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Should we bleep ‘Chinga’ from our mythology?

Myths and legends are mighty motivators — beloved and important parts of our society, helping us reach for and achieve our shared metaphorical dreams. But as with actual dreams and metaphors, they may be based on something other than verifiable facts.

Most of us know, for example, that Columbus probably didn’t discover America; Leif Erickson more likely did. Not as many of us have considered historians’ observations that, at the time of Columbus’ voyage, only a few people actually thought the world was flat.

We’ve all heard that Puritans came to the New World to enjoy religious freedom. In fact, recently discovered documents tend to indicate, they may have come here to escape it — specifically, laws that allowed the worship of many other faiths, including Judaism.

Despite what we were told as kids, Washington never chopped down a cherry tree; the story we all love to repeat appears to have been invented after Washington’s death by a biographer who admitted that he made up the tale for dramatic purposes, as happens in modern TV docu-dramas.

Washington wasn’t even the first person with the title president of the United States. He was merely the first under the Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate on July 4, was not approved, signed, or announced on that date.

And contrary to the claims of many, three of its key authors and supporters — Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, who thought July 2 should be celebrated instead — weren’t what we nowadays would call Christians.

Jefferson even produced an edited Bible, removing from it everything he considered mystical, including the divinity of Christ. A copy of Jefferson’s “Bible” is on display at the Smithsonian.

Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press or even moveable type. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. Cowboys didn’t wear Stetsons; most preferred bowlers or derbies. The list goes on.

Myths are part of American culture. The glory of the myth is still relevant, even if facts don’t always support it.

The notion that our upcoming Chingawassa Days refers to an Indian chief from the 1800s whose name was spelled that way may be yet another of those wonderful myths that we love and accept even if the truth behind them isn’t always clear.

The annual festival takes its name from a much heralded but briefly lived resort and mineral baths called Chingawasa Springs (with one S instead of two), 4½ miles northeast of Marion.

Until the Panic of 1893, which led to a seven-year depression almost as severe as the Great Depression four decades later, Chingawasa Springs was a thriving hotel, restaurant, and sanatorium, built in 1888 and linked to Marion by a municipally financed narrow-gauge railway that opened July 29, 1889, and ran down the center of 3rd St. in town.

Both the Santa Fe and Rock Island railroads sold cross-continental tickets from Chicago to points west that included layovers at the popular mineral baths, reached via the Marion Belt and Chingawasa Springs Railroad (also with one S), which also hauled stone from nearby quarries.

The sole remaining passenger car from the railroad was relocated in 2005 from Marion to the Orphan Train Museum in Concordia. The line’s other passenger car reputedly for many years housed Marion’s Owl Car Café.

Legend has it that the springs were named for an Osage chief who figured prominently in the history of the region. Some rumors say he resided in a large community of native people, oblique references to which appear in 1870s newspapers, in the same general area just north of Marion.

Whether the springs were named for him and even what his name meant in the Osage language are unclear, however.

Doubters have suggested an alternative source of the term “chinga wassa,” which in Spanish slang means, as politely as we can put it, “cocked-up water” — a somewhat fitting name for the springs, which produced stinky water laced with sulfur.

The festival’s shorthand name — “Chinga” — is, in fact, a very vulgar word in Spanish, that language’s equivalent of English’s “F”-word.

Diaries of explorer Zebulon Pike find evidence of an Osage named Chinga Wassa, son of Pike’s guide Shenga Wassa, in the early 1800s — long before the springs were named.

The names Shin-ga-wasa and Chingawasa (with both one S and two) appear as signatories in 1820s and 1830s treaties with the Osage and Kanza nations, some of them executed as nearby as in Council Grove.

Several of the documents contain English versions of the name Chinga Was(s)a as “Handsome Bird” and Shenga Wassa as “Beautiful Bird.”

In a 1908 speech about the closely related Kaw (or Kanza) Indians, whom the Osage lived among and shared a Sioux dialect, State Sen. George P. Morehouse of Diamond Springs asserted that the spring was named after a noted Kaw brave (not chief), Ching-Gah-Was-See, whose name Morehouse said meant Handsome Bird.

Ching-Gah-Was-See’s claim to fame, other than supposedly having the springs near Marion named after him, appeared to be that he had warned a government Indian agent when a drunken 1870s-era chief from his tribe planned to kill the agent near Council Grove. The Kaw soon afterward were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, before the spring ever was named.

According to a librarian at the Osage nation’s genealogical archives in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the names are more appropriately spelled Shin Ka Wa Sa, but their meaning is obscure.

In research requested by the Record, archivists found the name appearing with two Osage clans — the Hun Ka Gra She (Mottled Eagle) and Hun Ka U Lum Ha Ka (Last in the Hun Ka Order).

A center employee even recalled a latter-day member of the Osage nation named Shin Ka Was A, who died a few years ago.

There’s no evidence, however, that any of them, however their names were spelled, ever appeared in Marion County, much less had a sulfur spring named after them.

Still, a festival by any other name may smell as sweet — or, in this case, as sulfuric, though at this time of year, this particular sulfur water smells mighty sweet on its own merits, regardless of any mythical legend or historical fact.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 1, 2022

 

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