Chief Kokomo - Part I
Article by Historian, Carl Leiter
The Legend. -- Just who was 'Chief Kokomo?' We have a beautiful legend about him. It says he was the last of the Fighting Miamis. It extols his virtues of 'splendid courage, lofty character and becoming habits.' So numerous were Chief Kokomo's acts of kindness, says the legend, that our first settlers insisted the young town be named in his honor. The Howard County Atlas of 1877 has one historian saying simply, "The town derived its name from an old Indian Chief." We deserve more than that.
This cenotaph in Pioneer Cemetery a block south of Superior Street on Purdum Street secures a place for Chief Kokomo in our local history. While this monument does not stand over the specific grave of the Indian called Kokomo, his bones were, in fact, interred here, but only by a long and devious route in time and history:
It's a lovely legend, almost too good to be true, and there are a few stories still kicking around that insist that is precisely the case. One claim says the Indian named Kokomo was not a chief or any tribal leader of any kind at all. No one ever described him except to say he was extremely tall, nothing else. He never sat for a portrait and he was gone from the scene before anyone could capture his likeness on film. We do have some artists' conceptions, these all based on which facet of the Kokomo legend you prefer to believe. Still the legend remains and he is forever referred to as Chief Kokomo.
One vicious story about Chief Kokomo is that he was nothing but a "coon-hunting, root-digging old redskin" who was shiftless, atrociously lazy, and given to beating up his squaw everytime he over-indulged in strong drink, which was often. According to this story, so despicable was the Indian named Kokomo that the Miami Nation would not claim him as a tribal member.
The Peru Miamis especially have a lachrymose tale regarding our chief. They admit he was once a member of their band but of much disrepute and a rabble-rouser who had much of the village in a continual uproar. According to their version of the legend, in one final act of defiance, he rounded up a number of his followers, mostly squaws, and headed out for Wildcat Creek where he established his own village. An Indian village is indicated on some early maps at this site, in fact, to suggest the town was here in the late 1830s:
Photo of the Lafountain Reserve with caption: "Called Reserve #6 in the Miami Treaty of 1840, this tract was awarded to Miami Chief Francis LaFontaine who held it for only a short time. The tract, bounded on the north by Taylor Street, was later surveyed and is shown here in the Public Land Survey Plat of Twp. 24 N., Range 3 E., surveyed in the summer of 1847. The surveyors clearly showed a cluster of Indian residences near what is today the intersection of Main and Sycamore streets, identified as 'Ko-Ko-Mo.' Settlers' homes were represented by drawings of cabins on the map. Compare this sketch with the one below of contemporary Kokomo:
From my own discussions with Miami Indian tribal descendants, it seemed they rather enjoyed criticizing Chief Kokomo. We have early pioneer histories that say the name Kokomo means 'Black Walnut,' 'She-Bear,' or "The Diver." None of those names appear in Peru's lexicon for our namesake. They have a lot of other names, the kindest of which was "Old Woman." Chief Kokomo can't get good references in Peru.
Even David Foster, founder of Kokomo Village, added tarnish to Chief Kokomo's name. You would think a town-founder would have put a lot of deep thought into the name he picked for the town he's platted. But when asked why he named the town 'Kokomo,' Foster reportedly replied, "It was the ornriest town on earth, so I named it for the ornriest man I knew -- called it Kokomo." From other tales Foster is said to have told, we may wish to think this story was told in jest, but the fact remains that these remarks have done little good for either the Chief or the town. Likely a lot of people never realized Kokmo was an "ornery town" from day one.
A plat of modern-day Kokomo with the Lafountain Reserve boundary lines superimposed on it. Tradition has it that the Indian Cemetery when Kokomo was platted in 1844 was on the north bank of Wildcat Creek between Washington and Main streets. When the railroad rightofway was graded on the north side of the creek in what is now the center of Buckeye Street, several Indian burials were revealed. These bones were collected and one was deemed to be that of Chief Kokomo, recognized for it's length:
Was there ever a person named Kokomo? The wife of one of the town's first settlers once told an acquaintance late in life "...she never knew anyone called Kokomo, and she didn't know anyone else that did." If true, these are significant words, for she knew everyone that lived in the town in its early days. Well, all these tales can be summed up as the "Bad News." The "Good News" is that there was an Indian named Kokomo, and he lived, died and was buried where the city of Kokomo now stands.
Chief Francis Godfroy maintained a trading post at the mouth of the Mississinewa River back in the 1830s, and I have seen the entries when the records were still intact in the Miami County courthouse museum in the early 1950s. One entry in particular was meaningful to me, that of Wed, June 27, 1838, when "Koh Koh maw" and a squaw were billed $12 for a barrel of flour. As I now recall, they also bought a few yards of Calico. Most Indians also bought Whiskey which sold at .25 a quart, but Koh Koh Maw has no record there of buying whiskey. This does not support the reputation some give him.
Those who knew Chief Kokomo described him as being out-spoken and fearless. And all who knew him said he was the tallest Indian they'd ever seen, and towered over anyone else in town. One settler of early-day Kokomo who is supposed to have been well-acquainted with Chief Kokomo was Judge Long, Kokomo's first gunsmith. Long repaired guns for the Indians as well as the settlers, and the Indians called him "Specks" as he wore glasses. Long claimed the first time he met Chief Kokomo, the chief charged at him with murder in mind, and he later found out it was due to the Indian learning that Long was a Kentuckian. The Chief had once been cheated by a man from Kentucky and this seemed like a chance to "get even."
There were other local Indians known to the early settlers of Howard County. The Howard County Historical Atlas of 1877 says Nip Po Wah lived at Vermont and Shoc Co To Quaw at Greentown. Pete Cornstalk lived at Indian Suck (the southeast corner of Ervin Twp.) and Ma Shock O Mo south of Greentown a mile and a half; Shap Pau Do Sho which meant "Through and Through," was at Cassville, and "Co Co Mo" in Kokomo. Thanks to a whim of David Foster who christened his newly platted county seat "KoKoMo," only one of these names secured a permanent place in Hoosier history, that of Chief Kokomo.