How Did the States in the USA Get Their Names? (Part II)

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Reader Adam from Fairfax, Virginia, wrote in to ask, "How did the US states get their names?" This week, we're tackling the origins and meaning of the names 10 states at a time. Here's Hawaii through Maryland. (Be sure to also check out yesterday's post on Alabama through Georgia.)

Hawaii

No one is certain, so take your pick. The name may come from the Proto-Polynesian Sawaiki or "homeland" (some early explorers' accounts have the natives calling the place Hawaiki, a compound of hawa, "homeland," and ii, "small, active") or from Hawaii Loa, the Polynesian who tradition says discovered the islands.

Idaho

The origin of Idaho's name, like a few other names we've already talked about, is a mystery. When it was proposed as the name of a new U.S. territory, it was explained as a derivation of the Shoshone Indian term ee-da-how, meaning "gem of the mountains" or "the sun comes from the mountains." It's possible that the word, and its Indian origin, were made up by the man who proposed the name, George M. Willing, an eccentric industrialist and mining lobbyist (not all historians and linguists agree on this, though, and the most common alternate explanation is that the name comes from the Apache word idaahe ("enemy"), which the Kiowas Indians applied to the Comanches they came in contact with when they migrated to southern Colorado). When Congress was considering establishing a mining territory in the Rocky Mountains in 1860, Willing and B. D. Williams, a delegate from the region, championed "Idaho." The request for the name came up in the Senate in January 1861 and Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon objected to "Idaho," saying, "I do not believe it is an Indian word. It is a corruption. No Indian tribe in this nation has that word, in my opinion... It is a corruption certainly, a counterfeit, and ought not to be adopted." Lane was roundly ignored, probably because he had the bad luck of having been the vice presidential candidate for the pro-slavery southern wing of the Democratic Party in the previous year's election.

After the Senate approved the name, Williams, for some reason, gave into curiosity and looked into Lane's claim. He heard from several sources that Willing or someone in his group of territorial supporters had invented the name "Idaho" and that the word didn't actually mean anything. Williams went back to the Senate and requested that the name be changed. The Senate agreed and used a name that had been on the table before Willing and Williams showed up: "Colorado."

A year later, Congress set out to establish another mining territory in the northwest part of the continent. "Idaho" was again a contender as a name. Without Williams there to call shenanigans and with the senators who should have remembered the last naming incident just a little bit preoccupied with the Civil War, "Idaho" went unchallenged and became the name of the territory and the state.

Illinois

"Illinois" is the modern spelling of the early French explorers' name for the people they found living in the area, which they spelled in endless variations in their records. The Europeans' first meeting with the Illinois was in 1674. Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary and explorer, followed a path to a village and asked the people there who they were. According to Marquette's writings, "They replied that they were Ilinois...when one speaks the word...it is as if one said, in their language, 'the men'." The explorers thought the tribal name to signify a grown man in his prime, separate from, and superior to, the men of other tribes.

Indiana

The state's name means "Indian Land" or "Land of the Indians," named so for the Indian tribes that lived there when white settlers arrived. While its meaning might be simple enough, the way it got the name is a little more interesting. At the end of the French and Indian War, the French were forced out of the Ohio Valley, so a Philadelphia trading company moved in to monopolize trade with the Indians in the area. At the time, the tribes of the Iroquois had already formed a confederacy and conquered territory beyond their home lands, subjugating other tribes and treating them as tributaries. In the fall of 1763, members of the Shawnee and other tribes who were tributary to the Iroquois Confederacy conducted raids on traders from the Philadelphia company and stole their goods. The company complained to the chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy and demanded restitution. The chiefs accepted responsibility for the behavior of their tributaries, but did not have the money to pay off the debt. Instead, when making a boundary treaty with the English five years later, the chiefs gave a 5,000-square-mile tract of land to the Philadelphia company, which accepted the land as payment.

The land's new owners, in the search for a name, noted a trend in the way states and countries in both the Old World and New World were named. Bulgaria was the land of the Bulgars, Pennsylvania was the woodland of Penn, etc. They decided to honor the people to whom the land originally belonged and from whom it had been obtained and named it Indiana, land of the Indians. The year the colonies declared their independence from Britain, the Indiana land was transferred to a new company, who wanted to sell it. Some of the land, though, was within the boundaries of Virginia, which claimed that it had jurisdiction over the land's settlers and forbade the company from selling it. In 1779, the company asked Congress to settle the matter. It made an attempt, but, still operating under Articles of Confederation, had no power to compel Virginia to do anything. The argument eventually went to the United States Supreme Court, but Virginia's government officials, strong believers in states' rights, refused to become involved with a federal court and ignored the summons to appear. In the meantime, Virginia's politicians worked to secure the Eleventh Amendment, which protected the states' sovereign immunity from being sued in federal court by someone of another state or country (and was proposed in response to a Supreme Court case dealing with Georgia's refusal to appear to hear a suit against itself, in which the Supreme Court decided against Georgia).

After the amendment was passed and ratified, the company's suit was dismissed and it lost its claim to the land, which was absorbed by Virginia. The name would come back in 1800, when Congress carved the state of Ohio out of the Northwest Territory and gave the name "Indiana" to the remaining territorial land and, 16 years later, a new state.

Iowa

Iowa's name comes from the Native American tribe that once lived there, the Ioway. What the word means depends on who you ask.

One pioneer in the area wrote in 1868 that "some Indians in search of a new home encamped on a high bluff of the Iowa River near its mouth...and being much pleased with the location and the country around it, in their native dialect exclaimed, 'Iowa, Iowa, Iowa' (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful), hence the name Iowa to the river and to those Indians." A report from the 1879 General Assembly of Iowa translated the word a little differently and claimed it meant "the beautiful land." However, members of the Ioway Nation, who today inhabit Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, will tell you that Ioway is the French spelling of Ayuhwa, a name meaning "sleepy ones" given to the tribe in jest by the Dakota Sioux. (The Ioway refer to themselves as Baxoje (bah-ko-jay) or "the gray/ashy heads," a name that stems from an incident where tribe members were camping in the Iowa River valley and a gust of wind blew sand and campfire ashes onto their heads.)

Kansas

Kansas was named after the Kansas River, which was named after the Kansa tribe who lived along its banks. Kansa, a Siouan word, is thought to be pretty old. How old? Its full and original meaning was lost to the tribe before they even met their first white settler. Today, we only know that the word has some reference to the wind, possibly "people of the wind" or "people of the south wind."

Kentucky

There is no consensus on where Kentucky's name comes from. Among the possibilities, though, are various Indians words, all from the Iroquoian language group, meaning "meadow," "prairie," "at the prairie," "at the field," "land of tomorrow," "river bottom," and "the river of blood."

Louisiana

Louisiana comes from the French La Louisiane, or "Land of Louis." It was named for Louis XIV, the King of France from 1643 to 1715. Exciting, no?

Maine

Maine is another case where no one is quite sure how the name came about. Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason, who received a charter for land in Maine, were both English Royal Navy veterans, and the name may have originated with the sailors differentiating "the mainland" from the many islands off the state's coast. Maine's state legislature, meanwhile, passed a resolution in 2001 that established Franco-American Day and claimed that the state was named after the French province of Maine.

Maryland

The English colony of Maryland was named for Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, who granted Maryland's charter. Mariana was also proposed as a name, but Maryland's founder, Sir Lord Baltimore, believed in the divine right of kings and turned the name down because it reminded him of the Spanish Jesuit and historian Juan de Mariana, who taught that the will of the people was higher than the law of tyrants.

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September 14, 2010 - 9:45am
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