carver’s work, which was published in 1976, was based on his original journals, which are preserved in the British Museum in London. The book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society, contains nary a mention of the Eau Claire River in any language – French, English, or even Ojibwe. Based on Carver’s geographic descriptions, it seems he passed through what is now Eau Claire on the Chippewa River on June 4, 1767. The narrative portion of the diary goes into detail about the numerous “buffeloes” and the “great plenty of elk” grazing along the lower Chippewa, but there’s no mention of a clear-watered river, let alone ecstatic voyageurs. Nor is the river mentioned in an appendix that features Carver’s survey journal, which offers a mile-by-mile description of the Chippewa River and notes smaller tributaries such as the Red Cedar River and Meridean Slough. If we can trust these survey notes, Carver and his companions didn’t even take note of the Eau Claire River, let alone name it!

So where, then, did the name “Eau Claire” actually come from? According to Robert Gard and L.G. Sorden’s definitive book, The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names, the Ojibwe (a.k.a. the Chippewa) people called the river “Wah-yaw-con-ut-ta-gua-yaw-Sebe,” which means “the water of the river is clear.” This Ojibwe moniker shows up in numerous documents from Wisconsin’s early history. It makes a great deal of sense that the Native Americans – who, after all, had been here long before the French – would have named the river themselves. And it’s also logical that later French and English speakers would translate and apply that name to the river and the settlement that grew up along it. (The French name became official, but you’ll still find the English “Clear Water” in the names of several local businesses.)

This conclusion, of course, is based on assumptions and educated guesses. What if the authors of the place name book erred in their research? What if that 1892 author found the long-winded French quote in an otherwise forgotten copy of Carver’s journal? Two hundred and fifty years later, nothing short of a time machine – or at least a deep dive into the British Museum’s archives – will conclusively solve the mystery.

And that’s OK. To borrow the title of one of the late local historian Lois Barland’s books, the rivers flow on. Regardless of what we call it, the Eau Claire River is a picturesque, defining feature of the city that shares its name – wherever that name ultimately comes from.