The Name "Chelan"

By Russell Miller
December 2003

The below article THE NAME "CHELAN" comes from CHELAN VALLEY MIRROR, July 15, 1936 on the editorial page.

Arnold Mark was the editor then.

I have found that CHEELAN is indeed an Irish Surname. Makes for an interesting story. Richard Cheelan per the story would have died in about 1839. I need more research to see if there really were prospectors around Lake Chelan then. There were fur traders in the area from 1811 on but more on Columbia River than in Lake Chelan area. Have not been able to find out any more information about Mr. Dunn. Douglas Lake is in British Columbia.

I have recently seen an 1888 map on which CHELAN was twice spelled SHELAN, once for the name of the lake and once for the 1880 Army camp. George B. McClellan when he wrote in his journal on September 25, 1853 about his visit to foot of Lake Chelan called the lake "APQ". When his reports were written up the term "Lake Chelan" was used. There is a website on which one can read a lot of material on the railroad surveys which is what McClellan was doing.

I have also found the word CHELAN listed as meaning "beautiful water" The Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce website says CHELAN means "deep notch"  - Russell Miller


CHELAN is rich in story material and there seems to be some controversy regarding the method in which Lake Chelan got its name. In a pamphlet prepared by the U. S. department of agriculture the story runs, quoting:

Indian Word

"Chelan is an Indian word. to which two different meanings have been applied. The late Henry Gannett, of the United States Geological survey, gives the meaning deep water.' A grandson of Chief John Wapato, however, says that he learned from his grandfather that the word means land of bubbling water'."

Probably the first time it was reduced to writing was by Alexander Ross, 1810-1813 and he showed its true Indian character by the spelling as follows: "Passed a small but rapid stream called by the natives .'Tsill-ane,' which descended over the rocks in white, broken sheets."

Irish Surname

Mrs. Adeline Wooton, writing for the Wenatchee World on the subject tells the following story:

I have often thought of writing to tell you what I know about the naming of Lake Chelan.

In the fall of 1889 my husband, Cyrus D. Wooton was returning from the town of Chelan when he met a prospector going west upon the highway. The two men stopped and began talking. The stranger's name was William Dunn, who was going to Grants Pass, Oregon. He told Mr. Wooton that years before he had often traveled the trail east of Lake Chelan with other prospectors going from (some material in the article is garbled) they stopped at the cabin of an aged prospector, one of the first men to settle on the lake, Richard Cheelan.

They heard Cheelan groan before they came to the door. The man was very ill with mountain fever and wished them to stay with him until he had passed away. They stayed two days and buried Richard Cheelan by the cabin and the trail.

Before the lonely man passed beyond the confines of earth he told them that when a young man in Ireland he had killed a man and, becoming fearful of his own fate, had gone to Belfast where a ship lay at anchor. He went aboard and hid himself on the ship, which landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia. He went off the ship and some time later was hired by the Hudson Bay company. He worked for them, always drifting to the west until he came to the lake which bears his name, though somewhat changed, I think by some French priest.

Mr. Dunn told Mr. Wooton that Cheelan had died 40 years ago. It has been 36 years since their meeting. The Indians have been upon the lake territory a little over 50 years. They never named it, and Chelan is an Irish surname. I have never been satisfied with. the origin of the name the Indians claimed it, since Mr. Dunn told Mr. Wooton about it and felt that it should be righted.

When those old prospectors and miners used to travel over that trail from Douglas lake, there were no settlers, not even Indians, and the size was not known to those men. Mr. Dunn said that they used to call it Dick's lake and later, Cheelan's lake, never thinking of its size or importance.

William Dunn went to Grant's Pass in Oregon and later opened a road house east of Grants Pass where he was found murdered. He was an old man in 1899.

Mr. Wooton passed from the earth July 31, 1935, I am now almost 83 and do not travel about much. I am living upon our old U.S. claim. My youngest daughter and I try to carry on upon this farm, 10 miles northeast of Chelan.


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