Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Origin of the Name Des Moines

While growing up in Van Buren County, we were always led to believe that "Des Moines" was a French name that meant "land of the monks." After all, it was even stated so in the Iowa History books that we were required to read. Years later, I discovered through my research that there was a differing opinion questioning the authenticity of that claim, and recently I found the differing opinion substantiated from an unexpected source.

Edgar R. Harlan (A Narrative History of the People of Iowa, 1931, Vol. 2) is one of many who says the name of the river (Des Moines) is derived from the French name "Moines de la Trappe" and means "the river of the Monks" based on a legend that Trappist Monks had occupied a site near Keosauqua.

According to William J. Petersen (Iowa the Rivers of Her Valleys, 1941) the legend is erroneous. He bases his statement on an article that appeared in the Dubuque Iowa News on June 10, 1837 which links the name to a tribe of Indians living in the area.

He points out that the name is similar to the one given the mounds on the American Bottoms opposite St. Louis where the Trappist Monks actually resided.

I discovered that the Bicentennial History of Van Buren County published an account called Nicollet’s "Report of the Upper Mississippi River" delivered to Congress on February 16, 1841 which includes the origin of the name of the Des Moines River. This report is in agreement with the Dubuque newspaper article.

According to this report, Indians who lived along the river called their settlement "Moningouinas" or "Moingona" that is a corruption of the Algonquin word "Mikouang" meaning "at the road." When the French established themselves along the Mississippi, they followed the Creole custom of only pronouncing the first syllable and they applied the name to the river as well as to the Indians who dwelt along it.

Thus, they would say ‘la riviere des Moines’ (the river of the Moines) or ‘allez chez les Moines’ (to go to the Moines people.)

As the report continues, in later times both confused and misinformed inhabitants associated this name with the Trappist Monks (Moines de la Trappe) who resided with the Indians in the American Bottoms. It was then falsely concluded that the true meaning was "river of the Monks."

I suppose that there will always be several opinions about the origin of the name Des Moines. Likewise, some people will insist that Keosauqua rests on the site of an old monastery where Trappist Monks once resided. Since there is no real proof that Trappist Monks ever came to the area of the Horseshoe Bend, I have no recourse but to believe that the legend is based merely on a confusion of the name, therefore is contrary to fact.

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