The Indigenous Language Roots of the United States’ Names

Thursday, June 165 min read

The names of the 50 states are as diverse as the people and cultures within them. While the exact etymology of these names has been debated and in some cases even lost over the years, almost half of them owe tribute to the Indigenous tribes that lived on the continent long before state borders existed. While the relationships between modern America and Indigenous tribes are complicated at best, a trip through the roots of the state names reminds us of our rich, diverse history.


Many U.S. states were named after waterways, and “Alabama” comes from the name of the river that European explorers named after local Indigenous people — possibly the Alabama or Alibamu. The tribal name (in several different spellings) appeared in written accounts of the Hernando de Soto expedition of 1540. Some historians believe the name could have connections to the language of another native Alabama tribe, the Choctaw or Ojibwe. In this case, “Alabama” could be a portmanteau combining alba (vegetation) and amo (gatherer), for the tribes that cleared the land for agriculture.


Alaska's name has ties both to Russian settlers who sold the land to the United States in 1867, and to the native Aleut people. Russians referred to the land as Аляска, while the Aleut referred to it as Alyeska, both of which mean “great land.” This is fitting, given that the state is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined.


Some historians believe “Arizona” came from a Tohono O'odham name that sounded like Aleh-zon or Ali-Shonak, which mean “small spring” or “place of the small spring,” respectively. However, there is some dispute about this, since springs don’t necessarily come to mind with the dry heat and desert of Arizona. The alternative theory is that "Arizona" is a Basque word that means "good oak tree," which would have come from Spanish missionaries.


While “Kansas” is tucked inside the spelling of this state, the two names don’t have the same origins. “Arkansas” comes from the French pronunciation of an Algonquin name for the native Quapaw people, Akansa. It literally means “south wind” or “downstream,” appropriate in the sense that the Quapaw people lived just downstream from the much larger Algonquin tribe. The spelling and pronunciation were all over the place until the state passed a law in the 19th century, spelling it as “Arkansas” but pronouncing it as “AR-kan-saw.”


“Connecticut” stems from the Mohegan word Quinnehtukqut, meaning “beside the long tidal river.” The Dutch adapted it when they arrived in 1614, and it stuck when the area became a state in 1788.


The state of Hawai’i is made up of eight islands named Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, O’ahu, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Maui, Kaho’olawe, and the Big Island of Hawai’i. There are many myths and legends about the origins of these names, but “Hawai’i” is believed to come from Hawaiki, the former name of Raiatea, the ancestral home of Polynesians.


If you’ve ever felt a bit sleepy while driving through the fields of Iowa, it makes sense, because the state name comes from the tribal name ayuxwa, which means “one who puts one to sleep.” When white settlers came through, the English spelled it “Ioway” and the French spelled it “Ayoua.”


Given Kansas’ reputation for powerful tornados, the roots of its name aren’t surprising. It takes its name from the Kansa tribe that lived in the area, with the name loosely translating to “people of the south wind.”


The land now called Kentucky was home to many different Indigenous tribes, so there are multiple possible name-origin stories, though they all have Native American roots. One suggests that it comes from the Wyandot tribal word for “plain.” Another posits that it comes from the Haudenosaunee word for “prairie.”


The Massachuset tribe in the early 17th century likely numbered around 3,000 people living along what is now the Massachusetts coast. The name “Massachuset” means “at or about the great hill” in the Algonquin language. The Massachuset people were virtually wiped out by disease by the 1630s, but the state of Massachusetts was named after them.  


The largest of the Great Lakes is also named Michigan, which makes complete sense, because “Michigan” comes from an Ojibwa word, michi-gama, which means “large lake.”


The consensus is clear that Minnesota was named after the Minnesota River, and that Mni is the Dakota tribe’s word for water. But sota gets cloudy — literally. Some historians think the word means “cloudy,” while others say it’s “sky-tinted.” Both are decent origin stories for the land of 10,000 lakes.


“Mississippi,” like “Illinois,” comes from the French interpretation of a Native American word. This one is a variation of the Algonquin phrase misi sipi, meaning “big water” or “great river.”


The nickname of the Missouri River is “Big Muddy,” but there was a Sioux tribe called the Missouri, and their name translates to “wooden canoe people.”


The Oto people (of the Siouan language group) used the word nebrathka to mean “flat river.” We now call that river the “Platte River,” and nebrathka was adapted for the state of Nebraska.

North and South Dakota

The land that makes up these states was part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Dakota Territory was created in 1861, and the individual North and South states were admitted to the union in 1889. But long before that, “Dakota” was the name of a Sioux tribe. The word also means “friend” or “ally” in the Sioux language.


Like many other states, Ohio was named for a river. We know the river, but the name came from the Iroquois term "Ohi:yo," which means "the great river."


Following the Civil War, a delegation of tribal leaders went to Washington D.C. to resume formal relationships with the U.S. government. One of the proposals was a creation of an Indian territory, and the Choctaw delegate proposed naming it "Oklahumma" (okla means "people" and humma means "red" in Choctaw), loosely translated to "Territory of the Red People." The spelling evolved to Oklahoma, but it remained when the Indian and Oklahoma territories became one state in 1907.


Tennessee's name is a bit of a mystery. There was a Cherokee tribe located at a village called Tanasse (or possibly spelled Tennese), but any further origin is largely unknown. The state was named for the principal river, but the meaning of the word is considered to be lost.


The long-accepted origin of the name “Texas” is that it came from a Caddo word for “ally” or “friend,” which was adapted by Spaniards into “tejas,” which turned into “Texas.” There have been some different spellings (and possibly entirely different stories), but Texans are happy to stick with the Indigenous Caddo greeting teysha, meaning “hello, friend.”


Utah likely owes its roots to the Apache word yuttahih, which means “high places” or “people who live in high places.” This stuck with the settlers, who used it to describe the Indigenous people they encountered in the mountains.


Wisconsin” comes from the Miami word meskonsing, which is what the local tribe called the river that runs through the state. Historians believe the word translates closely to “the stream meanders through something red,” with the “something red” being Wisconsin’s sandstone bluffs.


Some believe “Wyoming” originates in the Lenape word chwewamink, meaning “big river flat.” However, the Lenape didn't live in Wyoming, so the theory is settlers borrowed that from a place name in Pennsylvania. It also could stem from the Delaware people’s word mecheweami-ing, meaning “at the big plains.” Either way, it articulates the vastness of that state’s great outdoors.

Featured image credit: krblokhin/ iStock

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