Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Soon after Marquette and Joliet met the Moingona people along the banks of the river in 1672, the Des Moines River appeared on maps, but the meaning of the name has never been totally clear.

Confusion developed because it shared the same French root word with a group of Monks who lived with the Indians in the American Bottoms across from St. Louis, and a monastery at the mouth of a similarly named river in Illinois (la Moine). When the name "Le riviere Des Moines" came to be translated "the river of the monks," it would at first appear to be a continuation of confusing circumstances and word meanings.

Zebulin Pike shortened the name to Des Moyens believing that the river was named for the Indians, dismissing the story that monks once resided in the valley. Further research now indicates that the river was probably named after a hermit who lived along its banks. The following article written by Isaac Galland appeared in Iowa Advocate and Half-Breed Journal, August 16, 1847: Montrose, Iowa.

"The name (Des Moines River) was given to this stream by the French traders, and is interpreted, "The Monks River." The Indian name, however, is ‘Ke-o-Shaw-qua,’ the origin of which they account for as follows, to-wit: They say that when their ancestors first explored the country, they found residing on the banks of this river, an old man without family or human companion, and that his name was Keoshawqua; hence they called it Keoshawqua’s river. The French seem also to have had a view to the same circumstance, when regarding this lonely inhabitant as a recluse, they named it (La riviere Des Moines) or ‘the River of the Monks.’"

According to the dictionary, a recluse is one who lives in seclusion or lives a solitary life: hermit. A hermit is described as one who lives in solitude, especially for religious reasons. If the recluse ever existed, perhaps he was or had been a priest or monk.

Marquette and Joliet were credited as being the first white men to enter the Iowa region west of the Mississippi, and they discovered the Des Moines River and the Moingonna people. A Canadian writer advanced the idea that at least two priests explored the region earlier than Marquette and Joliet, although that has never been proven.

The article by Isaac Galland advances this idea another step. Although it reduces the theory of "monks" to simply one person, it actually names the legendary person believed to have lived along the river in ancient times. When the first settlers arrived at Portland (Leando) in 1834, they were said to have found a handful of whites already living along the river bank "who spoke a strange language." Is there a connection? Only time and further research will tell.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick