Origin of name
Des Moines takes its name from Fort Des Moines (1843–1846), which was named for the Des Moines River
. The French "des Moines"
(pronounced [demwan] ( listen)) translates literally to either "monks" or "of the monks".
The historian Virgil Vogel documented changes in the name of the Des Moines River over time, and determined that "Des Moines" ultimately derived from "Moingona
", the name for a group of Illinois
who lived along the Des Moines River, and that the name was gradually changed by French traders and mapmakers to "Des Moines", probably because it was easier to transcribe. Vogel felt "Moingona" was derived from the Algonquan clan name "Loon".
Other historians and linguistic researchers concluded that Moingona
meant "people by the portage" or something similar, a reference to the Des Moines Rapids
, where the earliest meetings between the Moingona and European explorers took place.
One popular interpretation of "Des Moines" ignores Vogel's research, and concludes that "Des Moines" refers to French Trappist monks
, who lived in huts on top of what is now known as Monks Mound
near St. Louis
some 200 miles (320 km) from the Des Moines River.
A controversial recent hypothesis using a study of Miami-Illinois tribal names concludes the word Moingona
comes from mooyiinkweena
, a derogatory name which translates roughly to "the excrement-faces." The name was apparently given to Marquette
by a tribal leader to dissuade them from doing business with a neighboring tribe.
But the deviser of this hypothesis admits it is improbable ("strange" as he puts it). This alternative etymology is rejected by the amateur historian Jim Fay, who feels the interpretation of Moingona
as "excrement face" is refuted by a large body of first-hand accounts and detailed ethnolinguistic research.