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Wisconsin's Name: Where It Came From and What It Means


Foot of High Rock

Few basic facts about our state have caused as much confusion and led to as much muddled thinking as the derivation of its name. "Wisconsin" is the English spelling of a French version of a Miami Indian name for the river that runs 430 miles through the center of our state. Recent scholarship has concluded that in Miami it meant, "this stream meanders through something red." Historical linguist Michael McCafferty has convincingly argued that this was a reference to the red sandstone bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells.

  1. Where It Came From
  2. What It Means
  3. The Physical Evidence
  4. Sources

1. Where It Came From

The word was first used by Europeans when Father Jacques Marquette entered it in his journal in June 1673 during the voyage he made with fur trader Louis Joliet across Wisconsin and down the Mississippi. Near the start of their trip Marquette and Joliet stayed several days with the Menominee Indians on Green Bay and then in a town of 3,000 Miami, Kickapoo and Mascouten Indians in Green Lake County. They left this village about June 10, 1673, led by two Miami guides who took them through the maze of the upper Fox River to modern Portage in Columbia County. There they crossed 2,700 paces of dry land and reached the westward-flowing river that would carry them to the Mississippi.

"The river on which we embarked is called Meskousing," wrote Marquette. "It is very wide; it has a sandy bottom, which forms various shoals that render its navigation very difficult." In his only other reference to the river, Marquette says that the Mississippi is "narrow at the place where Miskous empties." After they returned, Joliet used the name "Miskonsing" on a map that he drew in 1674, and when the news of their voyage was first published in 1681 the book's author, Melchisedec Thevenot, called it the "Mescousin" River.

The name we use today was born when the explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, misread Marquette's initial M, which was written by hand in cursive script, "Ou" in 1674. This found its way onto printed maps, even though in a report written in 1682 La Salle tried to correct himself: "On the east one comes first to the river called by the Savages Ouisconsing, or Misconsing, which flows from the east." Over the next two decades the initial M completely disappeared as writers and mapmakers always called the river by some version that began with a vowel. For the next 150 years the river, and by extension our part of the world generally, was known as "Ouisconsin." Sloppy printers sometimes turned this into Ouriconsing, Ouiscousen, and even Ouiskonche, but the "Ouis …" spelling was the one most often used by both French and English writers until the mid-19th century.

As American soldiers and officials traveled through the area for the first time following the War of 1812, they initially used the French spelling. But when large numbers of lead miners streamed into the country south of the river in the 1820s, the U.S. government began to refer to it differently in debates and legislation. These legal documents created by the government in Washington sometimes used the French spelling, but they gradually introduced the uniquely American, "Wisconsin." The U.S. House of Representatives Journal was the first to print it (in the entry for February 1, 1830), during discussion of "laying out a town at Helena, on the Wisconsin river, in the Territory of Michigan …" In the five years that followed, the modern spelling was used with increasing frequency in government publications as well as in commercially published books and maps. In 1836, when territorial status was authorized on July 4th, we became officially "Wisconsin" (though Canadian and French writers often used "Ouisconsin" until the end of the 19th century).

Oddly, the person who did the most to create Wisconsin Territory didn't like the name. James Duane Doty, who first visited the region in 1820, was the principal advocate for the spelling "Wiskonsan," which shows up dozens of times through the early 1840s. "During all this time, Governor Doty and the legislature were in constant hostility," wrote contemporary observer Theodore Rodolf. "One of the governor's vagaries had to be settled by a joint resolution. The governor had a fondness for spelling the name of the territory as "Wiskonsan." The Legislature, in order to avoid future embarrassments and misunderstandings, found itself obliged to declare by a joint resolution that the spelling used in the organic act should be maintained."

2. What It Means

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many different meanings of the word were advanced, most of them founded on very weak evidence. For example, several writers interviewed elderly Indians, French residents, or fur traders who claimed it meant "Stream of a Thousand Isles," "Gathering of Waters," "muskrat house," "grassy place," and even "holes in the bank of a stream, in which birds nest." One of those researchers concluded in frustration, "I have not found two Indians to agree on the meaning of this word."

When it was first written down, Marquette and Joliet had just visited the Menominee, Miami, Kickapoo and Mascouten; they had spent years with the Ojibwe, all of whom spoke mutually intelligible Algonquian languages. Their guides across Wisconsin in the summer of 1673, who spoke the name to them aloud, were Miami Indians. The Miami nation left Wisconsin soon thereafter, and the last native speakers of the language died in the 1960s. The first historical research on the language was only published in 1991.

