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Oh really? How to pronounce Cuyahoga

Is it “Cuya-HO-guh,” “Cuya-HOG-uh” or something else?

Ann Gilmore from Kent wants to know the correct pronunciation of the name of the river that has drawn people to the area for centuries. This is actually a question that arose 13 years ago, on June 22, 2009. Then-Ideastream reporter Don Babkoff — a New York native — pronounced the river’s name “kuya-HOG-uh.” NPR anchor Melissa Block did the same. By the next day, listeners, politicians and NPR Midwest bureau chief Ken Barkus weighed in.

They never came to a decision.

One person they didn’t ask was John Grabowski, senior vice president of research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society and professor of history at Case Western Reserve University.

“One person traced its Native American origin and claimed it was ‘kuya-ho-guh,’ not ‘kuya-hog-uh,'” he said. “Another story is that people on the west side of Cleveland tend to have this west-side-east-side-division. I’ll probably go with ‘kuya-ho-guh’ because of the slight hint that it reflects a Native American pronoun.

Grabowski said “Cuya-HO-guh” provides a connection to the area’s first people, who were here before Moses Cleveland surveyed the area. He named it “Cuyahoga” before surveyors convinced him to name it after him.

IdeaStream Senior Reporter Kabir Bhatia: I grew up mostly in Summit County, but we were halfway between Akron and Cleveland. I hadn’t heard “Cuya-HOG-uh” until about 15 years ago.

Grabowski: My family is from Cuyahoga Falls, and I’m smack dab in the middle [syllable] Because I’m not sure what my late father-in-law used.

We get a lot of new people to Cleveland. When newbies come in it gets there, they want to know [how to pronounce it]. However you macerate it, mix it, whatever, I think that’s one of the charms of the name: it never quite hits.

Bhatia: I was clearly listening to a certain car dealer’s ads elsewhere and they said “Cuy-YU-guh.”

Grabowski: No, that’s wrong. I think it was a place in New York. It is ‘May-to, MAH-to, Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to.’ You know, the song says, ‘Let’s turn the whole thing off.’

Bhatia: Yeah, and actually let’s go back a minute where we were talking about Cuyahoga Falls, which is part of the Western Reserve. We had a question from listeners in Mantua: What exactly is this and what are the boundaries?

Grabowski: Bad joke, people think Western Reserve is a form of bourbon distilled in Cleveland. I think it is rising again in popularity.

This map of northern Ohio shows the 1826 boundaries of the Western Reserve.

Grabowski (cont’d): It’s really the 17th century and dates back to King Charles. The colony of Connecticut had land grants and basically they gave them all the land between two degrees of latitude: from Narragansett Bay to the Great South Sea. So that colony had land along what we now know as the United States. [There was] There is no recognition of anyone else having rights over the land, including indigenous peoples. To fast-forward, many colonies had these trans-Appalachian claims. When the United States was formed, most of the colonies gave up those rights and then became part of the federal lands. But Connecticut was able to retain part of its claim West of the Alleghenies.

Bhatia: Now how could they do that?

Grabowski: Parts of the claim are influenced by Pennsylvania and New York. That’s about 3 million square miles that Connecticut has set aside as its western reserve. That was basically from Youngstown to the Pennsylvania line to the lake [and] 120 miles west, around Cedar Point.

Bhatia: So, the area within that – east of the Cuyahoga River – was under Native-American control until the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, and then how was it settled?

Grabowski: The state of Connecticut… didn’t want to sell the land piecemeal. He wanted to sell it in chunks. So, he got a group of investors, formed the Connecticut Land Company, and Moses Cleveland was a member of that consortium. Here he was selected to lead the survey. He surveyed the land east of the river. It was called ‘New Connecticut’ and later ‘Connecticut Western Reserve’. The ‘New Connecticut’ has gone a way, but the ‘Western Reserve’ is still a name with us. I work for two organizations, Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society, which reflect just one piece of land, but in the early part of what I call the colonial period here, because it was New England. It was mostly Protestant and that’s why around the Western Reserve lands, particularly east of the Cuyahoga River, you’ll find public squares, you’ll find town squares, and it’s a reminder of New Connecticut.

Cuyahoga County Council.png
As this map of Cuyahoga County council wards shows, the eastern border of the county is a straight line except for Chagrin Falls.

Chagrin Falls changes the county boundary

Eric Castle of Shaker Heights “Oh really?” asks why Chagrin Falls juts out from the direct eastern border of Cuyahoga County. John Bourissau, president of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society, said it goes back to when the land was settled in the 1830s.

Bourissau: There was one problem, and the county line actually ran through the center of town. You had people on one side of town going to Chardon to do their business. People from the other side of town went to Cleveland. You basically have half the mills in this growing community that are in Geauga County and half the mills are in Cuyahoga County.

Bhatia: And this is when the land swap is proposed, right?

Bourissau: Orange Township gets 900 acres of Russell Township and Geauga County and Geauga County gets 900 acres of Cuyahoga County, and that land swap took place in 1841. So, the county line, for a while, went down. In and then out and then back because of the land swap. Then in 1843, Geauga County decided they didn’t like their land: it wasn’t good farmland. So they gave it back, but Cuyahoga County kept their 900 acres.

Bhatia: It’s getting closer to us, but what happened?

Bourrisseau: In 1844, they took a new section of Orange Township and part of Solon Township and they formed Chagrin Township. And the way the bump happened.

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