Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay


Origin of Wisconsin

Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

Our state's name first appears in 1673 in Fr. Jacques Marquette's journal of his voyage as "Mescousing" and "Miskous." His companion on that voyage, Louis Joliet, transcribed it separately as "Misconsing" in 1674. The explorer La Salle mis-read their long-hand cursive initial "M" as "Ou" in 1674, and his form of the name, "Ouisconsin," was widely printed during the 1680s. It was the standard spelling for about 150 years, and only became "Wisconsin" in the early 19th century after the U.S. took control of the region (though territorial governor James Doty strongly prefered the spelling "Wiskonsan").

Modern linguistic scholarship by Michael McCafferty has convincingly argued that the word's intended meaning, in 17th-c. Miami, was "river that meanders through something red." McCafferty concludes this was a reference to the red sandstone bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells.

View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

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