Reader Adam from Fairfax, Virginia, wrote in to ask, "How did the US states get their names?" This week, we'll be tackling the origins and meanings of the names, 10 states at a time. Let's kick things off with Alabama through Georgia.
Before Europeans landed on American shores, the upper stretches of the Alabama River in present-day Alabama used to be the home lands of a Native American tribe called – drum roll, please – the Alabama (Albaamaha in their own tribal language). The river and the state both take their names from the tribe, that's clear enough, but the meaning of the name was another matter. Despite a wealth of recorded encounters with the tribe – Hernando de Soto was the first to make contact with them, followed by other Spanish, French and British explorers and settlers (who referred to the tribe, variously, as the Albama, Alebamon, Alibama, Alibamou, Alibamon, Alabamu, Allibamou, Alibamo and Alibamu) – there are no explanations of the name's meaning in the accounts of early explorers, so if the Europeans asked, they don't appear to have gotten an answer. An un-bylined article in the July 27, 1842 edition of the Jacksonville Republican put forth the idea that the word meant “here we rest.” Alexander Beaufort Meek, who served as the Attorney General of Alabama, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and the President of the First American Chess Congress, popularized this theory in his writings throughout the next decade.
The rub, of course, is that experts in the Alabama language have never been able to find any evidence to support that translation. What they did find are two words in the Choctaw language (both tribes' languages are in the Muskogean language family), alba (“plants” or “weeds”) and amo (“to cut” or “to gather”), that together make Albaamo, or “plant gatherers.” We also know that the Alabama referred to a member of their tribe as an Albaamo, cleared land and practiced agriculture largely without tools and by hand and had contact with the neighboring Choctaws. Today, the prevailing theory is that the phrase was used by the Choctaws to describe their neighbors and the Alabama eventually adopted it as their own.
Like Alabama (and, as we'll see, plenty of other state names), the name Alaska comes from the language of the area's indigenous people. The Aleuts (a name given to them by Russian fur traders in the mid 18th century; they used to, and sometimes still do, call themselves the Unangan), natives of the Aleutian Islands, referred to the Alaskan Peninsula and the mainland as alaxsxaq (ah-lock-shock), literally, “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed.”
There are two sides in the argument over the origin of Arizona's name. One side says that the name comes from the Basque aritz onak (“good oak”) and was applied to the territory because the oak trees reminded the Basque settlers in the area of their homeland. The other side says that the name comes from the Spanish Arizonac, which was derived from the O'odham (the language of the native Pima people) word ali ?ona-g (“having a little spring”), which might refer to actual springs or a site near rich veins of silver discovered in 1736. For what it's worth, official Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble had supported the latter explanation but for now favors the former.
The first Europeans to arrive in the area of present-day Arkansas were French explorers accompanied by Illinois Indian guides. The Illinois referred to the Ugakhpa people native to the region as the Akansa (“wind people” or “people of the south wind”), which the French adopted and pronounced with an r. They added an s to the end for pluralization, and for some reason it stuck when the word was adopted as the state's name. The pronunciation of Arkansas was a matter of debate (Ar-ken-saw vs. Ar-kan-zes) until it was officially decided by an act of the state legislature in 1881.
California existed in European literature way before Europeans settled the Western U.S. It wasn't a state filled with vineyards and movie stars, but an island in the West Indies filled with gold and women. The fictional paradise, first mentioned in the early 1500s by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, is ruled by Queen Califia and “inhabited by black women, without a single man among them, [living in] the manner of Amazons.” The island is said to be “one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks... everywhere abounds with gold and precious stones” and is home to griffins and other mythical beasts.
While there is some consensus that the area was named for the fictional island, scholars have also suggested that the name comes from the Catalan words calor (“hot”) and forn (“oven”) or from a Native America phrase, kali forno (“high hill”).
Colorado is a Spanish adjective that means “red.” The early Spanish explorers in the Rocky Mountain region named a river they found the Rio Colorado for the reddish silt that the water carried down from the mountains. When Colorado became a territory in 1861, the Spanish word was used as a name because it was commonly thought that the Rio Colorado originated in the territory. This was not the case, however. Prior to 1921, the Colorado River began where the Green River of Utah and the Grand River of Colorado converged outside of Moab, Utah, and the United States Geological Survey identified Green River of Wyoming as the Colorado's actual headwaters. The Rio Colorado did not actually flow through Colorado until 1921, when House Joint Resolution 460 of the 66th United States Congress changed the name of the Grand River.
The state is named after the Connecticut River, which was named quinnitukqut by the Mohegans who lived in the eastern upper Thames valley. In their Algonquian language, the word means “long river place” or “beside the long tidal river.”
Delaware is named for the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. These, in turn, were named for Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, the first colonial governor of Virginia, who traveled the river in 1610. The title is likely ultimately derived from the Old French de la werre (“of the war” or a warrior).
Six days after Easter in 1513, the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León landed near what is now the city of Saint Augustine. In honor of the holiday and the area's plant life, he named the land Florida for the Spanish phrase for the Easter season, pascua florida (“feast of flowers”). The name is the oldest surviving European place-name in the U.S.
In the early 18th century, the British Parliament assigned a committee to investigate the conditions of the country's debtor prisons and didn't like what they found. A group of philanthropists concerned with the plight of debtors proposed the creation of a colony in North America where the “worthy poor” could get back on their feet and be productive citizens again. Their plan ultimately didn't pan out as the colony wasn't settled by debtors, but the trustees of the colony still wanted to thank King George II for granting their charter, so they named the place after him.
(Bonus: The nation of Georgia is supposedly called so because its inhabitants revere St. George and feature his cross on their flag, though Georgians refer to themselves as Kartvelebi and their country as Sakartvelo.)