For more than 150 years, Paducahans weren’t sure how their own fair city got its name. Because of the muddle, a number of legends arose, and Paducahans bounced back and forth between a couple origin stories with the namesake either being a seven-foot tall Native American named Chief Paduke or an enterprising Irishman named Pat Dugan who established a woodyard on Owen’s Island. Further tangling the situation, native son, outspoken author, and Native American enthusiast, Irvin S. Cobb, was convinced that Paducah was a compound word in the Chickasaw tradition that meant “where the wild grapes grow.” None of these theories were right, however, and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that a long lost letter was discovered that solved the mystery. Written by William Clark, who platted our city, the letter explained that Paducah was named for the tribe of Native Americans who originally lived here, a people known as Padoucas.
And that’s that.
Or is it?
How about one more legend, a legend based in human sacrifice? The following description of Paducah is quoted from an 1838 Baltimore Sun article: This village contains from 1000 to 1200 inhabitants, has 15 or 20 stores, 3 taverns, and no place of worship. It is not esteemed healthy. It derives its name from an Indian woman, who had been taken captive by the Pawnees, and sacrificed, after having her life promised her.”
This story of the kidnapped woman does not originate with the Baltimore Sun, but with Edmund Flagg’s early American travelogue, “The Far West,” first published in 1836. In the short passage, Flagg describes Paducah’s location on the mouth of the Tennessee as a “place of importance,” and then similarly describes the naming of Paducah as coming from an unfortunate captive who was sacrificed by the Pawnee. Seemingly related, another account of a Pawnee kidnapping and sacrifice, wholly independent of Flagg’s, was published in the Gazetteer of the State of Missouri (1837), which stated: “Information had been communicated to Mr. Dougherty, acting agent of Indian affairs at Council Bluffs, by Major Pilcher, that the Pawnee Loups were making preparation to sacrifice to the ‘Great Star’ a Paducah woman, who had been captured by a war-party about two months previous.”
So, as far-fetched as a tale of sacrifice seems, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to give a person pause. The story is supported by more than one source, and those reports come from the same basic period, a time very close to Paducah’s incorporation as a town. Further, at the time of Paducah’s founding, Pawnee were in the area, and they were known to engage in human sacrifice.
The simplest, oldest, and likeliest story of Paducah’s name originates with Clark’s 1827 letter. It’s fairly indisputable. But however incredible the human sacrifice story may seem, legends have to originate somewhere, so, who knows, there may be a kernel of truth in there.
For more about this and that and other such things, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.
The attached image is a recreation of a Pawnee Sacrifice.