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Being situated on the western banks of the St. Clair River, the city's name is taken from the river, which in turn was named for Lake Saint Clair. An expedition led by the French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle named it Lac Sainte-Claire, because they entered the lake on August 12, 1679, the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. The lake is named on English maps as early as 1710 as Saint Clare. But as early as the Mitchell Map in 1755, the spelling is presented with the current spelling as St. Clair. The name is sometimes attributed as honoring the American Revolutionary War General and Governor of the Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair, but the name was in use with the current spelling long before St. Clair was a notable figure. However it is possible that earlier name of the lake was conflated with that of the general in naming some of the political entities near the lake and the river, such as St. Clair County, St. Clair Township, and the cities of St. Clair and St. Clair Shores.
The origin of the name has also been confused with that Patrick Sinclair, a British officer who purchased land on the St. Clair River at the outlet of the Pine River. There, in 1764, he built Fort Sinclair, which was in use for nearly twenty years before being abandoned.