Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin

Here’s another essential volume for the Iowa bookshelf, Virgil J. Vogel’s “Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin,” first published by University of Iowa Press during 1983 and still available.

Although nearly 30 years old, it remains the best source for accurate information about the American Indian origin of names that dot Iowa maps, including 22 of Iowa’s 99 county names, more than 160 years after all natives except the Meskwaki and scattered members of other tribes were driven out.

The only Lucas County place name in the book is White Breast, one of our major creeks, that also lends its name to a tributary, the Little White Breast. White Breast proper rises in Clarke County, enters Lucas from the west and is the source of all the flooding that occurs during periods of heavy rain in the Lucas bottoms. The Little White Breast rises just east of Chariton and heads northwest to join White Breast proper before flowing on to enter the Des Moines River, now submerged in the Red Rock reservoir, northeast of Knoxville, downstream from the red rocks that give the reservoir, the ghost town of Red Rock and the legendary Red Rock Line their names.

Lucas County’s Whitebreast township (spelled as one word) takes its name from the creek, which flows through it.

There have been, and still are, all sorts of fanciful legends regarding the origin of “White Breast,” but Vogel demythologizes the legends with the following explanation:

“The last treaty signed in Iowa by the Sauks and Foxes (Meskwaki), on October 11, 1842, named “White Breast Fork of the Des Moines River” as part of the boundary of the tract that the Indians were to occupy for the next three years, preceding emigration to Kansas.

“According to white accounts, the Indian name for ‘White Breast River’ was Waupeka sepo. That differs somewhat from the more correct rendition, Wapeskikaka (‘White Breast’) plus Sepo (‘river’). The longer word was a name borne by several generations of a Fox (Meskwaki) Indian family of the Thunder gens. The name appeared as a stream name on maps by Albert Lea (1836) and J.N. Nicollet (1841). It is likely that whites named the stream for one or more of the Indians bearing the name ….”

The source of the name Des Moines --- the river, the fort, the county and of course our capital city --- also has been the stuff of various legends.

But according to Vogel, “the evidence is convincing that the Des Moines River, the source of all these names, was so-called by the French for the Moingwenas, a now-vanished branch of the Illinois Indian confederacy.

“Not until late in the eighteenth century did some English and American writers begin to confuse matters by shortening the river’s name,” Vogel writes, pointing out that it was identified as the “R. des Maingoana” in 1684, “Moingona R.” in 1718, and “La Riviere des Moins or Moingona” in 1721.

Vogel, a Chicago educator who retired as a full professor at Truman College, City Colleges of Chicago, also authored three other books: “Indian Place Names of Illinois” (Illinois State Historical Society), “American Indian Medicine” (University of Oklahoma Press) and “This Country Was Ours: A Documentary History of the American Indian" (Harper & Row). I haven't checked to see which, if any, of these volumes remain in print.


Another scorcher predicted here today --- meaning the afternoon would be a good time to sit with a book, if you can. Probably not a very complicated one.

We're prone around here during extreme heat to the exploding pavement effect, caused when moisture trapped by non-porous concrete builds such a head of steam it blows. The same thing could happen to an overtaxed brain, I suppose, so don't intend to take any chances.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Along White Breast Creek, near Lacona, is good place to look for Indian arrow pionts.
But much like mushroom hunters, I won't tell exactly.