A common story told in the Paducah area is that William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark fame, named Paducah for a Chickasaw chieftain called Chief Paduke, but this is incorrect. Clark was actually referring to a tribe he learned about during his travels exploring the west.

In a letter to his son on April 27, 1827, Clark wrote:

“I expect to go to the mouth of the Tennessee River, and be absent about two weeks. I have laid out a town there and intend to sell some lots in it, the name is Paducah, one of the largest Indian nations known in this country, and now almost forgotten.”

Clark was actually referencing a tribe called the Padouca, but spelled it Paducah. From the Lewis and Clark Original Journals, the tribes living to the west of the Mandan Tribes in the Ree Villages were documented. In this excerpt by George Bird Grinnell in the American Anthropologist, the Padouca are discussed:

Lewis and Clark Original Journals, vol. 1, p. 190, gives information obtained at Ree Villages, 1804. In the list of tribes that live on the plains to the west of the Rees one is given Cat-tar-kah, interpreted as Paducar. This information was presumably had through a French interpreter, for the other tribal names in the list are translated in English. This would seem to show that the French on the Upper Missouri considered the Cataka to be Padouca.

du Pratz’s map of Louisiana 1757 showing the Padoucas, Library of Congress Cat# 73697611. Click here for a closer view.

Grinnell also gives more information regarding French sources explaining where the term Padoucas originated:

Padoucas—English name, French nickname Padoo, Padoucies is their own tongue. Live in villages on heads of Platte and Arkansas, trade with New Mexico; many horses. Yet almost immediately Clark says he could get no definite information about this once powerful nation, and quotes French writers. Speaks of a fork of the Platte bearing the name of the tribe and conjectures that the nation had broken up and become individual small tribes.

George Rogers Clark flood wall mural. (Photo by John Cashon)

So this is where Clark first learned of the Padoucas, but the French information was also incorrect. By looking into the Spanish documents of the time, a clearer picture emerges.

While the French were located east of the plains, the Spanish were in the areas of New Mexico and Texas in the south, and they had much more information about the inhabitants in the central and southern plains areas where the French said the Padouca lived. When the Spanish first settled in the area, they encountered the Pueblo and Apache tribes.

The Pueblo were the first to learn the usefulness of the Spanish Mustang, and the Apache quickly followed suit. When the Mississippi and Missouri Valley tribes first encountered the Apache, they called them the Padouca, and they discovered the difficulties in fighting warriors from horseback. This would have occurred before firearms were traded to the various tribes, and this technique of fighting from horseback would have been a major advantage to the Apache in warfare.

From the Texas State Historical Association:

The Spanish first contacted the Apaches in 1541, when Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his men encountered a band of “Querechos” on the journey to Quivira. From 1656 to 1675, the Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico suffered heavily from almost continuous Apache raids. These raids, in conjunction with drought, harsh Spanish rule, and missionary activities, led the Pueblo Indians to revolt and to drive the Spaniards out of New Mexico in 1680 (the “Pueblo Revolt). When the Spaniards reconquered New Mexico in 1692, the Apaches were a powerful nation of mounted Indians who raided with impunity wherever they desired.

In the mid 1700’s, the Apaches were displaced by an incursion of a fierce, warlike tribe called the Comanches that had recently learned to use horses in warfare. The Comanches were an off-shoot branch of the northern Shoshone Tribe from the Rocky Mountains that moved into the southern plains and they quickly drove the Apaches out of the area through conquest.

The Spanish did not record the term ‘Padouca’ for any of the Plains tribes that they encountered, and since many of the French documents referred to a people from the same area, it can be concluded they were meaning the Apache before the Comanche moved into the area.

Since Lewis and Clark were traveling up the Missouri River, many of the tribes of this area did not have accurate information about the inhabitants in the southern plains, and these tribes would have possibly gained their knowledge of the plains tribes from the French traders that had been in the region for a while. The stories they told Lewis and Clark referred to a once numerous and powerful tribe in the plains that had disappeared after the Europeans arrived.

It was this ‘lost’ tribe that Clark was referring to in his letter to his son about the Padoucas, and the reason Paducah got its name.


Additional Reading:

Who were the Padouca? by George Bird Grinnell –
American Anthropologist Volume 22, Issue 3, Article first published online: 28 OCT 2009


12 thoughts on “How Paducah, Kentucky got its name

    1. It could be a myth, but I am researching if Clark really did have an Native American Chieftain that he called Chief Paduke to help him possibly sell lots in Paducah. To me, this could be plausible considering all of the trouble he had with clearing his deed to the land. The Native Americans that were in this area were Chickasaw, that lived in Mississippi, so the origin of the Padoucas would not have been known in this area.

      These are some of the questions that I am trying to figure out through my research.

  1. Great research, I was born and raised in Paducah. I have heard several different stories on this subject,
    finally the myth of Paducahs name can be put to rest

  2. I am a desendant of a mixed raced people heavily indian, most likely mulgeon. Whose land was purchased by President Andrew Jackson in the early 1800’s. The susequently settled in Snow Lake, Ark. But they were remnants of a tribe that was forgotten and just disappeared. They would have been the tribe that greeted Daniel Boone and John Stuart.

  3. There is an historical marker in Paducah near the flood wall that says Paducah original name was Pekin. It was changed, it says, because a nearby town had the same name. There exists a Pekin, Indiana. Can this be correlated with the above story?

    1. I had read that Pekin was the name of the town created by people that settled before the Jackson Purchase was signed in 1818. Because they didn’t own the land that General George Rogers Clark laid claim to in 1795. The claim was passed down to William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark fame, when the General died. It was then William renamed the town to Paducah. There was a dispute with the Porterfield family heirs because they had a Virginia Military warrant. This caused Paducah from being created earlier because it had to finally be settled by the courts. I am not sure about the other town but the name Pekin may have to do with the Indiana town.

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