How Did Our States Get Their Names?

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Spring 2007,
Spring 2007
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Author: John Salcau

Last fall I became intrigued by how our fifty states were named and why. So I started to read about them in the World Book Encyclopedia and the book of state names, seals, flags and symbols. The following is a short summary of the naming of each state that you may find of interest.

Alabama- Alabama comes from the name of an Indian tribe that once lived in the region, the “Alibamu,” meaning, “I open or I clear the thicket.” One of Alabama's nicknames, the Yellow Hammer State began during the Civil War when a company of Alabama troops paraded in uniforms trimmed with bright bits of yellow cloth that reminded the people of the birds called yellow hammers.

Arkansas- The pronunciation of the word Arkansas is actually prescribed by an 1881 state statute. Although Arkansas is actually another form of Kansas, the Arkansas legislature declared that the correct pronunciation of the three syllable word should have the final “s” silent, all “as” with the Italian sound and the accent on the first and third syllables. This pronunciation follows from the fact that Arkansas was first written in French, as French men tried to record the sounds from Native American Indians. The Kansas Indians are a tribe of the Sioux.

Arizona- The name Arizona is derived from two words in the Papago Indian dialect of the Pima language-“Aleh-zon” which means “little spring.” Spaniards used the term as early as 1736.

Alaska- Alaska is taken directly from the Aleut Tribe, “Alaag” meaning “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed.”

California- California was an island filled with gold in an early sixteenth century novel by Garcia de Montalvo. It is probable that Spanish explorers Ortuno Ximenez and Hernando Cortes were familiar with the contemporary Spanish novel and drew their inspiration for naming California, which they thought to be an island, from Montalvo's book.

Colorado- A number of names were suggested for the territory, including Osage, Iadaho, Jefferson, and Colona. However, the name Colorado, Spanish for red, referring to the color of the Colorado River, whose head-waters lie with the boundaries of the state, was chosen over the others.

Connecticut- The name Connecticut was clearly established in the early seventeenth century as applied to the Connecticut River. The native word “Qiunnehtukqut” was translated into the current English spelling and means “beside the long tidal river.”

Delaware- The state of Delaware and the Delaware Indians are both named after the Delaware River. The Delaware River was named by the English after Sir Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, who was the Virginia Company's first governor.

Florida- Florida was named the day on which it was discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. On Easter Sunday in 1513 de Leon named the new land “La Florida” in honor of Pascua Florida, the Spanish Feast of the Flowers at Easter time.

Georgia- Georgia was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, who had been granted a charter by King George II in 1732 to found a colony named after the king.

Hawaii- Captain James Cook named the islands he discovered in 1778 the Sandwich Islands in honor of his patron the Earl of Sandwich. By 1819, however, King Kamehameha had united the former independent islands under his rule in the Kingdom of Hawaii. The name Hawaii is said to have come from the traditional discovery of the islands, Hawaii Loa. Another explanation is that Hawaii means small or new homeland. “Hawa” means a traditional home-land, and “ii” means small and raging. The latter meaning may refer to Hawaii's volcanoes.

Idaho- Contrary to long held common belief, Idaho is not a Shoshone word meaning “gem of the mountains.” In fact, Idaho was invented by George Willing, who unsuccessfully sought to become a delegate from what would become the territory of Colorado.

Illinois- When La Salle traveled up the Illinois River in 1679, he named it after the Native Americans he found living along its banks. Illinois is a French spelling for the Illinois and Peoria Indian word “ilini,” the plural of which is “iliniwok,” meaning man or a warrior and also a possible member of the Illinois tribe.

Indiana- The United State Congress created the name Indiana, meaning the “land of the Indians,” when it created the Indiana Territory out of the Northwest Territory in 1800.

Iowa- The Iowa District was the name of the territory of Wisconsin west of the Mississippi. The district became first a territory, and then in 1846, a state. The Iowa River was named for the Iowa Indians who inhabited the area, and the name of the state was derived from the river. The French spelled Iowa as “Ayoua” and the English as “Ioway.”

Kansas-Kansas is the French spelling of Kansas, Omaha, Kaw, Osage, and Dakota Sioux Indian word, “Ka Nze.” In the language of the Kansas, the word Kansas means “south wind.”

Kentucky-The name Kentucky, the Wyandot word for “plain” referring to the central plains of the state, was first recorded in 1753. Kentucky, which had been a province of Virginia, became a territory in 1790, and a state in 1792.

Louisiana-In 1682 explorer Sieur de la Salle was the first European to descend the Mississippi River all the way to its Delta. He named the area he discovered La Louisiana after Louis XIV of France. The state of Louisiana was carved out of the New Orleans Territory which was only a portion of the Louisiana Purchase.

Maine-The origin of the name is uncertain. French colonists may have named the area after the French province of Mayne. “Main” was also a common term among early explorers to describe a mainland.

Maryland-When Lord Baltimore received the charter for the colony from Charles I of England it contained the proviso that the colony be called Maryland in honor of the wife of Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, who was popularly known as Queen Mary.

Massachusetts-Massachusetts was named after the Massachusetts Indian tribe which populated the Massachusetts Bay region before Columbus arrived in the New World. It means “large hill place.” The tribe was named after Great Blue Bill, which is south of Milton.

Michigan-The name Michigan comes from the Chippewa Indian word Michigama which means great or large lake. Lake Michigan was called Michigama by the Chippewa Indians.

Minnesota-The state of Minnesota received its name from the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota. The Dakota Indian word “minishota” means “cloudy” or “milky water”.

Mississippi-Mississippi takes it name from the mighty river that forms most of its western border. Mississippi means, “big river,” the “great water” or the “father of waters” in the language of the Indians who lived in the region in early times.

