Historian finally deciphers meaning of ‘pimiteoui’

Ed McMenamin

A Chicago-area historian has helped the Tazewell County Museum and Education Center decode a Native American word that has been known in the Peoria area for a long time but not totally understood.

The Native American word “pimitieoui” has been associated with the Peoria Lake and East Peoria areas and had always been best defined as “fat lake” or “fat beast,” said museum president Christal Dagit.

“It’s a word that’s well-known in Peoria history,” she said. “No one really had a clear definition of it for a long time.”

Historian John Swenson conducted research by using old journals and manuscripts to find a better definition of the word. He also formulated a theory of where the word Pekin comes from.

He has a Kaskaskia-French dictionary compiled by Jacques Lagillier, a Jesuit who traveled the area with Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette. Swenson said the word Pekin is probably a corruption of the Kaskaskian word “Pekimina,” which can mean "apple" as well as "persimmon" or other fruits. He said the dictionary also has entries for “Pekiminakisitchiki,” which means “beautiful big apples” or a place where there are lots of apples.

The word “pimitieoui” does not appear in the Largillier dictionary, Swenson wrote in an e-mail to Dagit, but Pierre de Liette, another French explorer who lived in the area for seven years, recorded that it meant “lake where there is grease.” According to Swenson, the meaning of “pimi” in many Largillier entries was “grease or rendered animal fat.”

Grease from bear fat was the basic cooking oil of natives and the French in the area. Swenson said the letters “teoui” often carried the meaning of something being present.

He said the word might also mean the practice of rendering animal fat into grease.

“We’ve always known that this area was known for the fact that it was a place of abundant food because you had your river,” Dagit said. “The reason the eagles like to winter here is because the (river) water does not freeze.

“There’s abundant fish in the winter time. Bears love fish. There was abundant deer — all kinds of wildlife for food stuffs.

“The bear grease that the trappers and the Indians used for many resources — they used it for food, they used it for medicine — it was a commodity.”

Swenson is a retired attorney and has been researching Illinois history for 25 years. He was the contributing editor of the book “Early Chicago” and is now the contributing editor to a Web site of the same name.

Contact Ed McMenamin at emcmenamin@pekintimes.com.