What did Marquette's guides intend to convey by "Mesconsing"? Earlier, erroneous explanations focused on two slightly different Algonquian meanings supported by linguistic and geographical evidence. In 1935 native Ojibwe speakers recognized the three syllables as phonetic equivalents of "Misko" (red), "Ahsin" (stone) and "Sin," an ending that signifies a location or place. By this reasoning, Mesconsing / Ouisconsin / Wisconsin meant, "Red Stone River." Glossaries of Algonquian languages, including Ojibwe and Sauk, confirm that these syllables had the same meanings 300 years ago as they do today. In 1967 Edward Taube, a modern linguistics scholar, suggested that compressing those syllables as "Mesconsing" would have been very unusual. Instead, he hypothesized that the Algonquian word actually began as "Misi" (great) followed by "Ahsin" (stone) and "Sin" — or "Great Stone River" rather than red stone. The difficulty with this explanation is that a hard K must be introduced between the first two syllables that is not found in either "Misi" or "ahsin," something that other linguists find equally unusual.

Both those derivations mistakenly traced the word to Ojibwe instead of Miami, since in 1935 and 1967 no one had yet mastered the 17th-century Miami dialect. In 2003 Michael McCafferty, a specialist in the Miami language, published an article that combines historical and linguistic evidence to prove that the name's meaning was akin to the English phrase, "river running through a red place."

3. The Physical Evidence

Geologists have found red sandstone as far north as the river's headwaters in Vilas County and noted that, around Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point, was "a fine-grained to coarse-grained, pinkish to red rock …" Where the Wisconsin comes closest to the Fox, at present-day Portage, red stone was plainly visible to visiting geologist George Featherstonehaugh in 1835: "In the neighborhood of Fort Winnebago … the sandstone beds are horizontal, disintegrate easily, and are often variegated in color, having red, orange, and dark tints." Further down river near Prairie du Sac, in June 1819, Captain Henry Whiting saw "a hill 5 or 600 feet high … on the left bank of the river, on whose bald top are seen naked strata of a red stone which are so regular in their angles and projections as to resemble fragments of a stupendous wall, built for the purpose of defense." Thus, along much of its length, red-colored stone is a characteristic part of the Wisconsin River shoreline and confirms the appropriateness of the Miami word "Meskonsing."

We can finally be confident that our state's name does not come from the oft-repeated "Gathering of Waters" or similarly romantic Victorian phrases that have been advanced, and repeated, with little regard for available historical or linguistic evidence.

4. Sources

More than 60 books, manuscripts and maps produced since 1673 were examined in drafting this brief summary. Those quoted or referred to above, as well as the ones most useful for readers who want to explore the subject further, are:

Cassidy, Frederic G. "Miscousing - Wisconsin." Names 1991. Vol. 39(3): 191-198.

Davidson, Rev. John Nelson. "Says Name Wisconsin, 'Red Rock,' Pure Indian." [Madison, Wis.] The Capital Times, May 4, 1935. Online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/wlhba/articleView.asp?pg=1&id=3704

Featherstonehaugh, George. Report of a Geological Reconnaissance Made in 1835 … (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1836). Online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1

Goff, Charles D. "Captain Whiting's Journal." Wisconsin Academy Review (September 1979): 3-10. Online at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.Transactions

La Salle, Robert Cavelier de. Relation of the Discoveries and Voyages of Cavelier de La Salle from 1679 to 1681: The Official Narrative. (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1901). Online at http://www.americanjourneys.org/aj-122/

Legler, Henry E. "Origin and Meaning of Wisconsin Place-names; with Special Reference to Indian Nomenclature." Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters volume XIV, Part I (1903):12-39. Online at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.Transactions

Marquette, Jacques. "The Mississippi Voyage of Jolliet and Marquette, 1673." in Kellogg, Louise P. (editor). Early Narratives of the Northwest, 1634-1699. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917). Online at http://www.americanjourneys.org/aj-051/

McCafferty, Michael. "On Wisconsin: The Derivation and Referent of an Old Puzzle in American Placenames." Onoma 38 (2003) 39-56.

Rodolf, Theodore. "Pioneering in the Wisconsin Lead Region." Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Madison: 1900) 15: 338-389. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1179

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Personal memoirs of a residence of thirty years with the Indian tribes on the American frontiers: with brief notices of passing events, facts, and opinions, A.D. 1812 to A.D. 1842. (Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo and co., 1851). Online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=353

Taube, Edward. "The Name Wisconsin." Names 1967 15(3): 17-25.

Thevenot, Melchisedec. "Découverte de Quelques Pays et Nations de l Amerique Septentrionale [par le P. Marquette]" in Recueil de Voyages de Mr Thevenot. ... (Paris: Estienne Michallet, 1681). Online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=13

Thwaites, F. T. "Glacial geology of part of Vilas County, Wisconsin," Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, volume XXIV (1929):109-125. Online at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WI.Transactions.

U.S. House of Representatives. Journal. February 1, 1830. Online at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(hj02339))

Vogel, Virgil J. Indian Names on Wisconsin's Map. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991)

Vogel, Virgil. "Wisconsin's Name: A Linguistic Puzzle." Wisconsin Magazine of History 48/3 (Spring 1965): 181-186.

Wisconsin. Chief Geologist. Geology of Wisconsin. Survey of 1873-1879
Volume I (Madison, 1883). Online at http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/EcoNatRes.GeologyWI

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