The Grammarphobia Blog

How French is “Des Moines”?

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the city of Des Moines got its name from a Native American word for a path. I always thought the French named it for the monks, or moines, in the area.

A: No, the monk story is a popular myth, or as historians call it, “a spurious etymology.” It’s true that moine means “monk” in French, but that wasn’t the source of the name.

The city was named for the Des Moines River, which was indeed named by French explorers. However, they got the name in the 1600s from a Native American term that sounded to them like “Moingona,” and which they eventually shortened to “Moin,” historians say.

In the indigenous Miami-Illinois language, moingona meant a road or a portage (a path for carrying a boat and supplies between waterways).

The word referred specifically to a path that a local tribe of the Illinois nation (also called the Moingona) used to circumvent rapids on the river near where it joins the Mississippi at the southeastern corner of Iowa.

As the city’s official website notes, opinions about the origin of the name have varied over the years.

But “the consensus seems to be that Des Moines is a variation of Moingona, Moingonan, Moingoun, Mohingona, or Moningounas, as shown on early maps.”

(We’ve also seen the spelling “Mou-in-gou-e-na,” apparently an attempt to reproduce the original native pronunciation.)

In the 1670s, two French explorers, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, were the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River Valley, and hence the first to set foot in what is now Iowa.

They encountered the Moingona people near a large tributary on the west bank of the Mississippi, and later French explorers adapted the name of the tribe, shortening it to Moin, and named the tributary des Moins (“of the Moins”), according to historical accounts.

A 1681 French map, based on the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, shows a Moingona village, marked as Moingwena, along a river that runs into the Mississippi. And later French maps and journals, from the early 1680s to the 1780s, refer to this tributary as Rivière Des Moingona, le Moingona R, r des Moingona, Moin, and River des Moins.

English speakers used the name as well. In the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the name is recorded as “the river Demoin” (1804), and in the journals of the English explorer Thomas Nuttall it’s “the river des Moins, or Moingona” (1819).

An article entitled “The French Impress on Place Names in the Mississippi Valley,” by John Francis McDermott, published in August 1979 in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, remarks on the ”constant habit of abbreviation” by the French.

“No monks ever had anything to do with the Des Moines River in the present state of Iowa,” McDermott writes. “The Moingona tribe of Indians lived there and the French merely cut their name down to Moin; traders went to le pays des Moins.” (That is, “the land of the Moins.”)

The historian Virgil J. Vogel has much the same explanation in his book Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin (1983). He quotes from an early 19th-century account of the meeting of Marquette, Joliet, and the Moingona people:

“The travellers, having halted within hailing distance, were met by the Indians, who offered them their hospitalities, and represented themselves as belonging to the Illinois nation. The name which they gave to their settlement was Mouin-gouinas (or Moingona, as laid down in the ancient maps of the country), and is a corruption of the Algonkin word Mikonang, signifying at the road; the Indians, by their customary elliptical manner of designating localities, alluding, in this instance, to the well-known road in this section of country, which they used to follow as a communication between the head of the lower rapids and their settlement on the river that empties itself into the Mississippi, so as to avoid the rapids.”

Later on, the account continues, the French “adopted this name; but with their custom (to this day, that of the Creoles) of only pronouncing the first syllable, and applying it to the river, as well as to the Indians who dwelt upon it; so that they would say ‘la rivière des Moins’—‘the river of the Moins’; ‘aller chez les Moins’—to go to the Moins (people).”

So how did “Moines” get its “e”? The account explains that later inhabitants came to believe that the word was derived from the French term for “monks” (moines), assuming incorrectly that monks must have lived in the area.

All this preceded the existence of the city, of course. In 1843, a military post was established in central Iowa where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers intersect. The post was named Fort Des Moines. The city that grew up on the site was named “Fort Des Moines” when incorporated in 1851, and shortened to “Des Moines” six years later.

Not long after, an unincorporated town about 40 miles upstream on the Des Moines River was named Moingona, and to this day it bears the original Indian name.

Here’s another interesting aside. The original proposal was to name the military post “Fort Raccoon,” a choice that was rejected by higher-ups in the army.

The War Department, in the person of Gen. Winfield Scott, declared that “Fort Raccoon” was not a dignified name for a fort. Instead, it was named “Fort Des Moines.”

So if it hadn’t been for General Scott, the state capital would probably be known as “Raccoon.”

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