Two questions, related to each other, are often asked about two distinctive names in Cooksville’s history: “Why is the creek named ‘Badfish’?” and “Why is the larger part of the village of Cooksville legally named ‘Waucoma’?”
The name “Badfish” is the present name given to the small river or creek that runs along the northern edge of Cooksville, flowing and zigzagging from the Madison-Oregon area southeast to the Yahara River east of Cooksville. But it probably had another name originally.
The name, “Bad Fish,” appears to have been applied, perhaps mistakenly, in late 1833, when the U.S. government land surveyors were moving through the Wisconsin part of the Michigan Territory from the east and the Rock River to the west past the Yahara (Catfish) River and on further west in Rock County (then part of Brown County), through a “Rolling Prairie,” as their sketch map called it. When the surveyors came upon a large creek in the northwest corner of what is now Rock County, they apparently thought they had reached a part of the Bad Fish River (later the Sugar River) system
The Bad Fish River was the name of the upper branch of the Sugar River at that time. (A map published in 1833 by Baldwin and Crudock shows the “Bad Fish River” flowing south from the Four Lakes area near Madison to the Sugar River in Illinois.) The land surveyors presumed, mistakenly, that the little creek flowing from that direction was a small tributary of the Bad Fish River. Thus, they named it the Bad Fish Creek. (Most likely these early surveyors did not know the existing Indian name of the creek.)
For whatever reason, the name “Bad Fish Creek” was recorded in the early 1830s survey.
The original name of the creek appears to have been “Waucoma.” A recollection by a Cooksville resident, possibly Isaac Porter, written circa 1911, describes the early 1840s settlement of the area, which later became Porter Township. His recollection sheds some light on the origin of the name “Waucoma” chosen by his uncle, Dr. John Porter, for the village he platted in 1846 adjacent to Cooksville. The recollection also reveals the possible original name of the “lovely little river” flowing through Cooksville.
Filed under “Porter Memories” in the collections of Susan Porter (daughter of William Porter) and now part of the Cooksville Archives, the document refers to the Cooksville area as a “lovely region along the lovely little river Waucoma…. Dr. John Porter named his village plat Waucoma, the Indian name of the river…” Later, the anonymous writer also states that, “very early a saw mill was built by Dr. Porter on that Waucoma River…” (This was the mill built on the Porter farm about a mile east of Cooksville.)
It seems the creek was also known as Waucoma River when the villages of Cooksville (1842) and Waucoma (1846) were settled.
To give some credence to the Indian name of “Waucoma” for the little river— or perhaps to add some confusion — Joseph K.P. Porter, another nephew of Dr. John Porter, published his “reminiscence of the early history of Cooksville” as number seven in a series of “Old Settlers’ Stories” in The Badger newspaper, Evansville, April 6, 1895. In that article, Porter writes that Dr. John Porter “platted it [the village] and gave it the name of Waucoma. Waucoma is an Indian name meaning Clear Water. It was thought to be an appropriate name, as the village lies upon the bank of a fine stream of water. The name was suggested by Governor Doty, who was well versed in Indian lore.”
Perhaps Governor Doty was one of those who knew the creek’s Indian name and suggested it as the name for Porter’s new village, Waucoma, located on that “fine stream of water.”
The name “Waucoma” was researched in the 1960s, but the etymology was undiscovered and did not appear to mean “clear water” in any Indian language. However, in Wisconsin many place names that seem to be associated with water contain that Indian language syllable “wau,” as in Waukesha, Wauwatosa, Milwaukee, Wautoma, Wausau, Waubesa and others. So it seems “Waucoma” could well be of Indian origin. And it may well have been the first name of what eventually became Cooksville’s little Badfish Creek.
So, what’s in a name? The Indians no doubt called the clear-running creek a name, apparently “Waucoma,” and early surveyors named it, perhaps mistakenly, the “Bad Fish,” after the nearby Bad Fish River. And Dr. Porter may well have chosen the name “Waucoma” for his new village, one of the many pleasant, musical names that the Indians had long ago given to the land and its features that once was theirs to name and to claim.
The rather silly “myth” that the name “Bad Fish” came from an Indian husband who blamed his upset stomach on a dinner of bad fish from the creek rather than disparage his new wife’s bad cooking can be easily dismissed if for no other reason than the Indian husband most likely did not utter the English words “bad fish” —or “bad fish fry”—as he rubbed his troubled tummy. (But, then, how did the “Bad Fish River,” now the Sugar River, get its original name?)
Both of these names are part of Cooksville’s story, and the two names—Badfish and Waucoma—reflect two characteristics of the time: the long Native American occupancy of the land and water and the brash spirit of the American frontier as it quickly moved westward into the Wisconsin Territory.
Knowing (or making an educated etymological guess) at the reasons for a particular name can prove interesting. For instance, thanks to the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who first realized in 1507 that the two continents in the western Atlantic were not Asia, and especially thanks to Martin Waldseemüller, the German cartographer who made the continents’ first map in 1507 and applied Amerigo’s first name to those mysterious, new continents— thanks to them, we are known as “Americans” and not as “Vespuccians”!
[Excerpt from “The Village of Cooksville: A Chronicle of the Town that Time Forgot,” being written by Larry Reed.]