River of Mystery – exploring the St. Joseph River

St. Joseph River Valley

St. Joseph River Valley, photo by mojophiltre.

Mojophiltre took this photo of the St. Joseph River, just above the Buchanan Hydro-Electric Dam. He has a view of the water going over the Buchanan Dam that you’ll want to check out too.

As usual, Wikipedia has an entry on the St. Joseph River – I like to include these so that people who are passionate and knowledgeable can add to the phenomenal resource that Wikipedia offers. The St. Joseph River Watershed site (which has some cool maps of the watershed but some rather annoying Java) says:

The St. Joseph River Watershed is located in the southwest portion of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan and northwestern portion of Indiana. It spans the Michigan-Indiana border and empties into Lake Michigan at St. Joseph, Michigan. The watershed drains 4,685 square miles from 15 counties (Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Hillsdale, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren in Michigan and De Kalb, Elkhart, Kosciusko, Lagrange, Noble, St. Joseph and Steuben in Indiana). The watershed includes 3,742 river miles…

The Friends of the St. Joseph River has a nifty historical photo of the Buchanan Dam and a great article about the history of the names of the St. Joseph River by Bob Owens & Scott Null. The river was important to native peoples – all the way from the enigmatic Hopewell Mound Builders who made their home all along the Saint Joseph River valley to the Fox & Sauk who moved in as mercenaries for the English. This very interesting page lists various names for the river and I think it’s fascinating how one river can provide such a wealth of insight into Michigan’s history:

  • The Miami called it Sauk-Wauk-Sil-Buck (which The Google thinks means “River of Mystery”).
  • The Iroquois, who apparently conducted a nasty genocidal campaign on the Algonquian in the region, called the river The Illinois – maybe because the first Algonquian tribe they met were the Illinois.
  • In spring of 1672, Explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier De La Salle (searching for the best route between Quebec and the mouth of the Mississippi) ran into the Miami (who by this time were in the pay of the Iroquois against their Algonquin brethren), so naturally he christened it The River of the Miamis.
  • Jesuit Missionary Claude Allouez (who earlier had named Lake Michigan “Lake Saint Joseph” after first sighting it on Catholic Feast Day of Saint Joseph) founded a mission at the rail junction at Bertrand. It’s noteworthy that when LaSalle returned later, he still called it the River of the Miami.
  • North and east, the French built Fort St. Joseph near Niles in 1691. At that time the Potowatomi (who called the river Sohg-Wah-Se-Pe – also Mystery River) were friendly with the French.
  • Around 1700, the Fox & Sauk tribes, who were allied with the English and named the river O-Sang-E-Wong-Se-Pe (Mystery River again), began to tangle with the Potowatomi and French.

The authors advocate for naming the river the Sagwa. I don’t know about that, but I do know that time seems to mysteriously disappear when I run into cool Michigan history like this!

More from the Michigan Fall Wallpaper series

8 thoughts on “River of Mystery – exploring the St. Joseph River

  1. I am researching my family history. My father spent summers as a boy with his Grandmother who had a farm along the St. Joseph River. He shared with us many of the happy memories he had growing up there.


    1. I live on the south bank of the St. Joe River in Mishawaka. We are one of only 3 homes here that own river frontage along this south side of the river. It is very steep and on the high side at this point ,which is the southern most stretch of the river in Indiana.The rest belongs to the city of Mishawaka. It is a beautiful and fairly wide river here. Many salmon are caught here.


  2. The names “Sauk-Wauk-Sil-Buck,” “Sohg-Wah-Se-Pe ,” and “O-Sang-E-Wong-Se-Pe” do not translate to “mystery river” in any of those Algonquin languages but refer to “coming out” which is an old reference to a Miami Story about people coming out of the water. This misinformation first started with a Potawatomi informant named Thomas Topash, part Potawatomi/ part Myaamia, to an individual named Jacob Dunn near the turn of the 20th century.The Myaamia name should appear as “Saakiweesiipii” the Potawatomi as “Sakiwe zibi” and the Sauk/ Mesquakie as “Osakiwok zibi.” In Ojibwe and Odawa, this would appear as “Ozaagi-” which actually was a name applied to the Sauk, Sauk = Zaagii – “An Outlet” being an intransitive inanimate verb, zaagiing being “where the outlet is” as locative.

    In each case, uniformly, the morpheme “Saki,” “Saakii,” “Osaki,” and “Ozaagii” refer to “out,” whether by flowing out or coming out, from a natural phenomena standpoint or by cultural affiliation through story.


  3. Can somebody tell me why there are 2 St. Joseph Rivers?, Only 3 Miles apart both starting in Hillsdale County, Michigan. The other one that ends in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


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