It was a prickly problem.
“Welcome to Suwarrow, Indiana — home of the world-famous Suwarrow 500!”
That might well have happened if Indiana’s early legislators hadn’t been prone to the time-honored political tactic of agreeing to disagree.
Or, our fair city could have been monickered: Tecumseh, Indiana.
Indeed those were just two of the names put forth in 1821 as the Indiana General Assembly, then meeting in the original state capital of Corydon, debated what to name the new, more central state capital that would be located near the bluffs of the White River and Fall Creek.
It was Marston G. Clark, a legislator from Washington County, who strongly argued for “Tecumseh” in honor of the great Native American leader of the Shawnee tribe who opposed the United States during the War of 1812. The name “Tecumseh” was quickly rejected, as were numerous other options put forth by Clark.
Eventually, another lawmaker proffered, “Suwarrow.” Pressed to define the unknown word, he replied, “Perhaps, my friends, I am not sure. But in Mexico there is a cactus, the suwarrow.” [Saguaro]
Clark apparently took offense at the suggestion, retorting, “Cactus? My dear sir we are naming a city,” thus launching the debate into the night without decision.
Eventually, another legislator and judge, Jeremiah Sullivan, had an inspiration: City of Indiana… or Indiana-polis.
When the idea was offered the next day, some in the discussion thought it was ridiculous to add a Greek suffix (polis) to an Indian name*… but once entered into committee, it eventually won approval and became the name of our fair city — therefore saving generations of Indiana 4th graders from having to ponder why a Midwestern city might be named after a nonindigenous plant. For gosh sakes, the word “Hoosier” is mystery enough!
*By the way, “Indiana” was a word invented sometime in the 1760’s, meaning “Land of the Indians.”
*Oh! And we have Columbus to thank for mistakenly believing he had landed in Southeast Asia. He was the first on this soil to use the word “Indians” — which has come to mean the indigenous peoples of this continent — and also the inhabitants of India.
*So, when it comes right down to it, we live in “The-City-of-the-Land-of-the-Indians-Who-Aren’t-from-India.”