Topeka was officially named on January 2, 1855. Fry W. Giles, one of the city’s founders, wrote that the Rev. S.Y. Lum proposed the name on January 1, 1855, and that the founders of the city chose the name because it was “a name not found in the list of post offices of the United States, nor in any lexicon of the English language. It was novel, of Indian origin and euphonious of sound.”
The name was unanimously adopted by the founders.
“Topeoka” was the Indian name for the Kansas River according to Thomas Say, who was with the 1819-1820 expedition commanded by Major S. H. Long. Say included the word “to-pe-ok-a” and its meaning “good potato river” in his list of Indian words. He explained that he recorded each word on the spot as it was pronounced by an Indian or interpreter.
Major Angus L. Langham, who was surveying the Kaw Nation lands in 1826 for the United States governmentreferred to the Kansas River as the Topeka River in his report.
The name was also on the map drawn by missionary Johnston Lykins who drew the map while living at the Potawatomi Baptist Mission in 1849. On this map, Topeka was the name of the Smoky Hill fork of the Kansas River. The map was published in a book by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1853.
Giles claimed that the Kansa Indians living in the area said that the Kansas River Valley was called Topeka because it was a good place to gather the little tuber known to non-Indians as the wild potato.
John Dunbar, Washburn University professor of Greek and Latin in the 1870s, also reported this definition. Dunbar wrote that the name Topeka is made up of three words common in the languages of the Iowa, Omaha, and Kansa Indians. “To” means potato, “pe” means good, and “okae” means to dig in these languages. He said that the word Topeka literally means a good place to dig potatoes.
Joseph James, called Jo Jim, was another Kansa man who reported that Topeka meant “a good place to dig wild potatoes.” Joe Jim was part French and part Kansa and was married to a Potawatomi woman. He lived in the area of Topeka in the mid 1800s.
In 2022, Desiree Storm Brave, Director of the Kaw Nation Language program, said the meaning of the word in the Kaw Language is:
Pi= really good
Ka= probably to do with diggin em up