Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


As I pointed out in earlier writing about the name "Des Moines," there are two viewpoints concerning the meaning of the word and its origin.

Edgar R. Harlan is one of several writers who has promoted the idea that the name is derived from the French name "Moine de la Trappe" and means "the river of the Monks." This fuels a legend that Trappist Monks once occupied a site near Keosauqua. Some writers advancing this legend have even provided a time frame and have said that the monks resided in this vicinity sometime between 1805 and 1830.

Yet several prominent sources, such as William J. Petersen dispute the legend and link the name to a tribe of Indians living in the area, as does an article in the Dubuque Iowa News on June 10, 1837. The Bicentennial History of Van Buren County quotes Nicolettís report to Congress on February 16, 1841 that Indians along the river called their settlement "Moningouinas" or "Moingona." It goes on to say that they corrupted the Algonquin word "Mikouang," which literally meant "at the road."

The French also corrupted the words, and when they said "la riviere des Moines," or "allez chez les Moines," they were not saying "river of the monks" as earlier interpreted, but were saying "the river of the Moines" or "to go to the Moines people." Misinformed inhabitants associated the name with Trappist Monks who resided with the Indians in the American Bottoms opposite St. Louis, called "Moine de la Trappe."

To add to the confusion, the La Moine River which empties into the Illinois River below Beardstown is also derived from the same root word. Spelling of these two rivers on old maps has been interchangeable over the years, indicating that cartographers may have frequently confused them. On a 1684 map of proposed and existing monasteries and forts, La Salle shows a monastery at the mouth of the La Moine on the Illinois River.

It would seem possible that confusion of the two rivers led to the legend of Trappist Monks residing near Keosauqua (rather than at the mouth of the La Moine), except that one piece of the puzzle does not quite fit. Keosauqua is located in a distinctive large horseshoe bend of the Des Moines River, not at its mouth.

Legendary monk stories may have surfaced much earlier than previously thought. Zebulin Pike is said to have heard these stories. He noted the similarity between the Indian name and the French name, and shortened the latter to "des Moyens." His close reference to the Moin people implied that he preferred to make an association of the riverís name to the residents, rather than subscribe to folklore.

How old is the legend, and is there any truth in it? The Annals of Iowa, Vol. 5-6, April-July, 1898 may have provided the answer to this riddle. According to their article, a Canadian writer once advanced the idea that the Illinois country had been visited by two priests prior to the voyage of Joliet and Marquette. The legends of these ancient visiting priests then became solidified into the name of the Indian people who resided in the valley where the monks had once camped.

A Monk of Chalon first drew this river on a map in 1673. Later, when the French called it "Le riviere des Moines," and translated its meaning as "the river of the Monks," they were not meaning the Illinois Indians called Moingona who were residing in the valley at the time Marquette and Joliet discovered the Des Moines River. The suggestion is that after the earlier priests had left the vicinity, the Illinois tribe commemorated them by combining the Algonquin Mikouang with the French word for monk, to coin the name Moingona, therefore creating an interesting word web that befuddled future translators.

With no substantial proof, it is impossible to validate that monks once resided along the Des Moines River in the horseshoe bend. We should preserve the legend for all its beauty, as the saga adds interesting color and dimension to our past.

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