Missouri-The word probably came from the Indian word meaning “the town of the large canoes”.

Montana-Montana's name is derived from the Latin word “montaanus” meaning mountainous. It is popularly known as the ‘Big Sky country,’ an allusion to its immense area of mountains and valleys.

Nebraska-The state of Nebraska is actually named after the Platte River, a French name meaning “broad river.” The Omaha Indians called the river Niboapka or “broad river.”

Nevada-Seventeenth and eighteenth century Spanish sailors traveling between the Philippines and Mexico saw mountain ranges in California from out at sea. They named these mountains Sierra Nevada or “snowy range.” When a new territory was designated out of Utah, it was decided to name it Sierra Nevada, but the territory was named simply Nevada in 1859.

New Hampshire-Captain John Mason of the Royal Navy received a grant in 1629 for the part of the land that became the state of New Hampshire. He named the area New Hampshire after the central English county of Hampshire, where he had spent a number of years of his youth.

New Jersey-New Jersey was named after the island of Jersey in the English Channel by Sir John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. Berkeley and Carteret obtained a royal charter for this colony. Carteret was born on the island of Jersey and had been its lieutenant governor.

New Mexico-The upper region of the Rio Grande was called “Nuevo Mexico” as early as 1561 by Fray Jacinto de San Francisco in the hope that this area would hold the riches of Mexico. Mexico which is the Aztec spelling means “place of Mexitle” one of the Aztec gods. When New Mexico came under American control, the Spanish name was anglicized.

New York-When the British took over the city of New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the city's new name was proclaimed to be New York in honor of the brother of England's Charles II, the Duke of York and Albany. The Dutch colony was called New Netherlands, but New York became the name of both the city and the state.

North Carolina & South Carolina-Both were one colony until they were divided in 1729. Carolina was originally named in honor of France's Charles IX and then in honor of England's Charles I and Charles II. Carolina is the feminine form of the Latin word Caroliinus, an adjective derived from the name Carolus or Charles.

North Dakota & South Dakota-The Dakotas were divided into North and South Dakota by an omnibus bill passed in 1889. Dakota is a Sioux word meaning “friends” or “allies.” When the Dakota Territory was created in 1861, it was named for the Dakota tribe which inhabited the region.

Ohio-The state of Ohio is named after the Ohio River. The French explorer La Salle, noted as early as 1680 that the Iroquois called the river “Ohio” meaning “large” or “beautiful river.”

Oklahoma-The word Oklahoma first appears in the Choctaw-Chickasaw Treaty. Allen Wright, a Native American missionary who spoke Choctaw, made up the word by combining two Choctaw words: “ukla” or person and “huma” or red. Oklahoma therefore means “red person.”

Oregon-The origin of the name Oregon is unclear. There are at least three possibilities, each quite different. Oregon may come from the French Canadian word “ouragon” meaning storm or hurricane. Another possibility is that the name Oregon comes from the Spanish word “orejon” or “big car.” This term applied to a number of tribes of the region. Still another possibility is that the name Oregon comes from the Spanish word “oregano” or wild sage, which was corrupted to Oregon. Sage grows abundantly in eastern Oregon.

Pennsylvania-When William Penn was granted a charter in 1680 by England's Charles II, the king gave the name Pennsylvania to the land. Sylvania is Latin for woods or woodland. Pennsylvania means “Penn's woods”.

Rhode Island-When the Dutch explorer Adrian Block came upon an island whith red clay shores he named it in his native tongue “Rood + Eylandt” meaning “red island.” Under English rule, the name was anglicized in the current spelling. Rhode Island's stature as the smallest state lends it the nickname Little Rhody and the Smallest State.

Tennessee-The original form of the name Tennessee was the Cherokee name “Tonasi.” The Cherokee called two villages on the Little Tennessee River “Tanasi.” The river is named after the villages and the region is named after the river. The meaning of the Cherokee name is unknown.

Texas-Texas or “teysha” is the language of the Caddo, meaning “hello friend.” The Spanish used this term to refer to the friendly tribes throughout Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. The tribes of the Caddo Confederacy, who lived in Louisiana and eastern Texas, came to be called “the kingdom of the Texas.” The name of Texas was firmly established in 1690 when the Spanish named their first mission St. Frances of the Texas.

Utah-The White Mountain Apache referred to the Navajo as “yuttahih” or “one that is higher up.” European settlers and explorers understood the Apache term to refer to the Utaes, who dwelled farther up the mountains than the Navajo. The land of the Utes came to be called Utah.

Vermont-The French explorer Champlain, who saw Vermont's Green Mountains only from a distance named them “verd mont” or green mountains in a 1647 map. The English name Vermont is therefore directly derived from Champlain's naming of the Green Mountains. Vermont's mountains lend it the nickname ‘Green Mountain State.’

Virginia-Virginia was named in 1584 in honor of Queen Elizabeth of England, who was popularly called the “Virgin Queen.” The Name Virginia is the feminine form of the Latin word “virginius.”

Washington-Washington Territory was carved out of the Oregon Territory in 1853. It was named in honor of George Washington. The State of Washington is best known as the Evergreen State for its many large fir and pine trees.

West Virginia-West Virginia was not separated from Virginia until 1861. West Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth of England, who was called the “Virgin Queen.”

Wisconsin-The State of Wisconsin is named after the Wisconsin River. In Chippewa, Wisconsin means “grassy place.” When Hennepin first recorded the name in 1695, it referred either to the river itself or to a place on the river. Wisconsin is popularly, but unofficially, called the ‘Badger State’ after the early miners who lived underground and were called badgers.

Wyoming-The name Wyoming comes from two Delaware Indian words “mecheweaming” meaning “at the big flats”. A popular interpretation translates the Delaware words as “large plains.”